05-23-2014 03:39 PM
For decades, the solemn tradition of the “missing man” table has moved the hearts of survivors and encouraged efforts to account for missing service members.
Every year on Memorial Day, at banquets and mess halls across the country, a small round table is solemnly draped with a white tablecloth and set with an empty chair and an inverted glass, symbolizing a service member who isn’t there to raise a toast.
The “missing man” table is the cornerstone of a ceremony honoring the military members who never returned home from war.
At present, 83,281 Americans are listed as missing and unaccounted for from past conflicts, including 1,642 from the Vietnam War, according to statistics from the Defense Department. Efforts to account for these service members are ongoing.
The missing man table isn’t only about honoring and remembering the lost, says Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the board at The National League of POW/MIA Families. “It also serves as a renewed commitment to finding out as much as we can and trying to account for those still missing,” she says.
The origins of the table are somewhat of a mystery, but Mills-Griffiths says she believes the ceremony originated in 1967 as casualties from the Vietnam War were mounting. A group of U.S. Air Force personnel at a base in Thailand set a table with empty chairs and hollow hats to pay tribute to their fellow airmen who had flown missions over North Vietnam and never returned.
“That is the first that I know of for the ceremony having been held,” says Mills-Griffiths, whose brother went missing in North Vietnam on September 21, 1966. “They were losing people left and right. They were really tough years.”
As U.S. service members returned home from Vietnam, they brought with them the tradition of the missing man table. Since then it has become a fixture at military luncheons and on other occasions to remember the fallen and missing.
Lapel pins keep the lost close to heart
In addition to the missing man table, surviving family members of fallen or missing service members have other traditions and symbols to honor loved ones.
The Gold Star pin, introduced in 1947, features a gold star on a purple background surrounded by laurel leaves. The pin is given to families of service members who lost their lives while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.
The next-of-kin lapel pin, a gold star on a gold background surrounded by four oak sprigs, is presented to the primary next of kin of service members who lost their lives on active duty or while assigned to an Army Reserve or Army National Guard unit in a drill status.
There are more than 55,000 surviving military family members across the country. The military provides these so-called Gold Star families with special programs for wives and mothers, and the Army’s Survivor Outreach Services offers counseling and long-term support.
No Department of Defense or government agency endorsement.
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