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October 21, 2014

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The ultimate sacrifice: Ceremony honors POWs and MIAs

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Leila Navidi

Veterans salute the flag during the National POW/MIA Day Ceremony at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #10047 in Las Vegas on Friday, September 21, 2012.

POW/MIA Day Ceremony in Vegas

A representative from each military branch participates in a recognition ceremony representing all local POW/MIA's during the National POW/MIA Day Ceremony  at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #10047 in Las Vegas on Friday, September 21, 2012. Launch slideshow »

People have told Peggy Girard she has her father’s Irish eyes, and she’s had to take their word for it.

Her father went missing in action during the Korean War on Feb. 22, 1950, and she was born the following month. For years she held out hope that he’d come home, but he never did. She never had a chance to see those eyes for herself.

On Friday, during a National Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Recognition Day ceremony, Girard wiped tears from her eyes as she watched the events unfold inside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10047.

Six military men representing different branches approached an empty circular table at the front of the room as part of the Missing Man table ceremony. The backs of six chairs surrounding it were covered with a black POW/MIA embroidered slipcover. Billy Ray Cyrus’ song to POWs, “All gave some, some gave all,” played over the speakers.

The men placed their hats onto the table, and pushed the chairs onto its front legs so that its backs leaned on the table to honor of the POW and MIA soldiers lost at war.

Girard thought of her father.

“It’s hard,” said Girard, who helped organize the event. “You always wonder what traits we get from our parents, but this wasn’t about my father. It was about the tens of thousands of other families (of POW/MIAs) that need closure.”

More than 60 people attended the hourlong ceremony and dinner honoring POWs and MIAs from Nevada. Some were military veterans, others had a family member who remains missing overseas or was a POW. Each wore a red ribbon pinned on their chest in remembrance. The event included a color guard ceremony for each military branch and two guest speakers, who shared stories about military personnel who gave their life to America.

Click to enlarge photo

Bettyann Bates, of Pahrump, sits with a photo of her husband Joseph, a POW/MIA in WWII who was eventually rescued and who passed away in February 2012, during the National POW/MIA Day Ceremony at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #10047 in Las Vegas on Friday, September 21, 2012.

“They gave the ultimate sacrifice to give their freedom, so it’s our ultimate sacrifice to give closure to their families and battle buddies,” VFW Post 10047 spokesman Jon Fennych said. “It hurts. It’s a gut-wrenching thing.”

Betty Ann Bates came with a framed photo of her late husband Matthew Bates. He served as a POW in prison camp Stalig IX-B, in Hesse, Germany, during World War II. He lived off potato skins thrown into the garbage, and lost so much weight he couldn’t walk out of the jail.

She constantly wiped tears from her cheek throughout the ceremony, and kissed the photo of her husband during a toast dedicated to military heroes.

“I’m glad they have this to bring out in the open what’s happened,” Bates said. “They need more of these things, not just a POW day, but choose a month to remember these troops.”

Carol Webster said her father, George Lowry, served as a POW in World War II. She said Adolf Hitler took him on train rides to show him off to towns in Germany as an example of an American POW. He rarely spoke of what he experienced, but every year on the anniversary of his capture, he’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night. The ceremony on Friday deeply affected Webster.

“It’s a good thing they didn’t ask me to speak because the whole time I was totally choked up,” Webster said.

At the end, everyone gathered outside. Six military men and two other people lined up holding 33 black balloons.

The crowd stared with solemn faces as Fennych called out names of the 17 Nevada soldiers and 15 Nellis Air Force Base airmen missing, and one for Girard’s father.

Each time, a black balloon was released until they all disappeared into the blue sky.

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