LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- More than 50 runners representing all branches of the military services commemorated National POW/MIA Recognition Day with a 24-hour 60-plus-mile torch relay run that culminated in a wreath-laying ceremony here Sept. 16.
The relay began with a torch-lighting ceremony where speakers portrayed various stories of past and current POW/MIAs. Redondo Beach Mayor Mike Gin shared with the audience the story of a local resident, retired Air Force Col. John Fer, who was in captivity in North Vietnam from 1967 to 1973. At the time of Fer's release, three members of his aircraft crew remained missing in action. Capt. Herb Doby and Maj. Woodrow Wilburn's remains were returned to the United States in 1977 and 1990 respectively, leaving only one member missing in action. The final member of Fer's crew was accounted for when remains returned in 2007 were identified May 26, 2008, as being those of Capt. Russell A. Poor. After more than 40 years, the entire crew of Fer's aircraft had finally come home.
Gin described the uncertainty for families of POW/MIAs as ongoing and agonizing. "It is stories like this that really tell us that we should never forget ... and that we will always remember the sacrifices of those who were POWs and those families whose loved ones are missing in action," he said.
The vigil run began at Coast Guard Base San Pedro, Calif., where six Coast Guard members were joined with active duty and civilian Air Force members who carried the torch through Terminal Island, across the Vincent Thomas Bridge and west through San Pedro making their way north along the coast. Coast Guard Cmdr. Andy Clyburn, commanding officer, Base Support Unit San Pedro, described the flame of the torch as symbolic of our devotion to freedom.
"We owe an unending debt of gratitude for the sacrifice [POW/MIAs] made, the pain they endured, and the hardships they suffered to ensure that the flame of freedom would never be extinguished," said Clyburn.
Relay teams handed off the torch every couple miles travelling all the way to Playa del Rey, Calif., before returning here where the relay vigil continued along the base running track through the night and for the remainder of the 24 hours. Col. Bernard Gruber, director, Global Positioning Systems Directorate, explained how the endurance of the torch's flame passing from runner to runner during the course of the 24-hour relay mirrors our solidarity to the POW/MIAs and their families. "We will keep that torch alive and burning, remain moving and lit, to represent our dedication to our military and our family members who have not made it home," he said.
Space and Missile Systems Center Vice Commander Brig. Gen. Roger Teague offered a special thanks to the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group in Afghanistan, which is comprised of members of the Air Force, Afghan Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, NATO, and Office of Special Investigations. Twenty members of the group joined the runners at LAAFB via web camera in the early morning hours of Sept. 16, to run in honor of Army Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl.
Bergdahl has been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan since his capture July 3, 2009. He is a member of the 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska, and has been promoted twice in absentia since his capture. Bergdahl has been featured in terrorist propaganda videos as recently as May 4, 2011, giving continued hope to his unit, friends and family for his eventual safe return home.
"As [military members] continue to serve our nation, we owe it to each and every one of them that we will never give up, and we will never forget. It's the least America can do for their sacrifices. To all of our heroes still missing or unaccounted for, you are not forgotten," said Clyburn.
As the 24-hour vigil came to an end, the LAAFB community joined together in the Schriever Courtyard here to watch the torch arrive at the wreath-laying event where local Veterans of Foreign Wars members closed the ceremony with a somber 21-gun salute in honor of our nation's remaining 84,000 POW/MIAs.
The Presidential Proclamation for National POW/MIA Recognition Day 2011 reads, "Together, we must serve our Nation's patriots as well as they have served us by supporting them when they come home, and by carrying on the legacy of those who do not. This is a promise we keep for our fallen, for our veterans past and present, and for all those whose loved ones have not returned from the battlefield."