Gary Pratt believes every American needs to take a few moments Friday to remember military service members who never returned home from battle, out of respect for their families who were denied closure.
He said making the annual National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Sept. 20 as visible as possible will ensure the government continues to keep its promise to bring them home.
“As citizens of this nation, we should show our solidarity with the families of the unaccounted for,” he said.
Pratt, a Vietnam veteran, is the president of the Mid-Columbia Veterans Memorial Committee, which is organizing the local Prisoners of War and Missing in Action ceremony in The Dalles.
“One of the most solemn promises that military personnel make to each other is that no one will be left behind. As a nation, we have also promised their families that, dead or alive, their loved ones will be returned to them after their service.”
The observance begins at 6 p.m. in front of the Veterans Memorial at Kelly Viewpoint, 350 East Scenic Drive.
“We set aside one day a year (the third Friday in September) to remind ourselves of this national promise, but the families of the missing remember for generations and returning military personnel for the rest of their lives,” said Pratt.
Tribute will be paid during the 45-minute program not only to the almost 88,000 Americans who remain missing from the World War II era through the post 9/11 wars, but the 138,000 held as prisoners of war.
Air Force Capt. Jacob Pruitt grew up in Hood River and is currently stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, about nine miles southwest of Tacoma, Wash. He is the pilot of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and was given a mission in 2012 to fly the remains of a Korean War veteran back to the U.S. for burial.
Pruitt is going to submit a narrative about that and similar experiences that will be read by Les Cochenour, a retired Oregon National Guard officer and vice-president of the veterans committee.
“These missions are so important that they are given first priority and we are re-routed from other duties to complete them,” said Pruitt.
He said, whether flying the bodies of fallen warriors out of the war zone in Afghanistan or the remains of a long-dead soldier from the combat zone of another era, the protocols are the same.
The remains of the deceased are placed in a transfer case that looks like a coffin and covered with the American flag he or she fought under.
Pruitt said no non-essential passengers or cargo are allowed on these flights and the temporary caskets are treated with the respect due a service member who died in service to country.
The cases are placed in the forward section of the plane, which is given priority for takeoff and landing at all military airports.
“The transfer cases are escorted all the way home and near us at all times,” said Pruitt.
He said when approaching an airport with remains onboard, he tells the air traffic controller, “We’re bringing a hero home today,” which cues them into the importance of the mission.
The controller then virtually stops all traffic around the airport until the plane carrying the remains has set down and the case moved with full honors into a waiting vehicle.
“It’s very sobering to see an entire Air Force base come to a standstill,” said Pruitt.
Vandee Mauser, a member of the veterans committee, will take the role as master of ceremonies for Friday’s event. Soldiers from Alpha Company of The Dalles Armory will provide a 21-gun salute and Boy Scouts will post the colors.
“It is healing for the hearts and souls of families with someone missing to have these observances,” said Mauser.
Pratt will explain the military tradition of setting up the Missing Man Table at official functions to remember and honor those who have never come home.
“Agree or disagree with whatever war, it is our moral obligation to help those who returned keep the promise to those who didn’t,” he said.
Cochenour will recite the roll call of the missing and the benediction will be given by USMC Capt. Dan Brophy, a disabled Vietnam veteran who works with Pointman Ministries.
The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Arlington, Va., is charged with the worldwide effort of tracking down the whereabouts of missing service men and women. In 2013, the agency, run by the Department of Defense, brought home the remains of 47 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Korea, Germany, Vietnam and other combat zones.
In 2012, the remains of a soldier from White Salmon were brought home 68 years after he was declared missing following a battle in World War II along Wylerbaan Road in the Netherlands, between Groesbeek and the little town of Wyler, Germany.
Army Pvt. Gerald “Mike” Kight, 23, was one of 39 Americans who were never found following clashes in the area with German troops in late September 1944.
A Dutch farmer was turning the soil in his cornfield last September when he saw bones jutting from the ground. Kight’s dog tags and wallet were found in what had been a foxhole so identifying him did not require a DNA match.
A Pentagon report said that Kight had belonged to the Headquarters Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. He was among those killed when German tanks overran the position.
The single survivor of that battle told investigators afterward that he saw Kight “severely wounded” and firing from his foxhole.
Although Kight’s parents are dead, his relatives arranged for his cremated remains to be buried with full military honors alongside the remains of his mother, father and one of his brothers.