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April 24, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Leaving an empty seat in tribute to POWs and MIAs

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A few years ago, Joe D’Entremont saw an empty seat at a racetrack in Bristol, Tenn. It was left empty on purpose, a symbolic way to remember the 92,000 American service members who since World War I went missing in action or were prisoners of war who didn’t make it home.

D’Entremont — president of the Massachusetts chapter of Rolling Thunder, a group dedicated to making the government accountable for POWs and MIAs, looked at the empty seat in Tennessee and said, “Why not here?”

But you have to walk before you can run. D’Entremont noticed that the color guard that marched onto the field at Gillette Stadium during Patriots games didn’t include a POW/MIA flag. So he called the Patriots and offered them a flag, and they readily agreed. That flag is out there at every game now. The Red Sox started flying a POW/MIA flag at Fenway Park. It took a little longer to get one up at TD Garden, where the Bruins and Celtics play, but eventually good will prevailed. If you look around, there are POW/MIA flags at a lot of public events now. Thank you, Rolling Thunder.

Still, D’Entremont kept thinking about that empty seat in Tennessee, so he went back to the sports teams and asked them to give up a seat.

The Lowell Spinners, the minor league baseball team, were the first to sign on. In June, they dedicated a single black chair in Section 104 of LeLacheur Park that will remain empty forever.

D’Entremont was grateful, but he went looking for a bigger venue. On Friday, the Patriots unveiled a seat that will be kept empty at Gillette on Sunday, Veterans Day, and every day after that.

There’s more. D’Entremont’s buddy, Dennis Moschella, president of Veterans Assisting Veterans, spoke last summer with John MacDonald, the vice president of corporate strategy for Lupoli Cos., about putting up POW/MIA tables in restaurants. MacDonald is an Air Force veteran, and he turned to his boss, Sal Lupoli, and in no time at all, Lupoli said, “Let’s do it.”

“Joe D’Entremont told us he’s had trouble persuading restaurants to do this,” MacDonald said. “Sal jumped in with both feet.”

A couple of weeks ago, they unveiled a table with an empty seat at Salvatore’s, Lupoli’s restaurant in Lawrence, and 300 people showed up.

Lupoli wants to leave an empty seat in each of his five restaurants and his 40 pizza shops. Eventually it will get done. And if you don’t think it will happen in all those locations, you don’t know Sal Lupoli.

D’Entremont is hoping for momentum. What the Patriots are doing this week sets an example for the Red Sox and the people who run the Garden. Sal Lupoli has set the bar for restaurants.

D’Entremont is a Jamaica Plain guy, and when he went to his local, the venerable Doyle’s Cafe, Gerry Burke Jr. agreed to keep an empty table throughout the Veterans Day weekend.

What if every bar in Boston, in Massachusetts, in New England left an empty seat or table?

From that empty seat at the racetrack in Tennessee, Joe D’Entremont is trying to think beyond stadiums and restaurants and bars.

He’s thinking all sorts of public places, places where people go and people talk, where parents talk to their kids. Parks. Schools. Beaches.

“Think about the conversations,” D’Entremont said. “I’d bet that most Americans wouldn’t have any idea that 92,000 service members were POWs or MIAs who never made it home from the wars of the last century. Think about parents talking to their kids about the empty seat. Guys were left behind. They can’t speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them.”

Kevin Cullen writes for the Boston Globe.

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