By Rees Lloyd
Today is National POW/MIA Recognition Day, observed annually on the third Friday of September by act of Congress and by annual presidential proclamations.
It is a time to remember all those who have suffered as prisoners of war in defense of American freedom as well as those who remain missing in action. It is also a time for us to renew our resolve never to forget them, and ultimately to account for them and bring closure to their still-grieving families.
Today, the National League of Families’ POW/MIA flag, symbolizing that resolve, is flying over the Capitol as well as inside (it is the only flag Congress has authorized to be displayed in the Capitol Rotunda), over the White House, government buildings, veterans memorials, the posts of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Affairs and other veterans organizations, many of which will hold special ceremonies remembering POWs and MIAs and their families.
Today, there are still 83,417 Americans missing in action, according to the Department of Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office. That includes some 73,681 from World War II; 7,947 from the Korean War; 126 during the Cold War; 1,657 from the Vietnam War; and six from Iraq and other conflicts.
The search for evidence to account for the missing in action continues, with the DPMO website reporting in its “Recently Accounted-For” section that as late as July 2012, newly discovered evidence has accounted for American MIAs from as far back as World War II.
Families of prisoners of war and missing in action share a common agony and emotional pain – that of not knowing what has become of their loved ones, whether they are alive or dead, and if alive, in what condition. For the families of the POWs, the pain of not knowing ends only if and when they come home. For the families of the missing in action, that agony of not knowing never ends.
The suffering of POWs has been brought home in the books written by and about them, including the horrendous tortures they endured in all those wars.
However, what is sometimes not fully recognized is that while the POWs suffer greatly in captivity, their families at home, like the families of those missing in action, suffer as well, never knowing the fate of their loved ones.
One of the most powerful books on war – revealing not only the inhuman mistreatment inflicted on American POWs by their communist captors in Vietnam, but also how those POWs retained their humanity, most often by faith and family – is Adm. Jeremiah A. Denton’s classic memoir, “When Hell Was In Session,” a new edition of which, with an extensive afterword by the author, was recently published WND Books.
Adm. Denton suffered unspeakable tortures in that hell for seven years, seven months as America’s second-longest serving POW in the Vietnam War. Somehow, he returned home to a loving family with his humanity intact, going on to become a U.S. senator. He remains today deeply involved in humanitarian work.
But what of his large, young family during those seven years, seven months of not knowing what he was enduring, or whether he had endured?
Four years ago, on POW/MIA Recognition Day, Sept. 19, 2008, the wartime veterans of the American Legion Department of California honored their comrade Adm. Jeremiah Denton by establishing a plaque for him at the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial in San Diego, beneath the cross there honoring the selfless service and sacrifice of veterans, including those who have given their lives.
Michael Denton, one of Adm. Denton’s sons – only a young boy when his Navy pilot father was shot down on July 18, 1965, and incarcerated and brutally mistreated for almost eight years – delivered an eloquent and moving speech honoring his father.
Michael Denton spoke, too, of the impact on the family – not knowing, for days, weeks, months and then almost eight years, the fate of their father, an experience shared by so many families of prisoners of war and missing in action.
Therefore, in recognition, respect and appreciation for all of those POW and MIA families on this National POW/MIA Recognition Day 2012, here is Michael Denton’s tribute to his POW father:
Mt. Soledad Memorial Dedication
Good afternoon. My name is Michael Denton. As the sixth of seven “navy juniors” born to Jeremiah and Jane Denton, I am a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, a U.S. Navy veteran and now an investment adviser in Richmond, Virginia. My wife, Katherine, is here with me today as a brat of the U.S. Air Force, born while stationed in Athens, Greece, and most importantly the mother of our two children. Our dad, my seven siblings, 16 grandchildren, three great grandchildren and eight spouses comprise our Denton family today. This entire clan sincerely appreciates your presence to honor our patriarch’s personal courage, steadfast dedication to duty and complete faith in God and country.
I should fit us into the context of our father’s Vietnam service. When my father was shot down in 1965, our eldest brother was 18 years old, and our youngest sister was 18 months new. They are both attorneys now. I was 5 when Dad left and 13 when he returned. From 40 years of conversations since, I learned there is no good time to lose your father for any reason, but youth protected me much more than my elder teenaged brothers. Of course, I am very different person from the experience. Although I still don’t fully understand those differences, I have learned to build upon them.
Of course, all military families face varying degrees of family separation deserving of our deep respect. Indeed, my family is acutely aware that we have received far more notoriety than most veterans – in particular, Vietnam veterans. In our case, the whole family catapulted into the limelight upon Dad’s celebrated return. We were neighbors enduring real tough times supported by many dear friends who gained instant fame after Dad’s “return with honor” when a three-sentence speech shocked the American heart back to beating more with veterans. Still though, quoting the POW slogan, “We Have Not Forgotten” in the Denton family that some Vietnam vets never came home, and tragically, few returning Vietnam vets got the honors they deserved. Hopefully that is finally beginning to change.
Coming to the present, after the blessing of 81 years of heroism, strength and unconditional love, we lost our mother just last Thanksgiving Day to post-heart surgery complications. Her caliber as a wife and mother made possible most of what our family has accomplished. She proved that “it takes a village” is a secular myth, when in truth: “It takes a FAMILY!”
Today my dad faces different challenges at 84 that prevent a cross-country trip for this event, but let me tell you where he is. After decades of service as a “Warrior, Statesman and Humanitarian,” Jeremiah Denton now lives nearly within sight of Jamestown Island, the first permanent English settlement in America, along the James River in Virginia. There, recently rebuilt on the original foundation, is the largest building from that settlement – a 400-year-old Christian church. Just up river in Richmond is where Patrick Henry thundered that the defense of freedom is worth life itself. This liberty-or-death speech was made in the largest building west of Williamsburg to a crowd literally overflowing out the windows. Many people chose to be buried where they listened that day. That building was a Christian church that still stands today. And just down river from Dad’s house, the sun rises on a powerful naval force of freedom in Norfolk before setting on that same protection here in California. And so, Jeremiah Denton resides today among powerful symbols of his deep beliefs.
To fully appreciate his service, one must understand that Jerry Denton’s intense beliefs inextricably forge together faith and freedom into a single steeled force, each vital to protect the other. He knows the personal sacrifice that force requires; he gave more than his measure for decades on end; and he calls upon all Americans to do the same – whether in combat, in the sanctity of a quiet church pew or in a private voting booth. Knowing this about our father, you can understand just how personally meaningful it is to have this plaque in this place – here among so many heroes and beneath the cherished Mt. Soledad Cross.
Having mentioned this cross, so emblematic of vital struggles to preserve our freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion, I must speak directly for my father. For their victorious preservation of the Mt. Soledad Cross, Jeremiah Denton offers his highest salute to: Congressman Duncan Hunter of this district; U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama; the vitally important combatants of the Thomas More Law Center led by Richard Thompson, Brian Rooney and Charles LiMandi; the indomitable Rees Lloyd of the American Legion California; and to the Mount Soledad Board of Directors. Quoting Dad directly here: “When I said ‘God Bless America’ in front of the world upon release from prison, you may be certain that I included in the context of that prayer, movements like the effort to save the Mt. Soledad Cross, which are vital to preserve this country as One Nation Under GOD. The threat to formally discard that title and disguise that reality is correctly seen by you and the majority of Americans as the greatest threat to the survival of these United States of America. May you and those like you prevail in your glorious cause!”
Regarding the plaque being dedicated today in Dad’s absence, I express our family’s heartfelt thanks to all those involved in this honor, most especially Rees Lloyd who led the effort, Brian Rooney who made two trips on its behalf, Ralph Husky of the American Legion here in San Diego, the staff of Mt. Soledad, including Joanie Miyashiro-Brennen and Charles Emery, as well as the distinguished guests present today.
I will close with a current-event note and a past intimate family insight. You can actually see a video of my father’s action that earned him the Navy Cross in an online exhibit by National Archives titled “EYEWITNESS,” which chronicles 25 gripping images that shaped American history.
Finally, let me take you back to our family’s experience of that late-night Vietnam POW release. The family remained in Virginia Beach, rather than take our large crew all the way to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines without knowing for sure whether he would actually make it out then or ever. We certainly had no idea that he would be the very first to return until he suddenly stepped through the hatch. As will happen in gathered families, several hours of sibling agitation had driven me to a room across the house where for some reason I started a tape recording. When called back into the den for the arrival event, I left the tape running. As a result, you can now hear our family’s roar of shocked jubilation when Dad was the first officer out of the first plane. He was asked just a short time before, as the senior officer aboard, to say a few words to the welcoming crowd. Back home, we hadn’t even taken a breath from his appearance before we saw him gestured toward the microphone! I repeat his words in closing, because this powerful statement, written just beforehand, eloquently captured both that moment and the essence of his entire lifelong service as a force of freedom and faith. At just the moment when our nation desperately needed such reassuring validation he said: “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander in chief and to our nation for this day. God Bless America.”
The Denton family could not be more proud of all veterans who have fought for faith and freedom or more sincerely appreciative for the honor of this plaque at Mt. Soledad. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Rees Lloyd is a longtime California civil-rights attorney and American Legionnaire.