SOLON– The scene is always somber, the audience attentive and quiet.
On Sept. 21, Solon High School held its annual program to recognize the veterans deemed missing in action and those who were at one time prisoners of war.
Included in the program was a welcome by Valeric Buckingham, Public Affairs Officer of the Iowa City Veterans Administration (VA) Health Care System, an invocation by Father Bob Striegel, also from Iowa City VA Health Care, a performance of the National Anthem presented by Solon High School’s Fifth Street Jazz ensemble, a musical selection by the Solon High School band, and the Pledge of Allegiance led by students. Timothy McMurry, Associate Director for Operations at the VA, offered remarks.
The event is an extension of instructor Keith McSweeny’s ninth grade history class.
Classes convene in the media center, where former POWs are introduced and given the opportunity to speak. Many of the invited veterans share their histories and give an overview of their experiences as wartime prisoners. Most filter their speeches, leaving in enough carefully-selected details to give the students an idea of the nature of their imprisonment, but leaving out disturbing specifics.
Without exception, the veterans who speak express gratitude for the freedoms they enjoy by virtue of living in the United States of America.
Veteran Harold Johnson of Ottumwa was a U.S. Air Force soldier who was shot down in North Vietnam in 1967. Johnson was held captive for almost six years.
“They didn’t report my capture,” Johnson said. “My wife didn’t know I was alive for almost three years.” Johnson said he endured periods of isolation and sometimes quite severe treatment, like that we might see in movies.
“I won’t go into that,” Johnson said. “I was a prisoner for 2,135 days, and there are almost that many stories.”
Recounting his release, Johnson said his captors had long told them negative stories about the U.S. citizens not supporting the war or its military; it made him and his fellow POWs nervous about coming home.
“It was just turning dark as we taxied into the airport in the Philippines, we could hear something like chanting outside. Finally, when the engines stopped and the doors opened, we could hear ‘Welcome Home.’ All the children who were there were telling us, ‘Welcome Home,’” Johnson said. “What a wonderful thing.”
Johnson said he had been gone seven years, and wasn’t sure if he could still function, but the military welcomed him and he remained in the service a total of 27 years.
“I am thankful that my blessing was being able to survive. After all, 3,600 of us were shot down. Six hundred and sixty of us came home.”
Each of the veterans shared similar histories, and later shared lunch with small groups of students so they could talk further about the soldiers’ experiences.
Freshman Jade Flansburg said her history class has been studying World War I and are just now getting to the years of the Great Depression. The class will soon start a unit on World War II. She believes that going forward, she will be more curious about the stories of veterans of war.
“I have a lot of respect for them. I had no idea so many of them didn’t make it,” said Flansburg.
Freshman Austin Green has always been a history buff, he said, but it was more interesting to hear first hand accounts.
“Just reading their stories is powerful, but when you actually see the faces, it brings it to a new personal level,” Green said. “It would take a lot of courage to not only experience it, but then to talk about it and share your stories.”
To close the event, Jean Fritz and Kay Calkins from the Iowa City American Legion Auxiliary performed the Rose Ceremony, a well-known ritual set around a table with an empty chair and other items symbolic of soldiers still missing in action.
As we look upon this empty table, do not remember ghosts from the past, remember our comrades,” Fritz read. “Remember those whom we depended on in battle. They depend on us to bring them home.”