A different breed of person

  • Published
  • By Megan Just
  • 452nd AMW Public Affairs
I distinctly remember the face on the poster. There was a column of four faces on the right side and his was the second from the bottom. It was a POW/MIA remembrance poster and it was hanging in my high school cafeteria.

The face was that of a Vietnam-era young man with blond hair and stubble on his face. He was wearing his undershirt without his camouflage blouse; something I would later discover is no longer tolerated in today's combat zones. He wore dog tags around his neck and the expression on his face was timeless. I felt as if I was looking at a ghost.

Knowing that if this man's face was on a POW/MIA poster, it meant he had become a prisoner of war, died, or was on the missing-in-action list. And one of these things had happened to him while he had been protecting our country.

My epiphany that day wasn't that bad things happen in battle; I already knew that. The epiphany was that the man on the poster was my age. Previously, the faces of service members didn't seem real to me; they were adults my parents' age. I knew that man on the poster had probably not lived to see his 21st birthday, marry, or accomplish any of his dreams.

The realization hit home for me in a way that could never be reversed. Many, many people like him--and like me--had not returned from their duty of protecting our country. For us to enjoy the privileges of our freedoms we'd need more men like him to continue protecting these privileges. Now, it was my generation's responsibility and if we didn't step up, then it would mean that the man on the poster's ultimate sacrifice would have been made in vain.

I realized that I, a college-bound high schooler with big plans that did not include the military, was not exempted from this responsibility. Although I had always been more of the type of girl to join the Peace Corps rather than of the Department of Defense, I applied and was accepted into the Navy ROTC program.

Three years into my career as an Oregon State University Navy ROTC midshipman, I visited the National Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, Georgia, the site of the largest Confederate military prison during the Civil War. Thirteen thousand Union soldiers died there in the notoriously horrific conditions. Having recently read a book of first-hand accounts of men who were imprisoned there, walking over the very ground where those men had suffered only reinforced my sense of obligation to give back to these men of the 19th century who made possible the country I had the privilege of enjoying in the 21st century.

Also as a midshipman, I had the privilege of participating in a three-week foreign exchange in the Republic of Korea. One of the sites I visited with my Korean Navy counterparts was the Unification Park near the demilitarized zone, where the North Korean submarine that was grounded in South Korean waters in 1996, is on display. I don't remember the details of the incident except that ten of the crew members and the captain who had been unable to escape had been found dead inside the boat in a murder-suicide. For them, death must have seemed better then than becoming a prisoner of war and I thought of all of our service members who hadn't taken the cowardly way out even though it brought them unspeakable agony.

Five years later, as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Navy, I was in the foyer of the then-brand new National Museum of the Marine Corps Triangle, Virginia. I was there on a field trip that was part of a conference I was attending for work, when I took a phone call from one of my command's Department Heads. He broke the news that I had received 10-month Individual Augmentation orders to Iraq.

Still in shock, I went back into the museum and joined a group of conference attendees as they filed into the Korean War Gallery for a multimedia exhibit that simulated the experience of being on a landing craft at Inchon. The exhibit ended with a grim view of a POW cage. My senses overloaded, I decided not to explore the rest of the museum, instead, waiting for the group in the lobby, where there happened to be a exhibit of photos from the front lines in Iraq, taken by service members like myself.

I'd faithfully completed the mandatory computer-based prisoner of war training during each of my previous three years in the Navy, but when I completed the course again as part of my pre-deployment training for Iraq, I was gripped with fear. When you are used to serving on a sea-going Navy ship, becoming a prisoner of war isn't at the top of your list of worries. In Iraq, it was going to be a tangible possibility.

I pictured the medieval Instruments of Torture exhibit I'd seen in San Gimignano, Italy during my study abroad during college. I pictured that scene in Collateral Damage where Arnold Schwarzenegger is strapped to a chair, his jaw forced open with metal hinges while his captor coaxes a coral snake into his mouth. I don't know if the snake slithered into his throat or not; I had to hide my eyes until the scene was over.

And this was precisely my worry. If I was too squeamish to watch a scene in a movie, how would I survive in real life? I have major weaknesses. I am very ticklish and I all but lose my mind if someone is tickling me and I can't get away. I am deathly afraid of snakes. If my captors learned of this, I knew that all they'd have to do is show me a picture of a snake and I'd confess anything.

Knowing this about myself gave me even more respect for the former prisoners of war who were sharing their experiences during video clips in the computer based training. I studied these men who appeared ordinary but had survived what I didn't think I had the capability to--withstanding the worst of conditions, torture, and to endure both with no end in sight.

The thing is, when you're a military service member and you become a prisoner of war, you don't get to use a fear of snakes or a weak tolerance of pain as an excuse. If you do give up a secret in your fear or pain-induced state of mind, and if you survive to return to the United States, you will face punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In theory, you could get out of the enemy's prison to spend the rest of your life in a U.S. military prison. But worse than that, the enemy could use the information to harm your fellow service members.

How did all those men, in all the wars throughout the history of the United States, survive and survive with honor?

And then I think about the other half of the POW/MIA equation: the men who are missing in action. Are there service members from the Korean or Vietnam Wars still out there, still suffering? Lots of veterans seem to think so. I see the groups of hardened Harley riders in their fringed leather vests adorned with patches that display the familiar silhouette of a man's profile in front of a barbed wire fence and guard tower. We will never forget, the patches read.

After all, the power of not forgetting was just demonstrated in August when the remains of Navy Captain Michael Speicher were recovered in Iraq. Captain Speicher's plane had been shot down in 1991, on the first night of the Persian Gulf War and his status as missing, killed, or captured, had changed many times throughout the years.

A friend of mine wears a permanent metal band on his wrist, engraved with the name of a soldier who went missing in the Vietnam War. That's his way of remembering the service members caught somewhere between living and confirmed dead.

Prisoners of war and the missing in action are a different breed of person. They've endured more than the rest of us can imagine is possible. They are stoic heroes of epic proportions.

This is what I had sensed when I'd seen the eternally young face of the man on the POW/MIA poster at my high school. He, along, with every one of our nation's prisoners of war or service members missing in action, embody the precise meaning of one of the statements I heard countless times during what ended up being five years of active duty in the Navy. Freedom does not come free.