The comrades we left behind

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The attention paid to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this fall was well-deserved. Never in U.S. history were so many civilians deliberately killed by our nation's enemies, in this case radical Islamic jihadis dedicated to the destruction of the West. Two wars, more than 6,000 U.S. military casualties and severe changes in the way we travel and see the world are testament to the importance of that cruel event.

While we are withdrawing from Iraq, we remain at war in Afghanistan. As an Army Reservist, I've lost comrades to our terrorist enemies. That pain is a jarring reminder of the costs of war. The families and friends of America's fallen mourn their passing, often with dignified ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery or other sites of honor and rest.

Across the United States, however, there are many who never have even the small comfort of military funerals and memorials: the families of our POWs and MIAs. These are those of our comrades who, in the midst of conflict, are captured or unaccounted for when the battles end.

The wives, children and parents of our missing, our lost, and those we don't bring home, endure a different kind of agony, asking the eternal question -- what happened? In Iraq, we could move from the Green Zone to the Red Zone, from an area of security to one where combat was more likely. The families of our MIAs and POWs exist forever in a Grey Zone of uncertainty -- forever asking, what happened?

For those who disappeared on jungle patrols in Southeast Asia, were shot down over Nazi Germany, or who were lost during icy marches across the Korean peninsula, time does not heal, nor usually provide answers.

While the U.S. government has been working for years to follow clues, identify remains, and piece together these mysteries, there are still more than 83,000 missing service members from our nation's wars -- 83,000 families who never raised a "Welcome Home" banner, or never had the resolution, as sad as it is, of seeing them to their final resting place.

The U.S. government this year has identified about 40 of these 83,000. We can see that this agony will be with us long after the living memories of these men and women have faded. Given this truth, how best to remember our lost and our missing, such as Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaie, the only American soldier still listed as MIA in Iraq, and Sgt. Robert Bergdahl, who holds the same status in Afghanistan?

First, we must remember those who have received the most heartbreaking personnel classification that can be assigned officially: Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown.

Second, we must continue to encourage efforts to recover our missing, or their remains if all hope is lost. The U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office, which takes the lead in the search for our lost personnel, deserves the unwavering support of our nation.

Third, those of us still serving must ingrain in our souls the line from the Army Rangers' creed to "never leave a fallen comrade."

Finally, we must pray -- not only for the return of our heroes, but for answers for their loved ones and this nation. We will only finally be at rest with certain knowledge.

Sadly, this bitter truth means that the future holds not the promise of an end to this mission, but the need for ongoing labor in its cause.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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