The Defense Department will never stop working to bring captured and missing service members home, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pledged at a Pentagon ceremony Sept. 20.
That commitment extends to Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by enemy forces in Afghanistan more than four years ago, Hagel said.
“Our hearts today are with the Bergdahl family. Using our military, intelligence, and diplomatic tools, the United States is continuing its strong efforts to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe release,” he said.
DOD’s commitment to leave no service member behind also extends to the more than 80,000 Americans who remain missing in action, the secretary said.
Hagel noted this year marked the 40th anniversary of Operation Homecoming, when hundreds of American prisoners of war returned to freedom from captivity in Vietnam. Retired Navy Rear Adm. Robert H. Shumaker, in the audience for today’s ceremony, was one of those prisoners, the secretary said.
“He, along with hundreds of other service members and civilians, endured unspeakable cruelty, attempts at political exploitation, and years of confinement,” Hagel said. “But through courage, resilience, and determination, they survived to return home to a grateful nation.”
The secretary said he admires the inner strength that enabled prisoners of war to survive harsh physical and mental abuse at the hands of their captors.
“Americans in uniform today are inspired by the fierce resolve of generations of American POWs,” Hagel said. “We also draw inspiration from the bonds of camaraderie, compassion, and love that prompted our POWs to care for each other, and sustain each other, through terrible, terrible months and years of hardship.”
Such bonds are fundamental to the American military and underpin “who we are and everything we do,” he said. “We protect each other. And we vow to never leave a fellow service member behind.”
Every day, Hagel said, hundreds of DOD staffers, including forensic anthropologists, underwater archeologists and other experts, scour the globe and work in laboratories to identify the missing.
“Since this time last year we have been able to account for 61 service members from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam,” the secretary noted. “Each case represents years of effort – meticulous work piecing together evidence and clues from across many continents.”
Hagel said he’s deeply aware that many thousands of families are still waiting for a breakthrough.
“Words and promises cannot make the lingering uncertainty and heartache go away,” he said. “But I hope it provides comfort to know that as long as members of our armed forces remain unaccounted for, the Department of Defense will do whatever we can to find them and bring them home.”
Hagel said that as the black-and-white flag honoring America’s prisoners of war and missing in action is raised in communities across America today, “We pledge to live by its creed, ‘You are Not Forgotten.’ We as a country are committed to our former POWs, our missing, and their families, … just as we are committed to those who wear the uniform today.”
The POW/MIA flag is a symbol and a call to action, Dempsey said.
“For wherever our missing lie, wherever a prisoner waits, we will remain committed to freeing them,” he said.
More families deserve closure, the chairman said. “More of those who’ve worn our nation’s cloth deserve to come home,” he added.
Dempsey said the department will not rest or “call our mission complete, until our family is whole again.”