POW/MIA Day: Honoring America’s Captured and Missing
There are many sad byproducts of warfare. But few are so tragic as the reality that, in the course of any conflict, brave men and women regularly wind up as prisoners of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA). In the havoc and chaos of battle, many combatants have found themselves imprisoned by the opposing side, while many others wind up missing. Some of them may return home in the end, but others tragically never do. And while imprisonment may only be temporary and some missing may not be gone for good, the heart wrenching sacrifice of those who become POWs or listed as MIA is impossible to properly honor. But it’s in their memory that we commemorate National POW/MIA Recognition Day. And, with that in mind, let’s explain just what the day means.
What Does POW/MIA Mean?
POW/MIA is the acronym for Prisoner of War/Missing in Action. These acronyms, sometimes called casualty codes, along with others (like KIA for Killed in Action or DOW for Died of Wounds) are used to maintain the accountability of troops who are casualties in war. The POW and MIA acronyms are often linked together because those listed MIA sometimes turn out to be POW’s. And the full understanding of who has been taken prisoner and who is missing is often not fully counted until after a war has ended and often never is.
While these acronyms are fairly well known and understood across most of the military community, many people probably best recognize the phrase due to the iconic black and white POW/MIA flag that flies on flagpoles all over America. It’s also often worn on uniforms or other items of clothing as a POW/MIA patch.
History Fact – The POW/MIA flag was created by artist and WWII veteran Newt Heisley for the National League of POW/MIA Families in 1972. The design was overseen by Evelyn Grubb, the League’s national coordinator at the time and wife of a POW who died in captivity.
It was initially meant to reflect and draw attention solely to those listed as POW or MIA during the then-ongoing Vietnam War. But over time, it has become associated with those Americans missing or held prisoner across all wars.
History Fact – According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, nearly 82,000 Americans are still officially missing in action from WWII onwards.
In 1990 the flag was officially recognized by Congress. And with the passage of the National POW/MIA Flag Act on November 7, 2019, the flag is now flown year-round on a number of federal buildings and facilities rather than just on military-related holidays.
Those who wish to take a more personal approach to displaying their respect for captured and missing military personnel often sport a memorial bracelet. While they’re currently more commonly meant to honor someone killed in action, the wear of these iconic metal cuff-style bracelets began as a way to recognize POWs during the Vietnam War. These first POW/MIA bracelets bore the name, rank, and loss date of personnel missing or taken prisoner and were meant to remain worn until the person (or their remains) returned to the United States. While the meaning and variety of styles has expanded to include all casualties, the bracelet began as another way to honor those captured or missing in service of their country.
“All Americans should recognize the special debt we owe our fellow citizens who, as prisoners during wartime, sacrificed their freedom that we might enjoy the blessings of peace and liberty. Likewise, we must remember the unresolved casualties of war – our soldiers who are still missing. The pain and bitterness of war endures for their families, relatives, and friends.” – President Jimmy Carter
National POW/MIA Recognition Day
As of 1998, National POW/MIA Recognition Day is commemorated on the third Friday of September. This month, it falls on September 18th, 2020. While many of the symbols we associate with America’s prisoners of war and missing in action date to the Vietnam War era, the date was specifically chosen because it did not relate to any specific war or conflict in US history.
What is National POW/MIA Recognition Day?
POW/MIA Recognition Day is the annual occasion established to recognize those American service men and women who are currently listed as prisoners of war or missing in action. It demonstrates that our nation will never forget or leave behind those whose fate in service of our country remains unsure. Organizations, state governments, and municipalities across the nation often observe a variety of ceremonies. It’s the only day of the year where the POW/MIA flag flies on all government buildings, raised second in precedence only to the US flag.
Note: This day does not recognize those who were formerly POWs and set free. They are honored on National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day every April 9th, the date of which was chosen to recognize the start of the infamous Bataan Death March.
POW/MIA Day History
While it was not an official holiday until the late 90’s, there were other official observances held over the years in recognition of the military’s imprisoned and missing. The first such was held at the behest of then-President Jimmy Carter at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on July 18th, 1979 and included the flying of a missing man formation. A variety of ceremonies were held and performed over the next few decades, some in July, others in September or April. The first one held at the White House occured in 1984 and others have been held at such places as the Pentagon and the Capitol. And in 1998, the day was designated an officially recognized occasion by Congress as the third Friday of each September.
For those with a loved one still listed as a prisoner or missing, there’s no doubt no single day that goes by where their mind does not turn to them. But for those of us who’ve never had to live with such tragic uncertainty, National POW/MIA Recognition Day is a solemn occasion designated for all Americans to remember them. A day to convey the message printed in plain text on the POW/MIA flag to the missing and imprisoned across the generations: “You Are Not Forgotten.”
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.