They are unable to be with their loved ones and families tonight, so we join together to pay our humble tribute to them, and bear witness to their continued absence.
The defense ministry official, Maj. Gen. Pham Thanh Lan, came through the door to greet me in person - a rare overture for him, I was later told. He led me out of the tropical heat, and we sat down in an ancient drawing room, surrounded by his staff.
We were not far from Hoa Lo Prison, the brutal "Hanoi Hilton" where U.S. POWs were held captive during the Vietnam War. Here, of course, they call it the American War, and the Hanoi Hilton is regarded as a historical site, complete with full-color brochures that subjectively document the structure's dark place in the history of a city where mopeds and water buffalo still share the streets, where communism and capitalism appear visibly at odds even today.
It was a cordial meeting, one that needed to occur face to face. Years had passed since an American Legion national commander had met directly with a Vietnamese official on the delicate and vital subject of finding and returning our fallen comrades. Year after year, The American Legion submits letters and delivers testimony to support DoD's repatriation efforts overseas. However, as a former National Guard recruiter, auto salesman and Legion membership officer - nothing is as effective as personal contact, in my opinion. The general, director of external relations for the Vietnam Ministry of Defense, seemed to agree as we carefully broke the ice.
My words were clear. I reiterated The American Legion's commitment to full accounting and repatriation of all POWs and MIAs. I asked for his help to grant access to lands where they could be collected. He understood how important this is to all American veterans.
This table, set for one, is small, symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner, alone against his or her suppressors.
The tablecloth is white, symbolic of the purity of their intentions to respond to their country's call to arms.
The single red rose in the vase signifies the blood they may have shed in sacrifice to ensure the freedom of our beloved United States of America.
This rose also reminds us of the family and friends of our missing comrades who keep the faith, while awaiting their return.
It is a value that runs deep in the veins of our organization. In resolutions, speeches, hearings, budget recommendations and in Legion posts across the country - where tables are set for one - we stand firm.
As we talked, the image of the black-and-white POW/MIA flag that flies at American Legion posts and public buildings across the country entered my mind. The flag is a powerful reminder that the remains of some 78,000 Americans are unaccounted for from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War, 1,800 from the Vietnam War, 120 from the Cold War and one from the Gulf War.
In their honor, we set the table for one and acknowledge its meaning.
The yellow ribbon on the vase represents the yellow ribbons worn on the lapels of the thousands who demand, with unyielding determination, a proper accounting of our comrades who are not among us tonight.
A slice of lemon on the plate reminds us of their bitter fate.
I explained to the general that, although decades have passed since the last American GI disappeared in the Vietnam War, we will not let time diminish our resolve. They are remembered until they are home, and not merely by words on paper or spoken at a banquet.
The DoD's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) does not let Hanoi forget. For more than 30 years, U.S. military personnel and local workers have followed every lead, good and bad, trying to obtain often-difficult access to information and property, assembling teams to search for remains, finding them, and sending them on to Hawaii and Maryland for identification. It is a complicated, technical and often dangerous mission that produces the remains of about six MIAs a month. Officials believe 1,300 sets of American remains can still be recovered in Vietnam: We want them back.
JPAC is uniquely organized, skilled and diplomatic in its commitment to our mission. The command has three detachments in southeastern Asia, another on Oahu, and another at the world's largest and most advanced forensic anthropology institution - the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii, where state-of-the-art DNA science is used to determine identities. JPAC carries out major recovery missions associated not only with the Vietnam War, but with the Korean War and other conflicts around the world throughout the year. Remains arrive at the CIL draped in the U.S. Flag, each set given a ceremony conducted by a joint-service honor guard, along with veterans and others.
The salt sprinkled on the plate reminds us of the countless fallen tears of families as they wait.
The glass is inverted. They cannot toast with us this night.
To accurately determine identities, CIL scientists compare mitochondrial DNA samples from teeth and hair to samples from maternal-side family members. The Armed Forces DNA Laboratory in Rockville, Md., conducts the analyses. When used with other evidence, DNA studies provide vital identification evidence.
JPAC is always seeking DNA samples from maternal family members of missing personnel. Privacy is assured to those who can help. Contact information for potential donors, divided by branch of service, can be found online. www.jpac.pacom.mil
As I discussed with the general our need for improved access to sites inside Vietnam, the general countered that some 30,000 soldiers who fought on his side of the war are likewise missing and unaccounted for, and that they, too, are looking both for information and for closure.
On that level, we understood each other. It was the kind of understanding you only get through personal contact.
Some veterans are uncomfortable about any kind of collaboration with Vietnam. I understand that. But if this one, small face-to-face meeting revives Vietnam's awareness of our commitment to those yet to come home from the war, I think it's worth it. If it opens just one fresh acre for investigation that will relieve a family in America, it's worth it. Moreover, it's what we have to do if we are serious about the real meaning of the table we set for one.
The chair is empty. They are not here.
The candle is reminiscent of the light of hope which lives in our hearts to illuminate their way home, away from their captors, to the open arms of a grateful nation.
Let us pray to the supreme commander that all of our comrades will soon be back within our ranks.
Let us remember and never forget their sacrifices.
May God forever watch over them and protect them and their families.