Ten years ago, a Prisoner of War / Missing In Action (POW/MIA) Marathon Team ran from Rochester, New York, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the national Mall. VVA Chapter 20's Color Guard attended the race's beginning at the Rochester Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "And we thought," said Ray Melens, "'Wouldn't it be nice if we could meet them in D.C.?' So we did." In each of the intervening years, a special honor guard selected just for this duty has traveled the 400 mile distance between Rochester and Washington to perform brief ceremonies at The Wall and at Arlington Cemetery honoring America's POW/MIAs.
This elite group is selected from Chapter 20's Honor Guard and Marching Unit. "It is an honor to be selected," life member Eugene (Geno) Lenyk said. Wives and friends join the group on the trip and help them when they arrive.
They assemble under the trees by Constitution Avenue, then march out onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial grounds, precise and austere, their silence punctuated by Melens's muted cadence. The Honor Guard visits the Women's Memorial, the Three Fightingmen, salutes the flagpole with its massive American and POW MIA flags at half-mast, then assembles at the apex of The Wall. After a wreath-laying and some brief words, the Color Guard withdraws, leaving a single standard-bearer with the POW MIA flag.
Few people know of the ceremony, fewer still have seen it. "It is lonely duty," Melens, now the marching unit commander, said. "It's such a little-known day. But we just keep doing it." Although done without fanfare, on its third year local media accompanied Rochester's Honor Guard to The Wall. Back in Rochester, a local Gold Star Mother saw the coverage and contacted the chapter.
She wanted to go to The Wall, but she was hesitant about going alone. Escorting her the following year to view her son's name, said Lenyk, "was a very special occasion." At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Honor Guard crosses Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cemetery. Two repatriated MIAs from Rochester rest there. Even fewer people witness the commemorations there, "but we do it as formally as at The Wall," said Lenyk.
The careful, exacting ceremony honors those two-Rexford John DeWispelaere and John Edward Crowley-who returned and the ten local men who remain missing. "We do it for the guys," Lenyk said. "It is God watching.
" The Vietnam Veteran's of American are supported through the efforts of the Vietnam Veteran's Association.
Tom Berger is a writer for The VVA Veteran, the official voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ® An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. Learn more at www.vva.org