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A promise unkept

David Epps's picture

Across the land, on flag poles public and private, a black and white banner will frequently be seen flying in the breeze. On jackets, hats, and leather vests, a smaller version of the flag made into a patch will often be stitched.

It is the POW/MIA symbol. POW, of course, stands for Prisoner of War while MIA means “missing in action.”

On Aug. 10, 1990, the 101st Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355, recognizing the National League of Families POW/MIA Flag and designating it “as a symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the Nation.”

In 1971, while the Vietnam War was still being fought, Maureen Dunn, the wife of a service member missing in action and member of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, recognized the need for a symbol of U.S. POW/MIAs, some of whom had been held in captivity for as many as seven years.

The flag is black, and bears in the center, in black and white, the emblem of the league. The emblem was designed by Newt Heisley, and features a white disk bearing in black silhouette the bust of a man, watch tower with a guard on patrol, and a strand of barbed wire; above the disk are the white letters POW and MIA framing a white 5-pointed star; below the disk is a black and white wreath above the white motto: “You are not Forgotten.” Beyond Southeast Asia, it has been a symbol for POW/MIAs from all American wars.

There is the assumption by many that the United States “leaves no one behind.” There is certainly the understanding by many on the military who believe that, if they are killed on the battlefield, their bodies will be retrieved and returned home to their families. And, while this occurs most of the time, it does not occur all of the time.

In fact, there are over 83,000 United States soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines whose fates are unknown. Where they, or their remains, are located is unknown.

It is not surprising that the vast majority of unaccounted for U. S. military personnel are from World War II. In a global conflict that claimed some 50 million lives, 73,681 servicemen from that war are still missing, their fates unknown, although it is presumed they are dead.

Another 7,950 American military personnel, for whom there is no resolution, come from the Korean War. For decades many have speculated that North Korea held on to prisoners after the cessation of hostilities.

Others suspect the same of the Vietnam government where the fates of another 1,661 men are unknown.

Another 126 servicemen went missing during the years of the Cold War and, so far, six are missing during the recent wars in the desert.

All told, there are 83,424 who are officially listed as Prisoners of War or Missing in Action.

Each day the POW/MIA flags are visible to millions of Americans. The flags are symbols of unfinished business, of families whose anguish and uncertainty continues, reminders that the pain and loss of war never really ends, and a public statement that those who have not made it home are remembered.
They are also stark reminders that, despite our best intentions and the bold proclamations that “no Americans will be left behind,” we do not always keep our promise to those who serve our nation.

Sometimes we do leave some behind.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. ( He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee ( He may contacted at]

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