On POW/MIA Recognition Day, America’s ‘Last POW’ Still Needs to Be Brought Home


September 21 marked National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which is meant to honor members of the armed forces who were prisoners of war and those who are still missing in action.

President Obama issued a proclamation this week that the famous black-and-white banner symbolizing America’s missing in action and POWs should be flown everywhere from the White House to the Capitol to post offices and national cemeteries.

“Let us honor their sacrifice once more by expressing our deepest gratitude to our service members, our veterans, our military families, and all those who have given so much to keep our country safe,” Obama said in the proclamation.

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The current generation of American POWs is no less deserving of national gratitude than previous generations, but its experience is vastly different from its predecessors.

The only U.S. service member currently held in Iraq or Afghanistan, where 68,000 U.S. troops remain after a decade of conflict, is Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. After three years in the hands of Afghan militants, Bergdahl has become known as America’s “last prisoner of war.”

“When you’re by yourself,” Gray tells TakePart, “it makes it quite more difficult.”

David Gray was a young fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. In January 1967, he was flying a mission near Hanoi when his craft was shot down, and he was captured by North Vietnamese forces. He spent the next six years in North Vietnam’s notorious Hỏa Lò Prison, which was infamously dubbed the Hanoi Hilton.

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) was perhaps the best-known U.S. figure to spend time at the Hanoi Hilton. As harrowing as the experience was, Gray, who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, said it was made more endurable by being jailed with other Americans.

“When you’re by yourself,” Gray tells TakePart, “it makes it quite more difficult.”

Moreover, Washington views its Afghani adversaries as terrorists, which has complicated efforts to negotiate Bergdahl’s release. The so-called war on terror has redefined the protocols of international conflict. Today, captured combatants are classified as captives and detainees, not POWs. That subtle distinction makes it harder for U.S. soldiers captured by the enemy to gain their freedom.

The torrorist detainee designation also makes it harder for international foes to transform into friends.

As grim as it sounds, the exchange of prisoners and remains has helped the United States forge new ties with former adversaries, says Gray, a vice chairman of the National League of POW/MIA Families. “As a humanitarian issue, it can establish government-to-government relations.”

America continues to recover remains from the battlefields of Europe, Vietnam and other conflicts. For instance, about 8,000 service members are still missing from the Korea War; two-thirds of those are believed to be located in the North.

The United States and North Korea have facilitated the exchanges of the remains of about 200 service members between 1996 and 2005. A recent attempt to restart cooperation was derailed by the North’s latest round of missile testing

Gray, whose group advocates for the families of the missing and former POWs, notes that after the Vietnam War, it was the search for American remains that rekindled the relationship between Hanoi and Washington.

“It basically allowed Vietnam to return to the community of nations,” says Gray.

Whether something similar can happen in North Korea, which persists as an internationally isolated dictatorship, remains to be seen.

More importantly for the United States is something Gray leaves unsaid: Will America be able to reestablish its prominence in the community of nations without granting captured combatants the rights afforded to prisoners of war?

Should captured members of the Taliban be considered POWs? Parse your policy in COMMENTS.

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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.