WASHINGTON -- Deputy Defense Secretary David L. Norquist paid tribute to prisoners of war and service members missing in action during a Pentagon ceremony marking POW/MIA Recognition Day, saying Americans should keep POWs and MIAs in their hearts every day.
"Let today serve as an active reminder, rather than an observation, of our eternal commitment to the fullest possible accounting: welcoming back our most valiant to this land of the free," he said today at a ceremony attended by former POWs, veterans, veteran advocates and the families of POWs and MIAs.
National POW/MIA Recognition Day began in 1979 to honor those who were held captive and returned, and those who remain missing, Norquist said, noting that the third Friday in September is set aside each year as a national day of remembrance.
"They illustrate the commitment, courage and resolve that makes our country stronger. Therefore, today, we reinforce our promise to them: We will never forget their sacrifices."
Since the Revolutionary War, more than 500,000 American service members have been held as prisoners of war, he noted.
They are, Norquist said, patriots such as: retired Air Force Col. Michael Brazelton, who was shot down at Thai Nguyen, Vietnam, on Aug. 7, 1966, and held captive for 6 1/2 years; and Air Force Capt. Ralph W. Galati, who was shot down over North Vietnam Feb. 16, 1972. Galati spent 14 months as a POW and 75 days in solitary confinement.
"Thank you both for your sacrifice and service. Moreover, thank you for your resilience. You are an inspiration for all of us, and it is a privilege to have you here today," he said.
We are also here to acknowledge the many questions that have gone unanswered, Norquist said, introducing Mrs. Bahar Hess and Army Col. Richard Dean II — both of whom have loved ones who remain unaccounted for.
"Know that no matter how much time has passed, we will not give up. Every day, our Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency works diligently to deliver answers to our families," he said. "While we cannot imagine your grief, it is our relentless pursuit to offer you some consolation as we strive for closure."
And that is why we are still accounting for individuals from all conflicts dating back to World War II, the deputy secretary said. They are the brave men and women who shaped our nation through some of its most defining moments — the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars and other recent conflicts.
Norquist said the U.S. is stronger when we know the individuals of our past and when we understand what compelled them to serve the country they felt was worth the fight. Only then can we carry character into our future.
Most importantly, it is our moral responsibility to our prisoners of war, our missing in action and their families. They did not stop fighting for us, and we will not stop fighting for them, he said.
"From the Indo-Pacific to the soil beneath our feet, we are searching near and far — in more than 46 countries — to account for our country's selfless souls," he said.
In 2019, the nation accounted for 217 formerly missing persons — marking the highest yearly total on record, Norquist said. Of these, there were 140 from World War II; 72 from the Korean War; and five from the Vietnam War, he added.
While we know we have a long way to go, he said, the word "unrecoverable" is not synonymous with "impossible."
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten said nearly 82,000 service members are still missing today.
"[And] there are no words of comfort and solace that can fill the void of a missing loved one. The pain that brings can be at times overwhelming, but what we can do is remember what they fought for," Hyten said. "Remember what they sacrificed for. Remember what wearing the cloth of this country signifies. And remember why we fight."