WASHINGTON - While riding to Washington, D.C., on Run For The Wall 2015, the west-coast-to-east-coast motorcycle ride in remembrance of those missing-in-action and prisoners-of-war, I recalled a relevant encounter from visiting the nation's capital as a younger man.
I recalled seeing a POW/MIA booth at the National Mall, run by a Vietnam veteran. What particularly impressed me was not the hero and what he represented, but the pet squirrel that sat on the table and ate from his hand. This regrettable gaffe is not a mistake I would make today.
A dozen years of life experience in the Army certainly sharpened the significance of what POW/MIA means to me, but being a part of RFTW has added a refreshing clarity. We must never give up efforts to recover our service members, as valued American brothers and sisters, out of respect to their heroic actions and for the peace of the families left behind.
Each participant of RFTW, the majority of which are Vietnam veterans, is greeted with 'welcome home,' a phrase few received upon their return. Although late received, it frequently brought tears to the eyes of the recipients and sums up the reason so many riders return each year.
Each morning the RFTW southern route coordinator, Jim Stone reminded participants that 83,000 Americans have been missing since 1945, with 1,636 in Southeast Asia alone. Many of those with whom I rode knew someone in that number, making it more than just a daily reminder.
For some with whom I rode, RFTW 2015 was the first acknowledgment of their Vietnam service, while others complete the ride each year. By the time we left the Vietnam Wall, every Vietnam veteran that I spoke with agreed that their personal healing process had moved another step forward.
Each interaction and story exchanged with the heroes I rode with reminded me again of not only their sacrifices for our country, but of the many ways they have made it better.
The Vietnam generation remembered the nation's shortcomings and, come Sept. 11, 2001, were influential in ensuring that America not repeat them. I returned from two Iraq deployments to a welcome home they never received, and the number of POW/MIA from recent conflicts remains incomparably lower.
Each generation must continue the lessons learned from the previous, and avoiding apathy over American brothers and sisters lost overseas remains paramount. Should my son grow up to see a POW/MIA booth at the National Mall run by a veteran with a tame rodent, my hope is that he will recognize which is more significant, shake their hand and say "welcome home."