Those missing in action from Vietnam have always been a personal issue for Tom Faley.
His best friend and West Point roommate was counted among the ranks of those whose remains were unaccounted for.
“Maj. Steve Kott, a Marine bombardier navigator, was shot down near Hanoi on Oct. 31, 1967,” Faley, a retired Army colonel, told a crowd gathered on the square in Mechanicsburg.
“The North Vietnamese refused to release any information on his status until the summer of 1984 when his remains were finally returned,” Faley said during his speech at a vigil Friday night.
About 25 men and women gathered near the intersection of Main and Market streets to salute MIAs and prisoners of war and to pray for the day they return home.
On the corner of a busy crossroads, they saluted the memory of service men and women whose fates remain a mystery.
“Each of them had a family who were not able to gain final closure,” said Faley, a Harrisburg native and Vietnam veteran now living in South Middleton Township. “These family members will tell us that the pains that run the deepest are the pains of uncertainty.”
For 20 years now, members of the Vietnam Veterans of the Mechanicsburg Area hold a vigil the third Friday of September to mark National POW-MIA Day.
In a ceremony loaded with symbolism, group members lit candles in tribute to each service branch at the POW/MIA table, which had an empty place setting as a reminder of the sadness felt by families still hoping for a loved one’s return.
The names of 90 Pennsylvanians still missing from Vietnam were read one by one and a flag was placed for each person on a pegboard around a plaque showing the POW/MIA flag.
Larger flags were placed representing 78,000 MIAs from World War II, over 8,100 MIAs from the Korean War and the 1,973 MIAs from the Vietnam War. The vigil concluded with the playing of taps.
Over and over, the message was clear: Always remember the often overlooked.
“People tend to forget there are still POWs missing from all wars,” said Nancy Kreiner, the club member who organized the vigil. “We have to keep it in the forefront. We have to keep it in the limelight. That’s why we’re out here in the square. We know there are football games. We know it’s a Friday night, but that’s all right.”
Dennis Madden of Monroe Township lit the service candle for the Marine Corps, in which he served as an infantryman from 1990 to 1993. He was with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
His message to local residents was to keep all veterans in their thoughts and prayers and to continue to offer support to organizations fighting to get MIAs back to their families. In his speech, Faley said there was reason for hope.
One-third of those missing from the Vietnam War have been recovered and returned to their families, including Maj. Bill Deane and Staff Sgt. Ebert Bush, who were lost when their helicopter was shot down near Quang Tri City on Jan. 8, 1973.
Like Faley, Deane and Bush served as advisers to South Vietnamese forces late in the war. Their remains were eventually located and buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery along with the helicopter crew.
Faley praised the efforts of the Joint Activity teams that work with Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to identify and retrieve the remains of missing U.S. military personnel from around the world.
“Since May 2012, Vietnam has turned over policy, strategic and archival documents regarding unaccounted for Americans,” Faley said. He said this information has helped in the recovery efforts.
“Our nation made a firm commitment to make every reasonable effort to bring our people home,” Faley said. “Of course, some will never be found and their final resting places will remain known only to God. In these situations, at least their families will know that our nation left no stones unturned in the effort to recover them.”