Day to remember prisoners of war, missing soldiers at VA

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 16, 2011

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — As she left the Hefner VA Medical Center Chapel Friday, Sarah Williams dabbed at some tears.
As a young woman, she volunteered for the U.S. Army’s nursing corps and would go on to serve 27 years — time that spanned Vietnam and Desert Storm. She had high school classmates who joined the military with her, and she becomes emotional knowing some of the friends she served with never came back.
“This is a day we should always remember,” Williams said.
The Rowan County Veterans Council, with assistance from VA staff and the South Rowan ROTC Honor Guard, held a brief “Missing Man Table & Honors Ceremony” at noon Friday to remember prisoners of war and soldiers who have never made it back home.
A table near the front of the chapel was set for six people, but these were places that would remain empty. The spots represented the five branches of the military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Another place was set aside for civilians, some of whom also have never been accounted for in wars.
“This honors ceremony symbolizes that they are with us in spirit,” said Hercules Shannon, president of the Rowan County Veterans Council.
U.S. Department of Defense statistics list 73,787 men and women as missing in action from World War II, 7,985 from the Korean War, 125 from Cold War activities and 1,693 from Vietnam.
Those from the Vietnam conflict include Frederick Lewis Cristman of Salisbury, missing in Laos since March 19, 1971; Jerry L. Moore of Cleveland, missing in South Vietnam since Feb. 16, 1969; and Edwin E. Morgan of Salisbury, missing in Laos since March 13, 1966.
For all three men, there was a presumptive finding of death.
North Carolina had 24 soldiers in Vietnam whose remains were identified and sent back home later, such as Donald Vance Davis of Salisbury and, most recently, Donald Monroe Shue of Kannapolis.
But North Carolina also has 41 soldiers whose remains were never accounted for during the Vietnam era.
In the Korean conflict, Rowan County’s James Clarence Wagoner was listed as a prisoner of war, captured July 20, 1950. He would never be accounted for. North Carolina had 197 soldiers missing and unaccounted for from the Korean conflict.
Desert Storm saw two North Carolinians who were killed in action but their bodies were not recovered.
Five members of the South Rowan ROTC Honor Guard brought in the hats (covers) of each branch of the service and placed them on the table.
Shannon explained the meanings behind the table and things on it:
• The table is round “to show our everlasting concern for our missing men.”
• The white tablecloth “symbolizes the purity of their motives when answering the call to duty.”
• The single rose “reminds us of the life of each of the missing and the loved ones and friends of these Americans who keep the faith, awaiting answers.”
• A red ribbon wraps the rose’s vase to symbolize “our continued determination to account for our missing.”
• A lemon slice on the bread plate “is to remind us of the bitter fate of those captured and missing in a foreign land.”
• A pinch of salt stands for the tears shed by those missing and their families who seek answers.
• The Bible “represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.”
• The drinking glasses are turned upside down “to symbolize their inability to share” the day’s toast.
• A faded picture is a reminder that they are remembered by their families.
• The chairs are empty because they are missing.
Williams, associate director for patient care services at the VA, attends as many ceremonies on campus as she can. She says she took care of many soldiers as a nurse during wartime and knows the good and the bad that comes with it.
The good was being able to help the soldiers in need. The bad was that feeling of helplessness for those who didn’t make it, she said.
Carol Waters, public affairs officer for the Hefner VA, had a Navy commander father who is buried on Patton Circle at Arlington National Cemetery. Her father served in World War II, Korea, during the blockade of Cuba and in Vietnam.
She considers herself a child of the 1960s, who also had classmates in the Vietnam war who never came back. She attended Friday’s chapel ceremony and found it moving.
“You are so emotionally invested in what we do here,” Waters added of working for veterans.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.