By Alethea Smock
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Driving on base and presenting an ID, saluting the flag for Reveille and Retreat, wearing a uniform as a part of the U.S. Armed Forces — these actions make serving in the Department of Defense different than working a civilian job.
On an everyday basis, most people don’t entertain thoughts of becoming a prisoner of war or potentially missing in action, but it is another component to being a member of the service that is different than working a regular civilian job. In today’s fight, there are still military and contract workers who go missing or are taken prisoner. The steps we take to honor and remember those who have been captured or remain unaccounted for is as relevant today as it was in 1970 when many people came together to bring attention to prisoners of war and the combatants listed as missing in action.
At the end of the Vietnam War, according to recent Pentagon information, the number of service members who were unaccounted for reached 2446, just for service members deployed to Southeast Asia not including the personnel still missing from World War II. Today we are still missing 1641 from the Vietnam era. The idea that many of the people who went to an unpopular war were then left behind did not sit well with families and they finally got the attention of Congress. This began the big push to bring everyone home and leave no-one behind.
The commitment to prisoners of war was updated in the Military Code of Conduct to say in part, “the United States government has an equal responsibility — to keep faith with you and stand by you as you fight for your country.” This commitment has been exemplified in the latest conflict.
One of Peterson’s very own contractors knows that commitment to POWs all too well. He and his fellow Marines risked their lives in Afghanistan to ensure two fallen Soldiers returned home.
“In October 2009 in western Afghanistan, we had two 82nd Airborne paratroopers go missing after they drowned in a remote river after trying to secure airdrop supplies that had drifted off of the drop zone,” said Michael Golembesky, U.S. Marine Corps veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan war. “I participated in a massive search and recovery operation called ‘Hero Recovery’ which took more than four weeks and consisted of daily firefights against the Taliban and drew on support and assets from all over Afghanistan.”
The team’s dedication to leaving no-one behind was mainly to ensure the fallen soldiers’ families had closure. The push to bring home all the fallen remains uniquely American as most countries opt to bury their dead where they fall according to people familiar with the issue.
“It was a horrible and tragic situation that happened to these two paratroopers, but it was even harder for their families because their bodies were missing and they were unsure if they would ever be found and returned back to American soil. It was not only our obligation to our fallen brothers, but to their families to make sure they come home. Dead or alive, everyone comes home,” said Golembesky.
Tech. Sgt. Andrew Decker can relate to the strain on family members when a loved one deploys.
“My older brother joined the service and was deployed in 1990 for the first Iraq war,” said Decker. “At church we would hear the names of those fallen or missing in action, I was always hoping to never hear his name. You never knew what was going on out there, it was then I became more aware of the importance of recognizing POW/MIA day.”
Fortunately, Decker never heard his brother’s name and he came home. Decker organized the Reveille ceremony during POW/MIA recognition week here. Organizing and participating in the ceremony is one way he is able to give back and recognize the sacrifice family members make when a loved one is deployed and facing the potential of engaging with the enemy.
“Events like this get people together and allow them to talk about their service and share their stories,” said Decker. “It allows them to pay their respects and honor the families as well.”
Sharing stories helps develop the strong bond found between brothers in arms. The bond is what holds team members together during the more difficult times such as when a member goes missing.
“The promise is the bond that holds our armed forces together and goes far beyond military service. It makes it easier to go into combat and to be put in harms ways, because we all know deep down inside that if we should fall we will be returned home to our families and loved ones. As warfighters it is the deepest commitment we have to each other,” said Golembesky
Both Golembesky and Decker agree the need for remembrance hasn’t diminished during the current war. Even though the number of missing since 1986 is currently six people, there are still missing service members, and fallen Americans that require a recovery effort to bring home.
“The day we start forgetting our fallen and missing is the day we lose our core beliefs of honor and what it means to be eternally grateful to our Nation’s patriots,” said Golembesky.