Ceremony honors veterans that never came home

Students from Highland High School CA-944 Air Force JROTC at the Table of Honor. From left: Fidel Madrid, Anthony Gonzalez, Jacey Kalil Bander, Roman Oliva, Cameron Hilton and Grace Henderson, front right. (Photograph courtesy of Steve Hofbauer)

Palmdale city officials, residents and folks from throughout the Antelope Valley participated Sept. 20, in a POW/MIA Day of Recognition event, this nation’s promise to remember the men and women who became prisoners of war or were reported as missing in action while deployed to battlefields in foreign lands.

Retired Air Force Maj. Conrad Hernandez, an aerospace science instructor at Highland High School, greeted the crowd, saying POW/MIA Day dates back to the 1970s when a national awareness was raised about all members of the armed forces from various wars that were either captured and kept prisoner by the enemy or whose whereabouts were unknown.

“Our conscience bothered us a little for those who haven’t returned,” Hernandez told the crowd that gathered at Palmdale’s Joe Davies Heritage Airpark.

From that conscience, POW/MIA Day of Recognition evolved — an annual event observed on the third Friday in September.

Margie Hernandez, of the American Legion Post 348 Women’s Auxiliary, gave the invocation.

“Let us pray that they return,” she said.

Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer, Mayor Pro Tem Austin Bishop and Planning Commission Chairwoman Stacia Nemeth, treasurer and volunteer coordinator for the Antelope Valley Mobile Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall were among the local dignitaries attending the solemn event.

“I want to thank the 944th (Air Force) JROTC,” Hofbauer said, referring to the Highland High School students that Posted the Colors and arranged the Table of Honor. “This is our future, folks,” he told the crowd.

Hofbauer also requested applause for all the veterans present because of their service to the nation.

“This is the day we stop to think about all those guys that did not come back, no matter what war,” Hofbauer said. “It’s about commitment from the men and women that didn’t come back.”

Grace Henderson, a Highland High School junior and member of the CA-944 Air Force JROTC, took the podium for the presentation of the Table of Honor.

“We offer a symbol, ladies and gentlemen, a symbol representative of those comrades who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the most precious of all human rights. In violent arenas of land, sea and sky, far away from the homes and families they fought so bravely for. These brothers and sisters gave their lives so that we as a people might stand free and strong. We offer this symbol as a sigh that we have not forgotten their sacrifice, and as a renewal of the oath each of us has taken to defend the freedoms they paid so dearly for,” Henderson said.

Retired Air Force Maj. Conrad Hernandez far left and Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer far right pose with students from the Highland High School Air Force JROTC beneath an aircraft wing on POW/MIA Recognition Day 2019 (Photograph courtesy of Steve Hofbauer)

“We also want to acknowledge all prisoners of war and those missing in action — past, present and future – who are still unaccounted for,” Henderson added.

As Henderson described the table and the symbolism, other members of the JROTC placed items on the table.

“The table is small. It symbolizes the frailty of one prisoner alone against the oppressors.”

“The while tablecloth represents the purity of (those service members) response to our country’s call to arms.”

“The table is round to show that our concern for them is never ending.”

“The Bible is a symbol of our faith in a higher power and the pledge to our country, founded as one nation under God.”

“The black napkin symbolizes the emptiness these warriors have left in the hearts of their families and friends.”

“The single red rose reminds us of their families and loved ones, and the red ribbon represents the love of our country which inspired them to answer our nation’s call.”

“The yellow candle and its yellow ribbon symbolize the everlasting hope for a joyous reunion.”

“The slice of lemon on the bread plate reminds us of their bitter fate.”

“The salt upon the bread plate represents the tears of their families.”

“The wine glass turned upside down reminds us that our distinguished comrades cannot be with us to drink a toast or join in the ceremonies this day.”

“The five service hats symbolize everyone who has served in all conflicts.”

“The flag is present to mourn the fact that many of them will not return to our shores, and to pay tribute to their passing.”

Since World War I more than 92,000 military service members have been identified as missing, according to Carl Hernandez, commander of American Legion Post 348. A year ago, North Korea returned the remains of eight service members, he said.

While he served in the Air Force with a security group, he recalled one mission when a company of Marines landed in Cambodia.

“Only six returned,” the Post 348 commander said. During the Vietnam war, a number of U.S. fliers stayed at the Hanoi Hilton, he noted. Hanoi Hilton was the nickname American prisoners of war gave the Hoa Lo Prison used by North Vietnam to hold their captives. Area residents referred to the place as “hell’s hole.”

The late Arizona Sen. John McCain had been flying in one of about 10 military aircraft shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967. McCain was held at the Hanoi Hilton for more than five years, where he was subjected to rope bindings and beatings. During the Vietnam war, 766 Americans were confirmed POWs at that prison, although the number is believed higher. Of the military personnel at that prison, 114 died in captivity where they had been strapped to their so-called beds and endured all forms of torture.

When the enemy learned that McCain’s father was a three-star Navy admiral, he suffered even greater torture, according to the Post 348 commander. Despite horrific conditions, McCain and others stayed strong and kept their faith in God, while their families back home prayed for their return, he said.

“You are not forgotten,” Carl Hernandez said of existing POWs and MIAs. “We are still looking for them.”