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Ithaca Community Observes POW/MIA Recognition Day

A watch fire burned during the evening of Sept. 15 in Myers Park as part of National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Key Points:

  • Friday, Sept. 15 was the annual observance of National POW/MIA Recognition Day
  • The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377 hosted the annual watch fire at Myers Park in Lansing
  • Cornell University’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps brigade ran the POW/MIA flag around the Cornell campus throughout the day

As the sun began to set over Cayuga Lake on the evening of Sept. 15, another light began to grow as members of Ithaca’s military community threw pieces of scrap wood, one by one, into a roaring watch fire in Myers Park.

Hundreds of people from the Ithaca and Lansing areas gathered to observe National POW/MIA Recognition Day, an annual holiday established by Congress to remember those who were designated as prisoners of war or missing in action while serving in the U.S. armed forces. The day is observed on the third Friday of every September, and was created in the 1998 National Defense Authorization Act. It is one of six days during the year that the POW/MIA flag is flown on federal installations nationwide.

A Community Event

In the months leading up to the event, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377 asked for donations from the community for the 10-foot-high fire. Volunteers from Lowes, Home Depot, Agway and other local businesses donated wood materials and provided labor to build the fire; the assembly started early on the morning of the event. Others brought worn and tattered American flags to be properly disposed of in the flames.

“The POW/MIA watch fire is an annual tradition here in Lansing,” said Cornell University junior Ellen Haines, a member of the Cornell University Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) unit. “We light it as a metaphorical way of guiding those who are missing in action and prisoners of war home.”

The Cornell University ROTC brigade attended the watch fire and engaged with active-duty service members and veterans.

Dozens of veterans of the Vietnam War and their families came to observe and contribute to the fire. Members of Cornell University’s Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps ROTC units opened the event with a brigade formation. Cadets and midshipmen were able to interact directly with veterans and active-duty service members as they were handed scrap wood to throw into the fire.

“It cannot be expressed how important these men and women are to the military community,” said Cornell University sophomore Turner Brown, a member of the University’s Naval ROTC unit.

“You Are Not Forgotten”

Mike Moran, of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377, and Jeffrey Saeli, a retired Army Captain, provided remarks prior to the lighting of the watch fire, providing context and history to the ceremony.

Mike Moran of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377 provided opening remarks at the watch fire.

“The reason that we have the watch fire is that it’s a historical symbol of guiding those who are lost in battle back to friendly territory,” Moran said. “Sixteen-hundred Americans are still listed as missing from the Vietnam War.”

Both speakers noted that upon the return from Vietnam to the U.S., many veterans were met with hostility from those who had condemned the U.S.’ engagements in Southeast Asia. For veterans who attended the event, the watch fire also represented a way to remember “battle buddies” who had been largely forgotten by the American public after the war.

“Our watch fire demands that we turn our thoughts to those whose bones have become sand in distant soils, to consider their trials, and be humbled by their sacrifice,” Saeli said.

As Saeli described the experiences of those who went missing in action or were taken prisoner while serving, tears fell down some faces, and members of the Cornell University ROTC brigade stood somber in formation, recognizing that upon graduation they could face those same fates.

“Those persons whose fate is unknown, their blood and future spent on our behalf, their stories lost, their descendants bereft of the knowledge most of us take for granted,” Saeli said. “That their deeds and their lives are not forgotten, and that we may remember the price they paid on our behalf.”

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