The grief does not end for family, friends and brothers in arms of servicemen and women still missing in action or kept as prisoners of war in a foreign country.
That’s what Retired Lt. Gen. William Webster, former 3rd Infantry Division commander, told soldiers and guests attending Friday’s POW/MIA ceremony at Fort Stewart’s Vietnam Memorial. Other special guests included current 3rd ID commander Maj. Gen. Mike Murray and his wife, Jane, 3rd ID Command Sgt. Maj. Edd Watson and former Korean War POW, David Mills with his wife of 58 years, Shirley.
The ceremony was sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 789 and supported by American Legion Posts 168 and 321, Disabled American Veterans chapter 46 and the Coastal Empire Chapter of the Association of the United States Army.
Webster said he was honored to be asked to speak at the ceremony. He remembered when the Vietnam Memorial was being built at the museum in 2003, noting that it’s inspiring whenever he drives by and sees the UH-1H Huey helicopter and POW/MIA flag, which flies 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
“Today is a day to remember our POWs, current and former, and our missing in action,” Webster said. “(It’s also) a time to reaffirm our pledge as a nation to account for every killed in action, missing in action and POW service member — all of those whose remains are not yet on American soil.”
Webster said he was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when a plane hit not 30 yards from where he was working. He said he lost friends and comrades, with some dying on the stretchers, some whose bodies were never found. He said he led the Marne Division back to Iraq in 2005 where they lost 268 soldiers. He then acknowledged also having recently lost his wife of 37 years.
Webster said he grieved for the ones he’s lost, but he had closure in that he attended a funeral or has a grave that he can visit. He pointed out that the families of POWs and MIAs can never have closure because they don’t know if their loved one is living or dead. Their grief has no end, he said.
“To prevent our soldiers from being captured and then beheaded and videoed to give the enemy some sadistic pleasure … I instructed all our warriors in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 ... to be prepared to fight to the death... We knew that our soldiers, if they were captured, were not going to be treated well, certainly not in accordance with the Geneva Convention,” he said.
After concluding his remarks, Webster introduced Mills, pointing out that Mills was only 17 years old when he joined the Army in October 1952. Mills was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd ID and sent immediately to Korea, he said. Shortly after he arrived there, he said Mill’s 88-man company was defending Outpost Harry when it was attacked by more than 1,000 Chinese soldiers.
“You must hold your position or die trying,” said Mills, who spoke to media after the ceremony. “I’ve often been asked to describe an artillery burst. I can’t. There’s no way to describe the feeling.”
Mills said when his position was overrun, he took a Browning automatic rifle from one of his dead comrades and continued to fight the enemy until he ran out of ammunition. He then left his fighting position to try to find another weapon. He was captured with nine wounds, including two to his head from artillery shrapnel and several to his legs from several grenade blasts.
He said the enemy moved him and other United Nations prisoners to the rear, where they were repeatedly beaten and starved. Their wounds went untreated. Four months later, he was repatriated. His family had long since believed he was dead. Mills said he was at the point of giving up about one month into his capture, but decided to fight to live. Doing so was his way of continuing to resist the enemy, who had to devote their resources to guard him.
The ceremony included several symbolic displays like the Table of Remembrance, an honor guard of soldiers wearing jungle fatigues and 75th Ranger black berets, and a pair of jungle boots with an M-16 rifle and a helmet with a cigarette carton stuffed in the camouflage band.
A poem by Paul Spence called “They Answered the Call,” summed up the purpose of the POW/MIA ceremony.
“Remember, remember,” Spence said. “Don’t ever forget those brave young warriors who aren’t home yet.”