‘Not everyone comes home’
Retired Marine and Purple Heart recipient Cpl. Lewis Alston speaks during the Marion County Veterans POW/MIA recognition day at the Ocala/Marion County Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday September 19, 2020. Alston is Viet Nam veteran. Veterans and family gathered to remember the POW’s and Missing in Action in all our wars both known and unknown. [Alan Youngblood/special to the Ocala Gazette)
Ocalans keep alive the memory of those missing in action.
The last U.S. troops officially departed Vietnam in March 1973.
But 47 years later, the Department of Defense reports that 1,586 Americans, almost all troops but including a few civilians, remain unaccounted for. Among them are 54 Floridians, although none are from Marion County.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, classifies them in one of three ways: as prisoners of war whose bodies were not recovered, killed in action and their remains were not returned, or missing in action and presumed dead. About a dozen of them are described in records as civilians who simply went “missing.”
Last Saturday, Ocala joined communities around the country to honor these absent souls and their sacrifice on National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
The annual commemoration, which began in 1979, has been marked on the third Friday of every September since 1986.
Although unaccounted-for troops in Vietnam were the impetus for this moment of recognition, the DPAA notes that it also is set aside to recall tens of thousands of soldiers from other wars whose fate is unknown. That includes more than 73,000 from World War II, nearly 7,900 from the Korean War, 126 veterans of the Cold War and six from other conflicts since 1991. More than 41,000 of them were presumed lost at sea.
At the Ocala/Marion County Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday, a small crowd of elected officials, veterans and others from the veterans community and local residents gathered to pay tribute to them.
“There are still far too many of our brave service members who remain unaccounted for, and we must keep them in our hearts and our prayers. And we also must keep their families in our hearts and our prayers,” County Commission Chairwoman Kathy Bryant said in opening the ceremony.
Lewis Alston, a former U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam and who delivered the invocation on Saturday, recalled going on missions to find missing comrades after a POW “sighting” was reported.
“It could be a month old, a week old. But we were able to go out to try to bring our brothers home. And it was always sad, because they had been moved by the time we got there,” he said.
“This is what it’s about: Never forget.”
Another speaker, Dorothy Antonelli, whose uncle went missing in action in November 1950 while fighting in North Korea, noted that “one of the worst tragedies of war is that some soldiers simply become missing.” She recalled that her grandmother lived to 89 and never knew what happened to her only son.
“Today we remember that even when war ends, not everyone comes home,” Antonelli said. “Their loved ones both mourn and hope. The years drag on and the long wait for answers can become intolerable. What could be worse than the emotional turmoil of not knowing?”
“Freedom is not free. It comes with a price,” Antonelli added. “Let us never forget our prisoners of war and those missing in action who paid the price. We owe a debt of gratitude to their families — whose loved ones didn’t come home.”
In closing Saturday’s event County Commissioner David Moore said we also must remember those veterans who remain “captive” to the “horrible things” they have experienced in defending our nation overseas.
In an interview on Monday, Pam Cain, the Florida state co-coordinator of the National League of POW/MIA Families, said she understands the pain alluded to by speakers in Ocala on Saturday. Her father, U.S. Air Force Col. Oscar Mauterer, has never been accounted for after being listed as missing in action in Laos in February 1966.
Cain said that remained his official status for more than a decade. It was changed after congressional hearings on MIA soldiers, even though the Pentagon had found no evidence to clarify his standing one way or the other.
Trying to resolve that question, she said, is what motivated her to join the League. “I live with hope (for an answer) every day,” said Cain, a Sarasota resident. “Sometimes that’s what sustains me.”
Cain said others should consider joining the League to support the effort to bring closure to as many of these cases as possible.
Cain noted that limits exist. The nation likely will never resolve all cases of “deep-water” casualties at sea.
But, she added, “We want the fullest possible accounting, and to do everything we possibly can in the short time we have left,” as witnesses and evidence of what happened to these troops gradually fade.
Another reason to support this cause is that the future matters as well.
“To our group, that’s what this day means,” she said of POW/MIA Recognition Day. “To make sure that the American public knows that, yes, a lot of money is being spent (to find answers), but it’s also a message to today’s military and tomorrow’s military that nobody will be left behind.”