By James Spellman, Jr., Space and Missile Systems Center Public Affairs
/ Published September 18, 2015
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif. -- They ran in the warmth of a receding summer season day. They ran throughout the coolness of the night. They ran in remembrance to honor those who were held captive, and those still missing and unaccounted for during times of armed conflict.
More than 250 service members, spouses, friends and volunteers from all branches of the military and Department of Homeland Defense participated in a 24-hour torch relay and remembrance ceremony for prisoners of war/missing in action Sept.17-18.
"The SMC POW/MIA 24-hour torch run is an opportunity to honor the sacrifice of service members, civilians and contractors who have been held captive or missing in action and presumed dead," said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center and Air Force Program Executive Office for Space, "The participants from all services, the base-community volunteers and our Coast Guard partners worked in synch to once again make this another outstanding event."
Despite a tsunami advisory issued for the California coastline caused by an earthquake off Chile's northern coast, the mood was reflective and festive Thursday as the Coast Guard started the morning off with a bang, firing seven cannon rounds from Terminal Island into the Port of San Pedro. Two were fired at the start, signifying the strong partnership between the Air Force and Coast Guard teams. Five rounds were fired afterwards, representing all five branches of service during the lighting ceremony and start of the torch relay.
Col. Gerard Gleckel, Jr., deputy director of SMC's Global Positioning Directorate at Los Angeles AFB in El Segundo, and Cmdr. Jose A. Pena, commanding officer of U.S. Coast Guard Base Los Angeles-Long Beach lit the ceremonial torch that was carried over the 154 mile long event.
"This is a national day of observance for Americans to offer remembrance, honor, and respect to those warriors who were prisoners of war and those who remain missing as a result of our nation's conflicts and wars. It is also a day to remember the families who have endured the years of pain of not knowing the fate of their loved ones," said Gleckel.
"This year's national theme is 'Fulfilling Our Nation's Promise.' As a nation, we promise to free those in captivity, and do whatever it takes to find, recover, and identify the remains of America's missing from past conflicts. Several times each month, remains of missing service members have been repatriated back to their loved ones, fulfilling that promise. On the first of August of this year, for example, Army Air Corps Lt. Edward Barker was buried in his hometown of Herkimer, N.Y. His recovery, identification, and burial came more than 70 years after he had gone missing on a training mission in Papau, New Guinea in 1944. Unfortunately, there are still 83,114 more promises yet to be fulfilled - but our efforts to find and identify the missing will not stop." Gleckel explained.
Teams of runners representing all branches of service took turns carrying the torch - many times while under police escort - as they made their way west through the streets of San Pedro, passing Fort MacArthur and continuing along sections of the Marvin Braude Bike Trail through all the South Bay coastal communities from Rancho Palos Verdes to Playa Del Rey.
From there, the sights and sounds of seagulls and ocean surf pounding the South Bay beach area known locally as "The Strand" changed to the high-pitched whine of commercial jet aircraft taking off and landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
As the last rays of the late afternoon sun settled on the western horizon, the POW/MIA torch relay team arrived at the Los Angeles AFB main gate off Douglas Street. With 54 miles under their belts, they steeled themselves to the tougher task ahead.
Fortified by water and bananas to reduce the effects of leg cramps, and under the watchful eye of medics from the 61st Medical Squadron, the runners - joined by volunteers from the base community - took turns for the next 100 miles carrying the torch around the track that encircled the Schriever Space Complex. As they ran throughout the evening until Friday morning at 9 a.m., each runner executed the same mission - ensuring the torch remained lit to represent the nation's resolve; moving it ever forward to show the promise to those missing warriors and their families.
"For the past seven years, the Space and Missile Systems Center has endeavored to honor our POWs and MIAs by hosting a 24-hour vigil and memorial run through many local communities who support the military," said Capt. Zachary Peters, an SMC cost analyst with the Global Positioning System space segment, and the lead project officer for the POW/MIA torch relay.
"Remembering and honoring American prisoners of war and those who are still missing in action is a deeply personal and important task," he said.
The torch relay concluded on the Air Force's 68th Birthday with a 10 a.m. POW/MIA Wreath Ceremony at the Schriever Space Complex flagpole. The event coincided with National POW/MIA Recognition Day, proclaimed by President Barack Obama on Thursday.
Standing before a formation of runners and SMC personnel, Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry, SMC vice commander, addressed the audience.
"Today, we bond together across the nation to commemorate our fallen heroes and remember their sacrifice," said McMurry. "Since World War II, 83,144 American military, civilian and contractor personnel remain missing in action. However, the important number to remember here is One. Everyone that is missing signifies a family that has been changed."
Although the ceremony honors those who have yet to come home from foreign wars, McMurry said it's important to give the families of missing veterans hope that their loved ones remains can be recovered.
"We continue to hope and pray for their return as special agencies, such as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency work tirelessly to make that vision a reality and provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation," said McMurry. "Your support embodies the last lines of our Airman's Creed: I am an American Airman. Wingman. Leader. Warrior. I will never leave an Airman behind. I will never falter, and I will not fail."
Honored guest and retired Air Force Col. Ken Hughey, an F-4 Phantom pilot shot down over North Vietnam in July 1967 and held as a POW until his release in 1973, related some of his personal experiences to the audience.
"I believe the worst possible scenario regarding the POW/MIA issue is to be 'MIA, Presumed Dead', said Hughey, who did a commemorative lap alongside the SMC runners Thursday evening.
He related a reconnaissance mission he and a fellow pilot flew over Quang Ngai Province in search for a squad of Army Special Forces on patrol in the hills south of an outpost in Hat Tan. Out of the squad of 12 Green Berets, only one came out of the jungle.
"As for the remaining 11, they are still there today. They're ghosts who are doomed to wander in the jungle and wear the label, 'Missing in Action, Presumed Dead'," said Hughey. "Those who wait and hope suffer the malicious curse of uncertainty and endure the pangs of broken hearts for the duration. The saddest part of this day and this celebration is that a number of our 'ghosts' wander about the planet - MIA, Presumed Dead."
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, there are 1,629 POW/MIA still missing from the Vietnam War.
"What can we do about this whole thing? We must 'Never Forget'," said Hughey.
"Remembering is respect and gratitude to this group of patriots. We have Memorial Day to celebrate the memory of those who have given their last breath for this country. On Veterans Day, we honor our veterans who have made the offer, but were never required to make the final sacrifice," Hughey pointed out.
"Today, we honor a special sub-set of wonderful men and women who served our country in a special way . . . many of whom are still in the limbo assigned to them, because we couldn't recover their remains. This is the special Hell for those who still wait, and who are destined to wait until we are all promoted to eternity. We must never forget."