Department Spotlight: 'We're speaking for the families of these people'

Editor’s note: This is a weekly series of Department Spotlight stories featuring unique programs and initiatives of departments throughout The American Legion. Department adjutants are invited to recommend subjects for their departments by emailing magazine@legion.org.

 

In 2008, American Legion Riders from the Department of Ohio decided they wanted to do something to honor a comrade's brother who had died while missing in action. Now those Riders are coming up on 10 years of honoring every MIA or prisoner of war who has returned home the previous year.

The 10th annual POW/MIA Rittman Run will take place this August. Hundreds of Legion Riders from all over Ohio will travel more from than 30 miles under police escort from the Brook Park Recreation Center in Brook Park to the Western Reserve National Cemetery in Rittman. There, they will launch balloons honoring all POWs and MIAs who have been returned home since the previous ride.

“We feel like we’re speaking for the families of these people,” said Ralph Tharpe, a member of Post 627 in Newburgh Heights, Ohio, and Ohio’s 13th District POW/MIA chairman. “That’s how I look at it. It’s very important to never let these people be forgotten.”

Before 2015, all of the balloons were launched into the air by hand. But Tharpe was able to raise nearly $4,000 to purchase a 21-foot-tall POW-MIA balloon that is launched into the air; when the balloon’s cord is pulled, more than 1,000 smaller balloons are released, honoring POWs and MIAs from all wars.

The ceremony at Western Reserve National Cemetery also includes the reading of the names of every POW or MIA that has been returned to the United States in the previous year. A POW-MIA table is set up, and a rose is placed in front of the table after the reading of every name.

“This year we’ll be reading the name of a recovered body from Spanish-American War,” Tharpe said. “Since we started this, we’ve also read the names of three World War I veterans.”

Attendees also hold hands and sing “God Bless America” during the ceremony. “We’ve had people crying during the ceremony,” Tharpe said. “It’s very powerful.

Carl Shortridge, a Legion Rider from Chapter 331 in Ravenna, has participated in four POW-MIA Rides.

"I fell in love with it,” he said. “I think a lot of people have forgotten about our POWs. We want to bring them home. It's a really pretty awesome event.”

This year's event is scheduled for Aug. 12. For more information, click here.