The Vietnam ConflictAn Academic Information Portal For Education and Research

              THE POW/MIA FLAG: 
                             SYMBOL OF UNITY OR DIVISION?


  5 Feb 1999

 Though well-intentioned, it is my sincere belief the passage of Public Law
 105-85 (18Nov97 sec 1082/note 36 USC 189a, which made it a requirement for
 the unofficial POW/MIA Flag be flown on all Federal buildings during six specified
 days each year) was a tragic error and should be repealed as soon as possible.

 In that regard, it is my belief that we as a nation should move to reverse what
 I can only view as an inappropriate and misguided law.

 The crux of the problem is that the POW/MIA flag honors a very narrow
 segment of the veteran population and does that to the exclusion of much
 larger and equally deserving (if not more deserving) segments of that same

 While those who engineered its passage may have been sincere in their beliefs
 and support of the POW/MIA issue, Public Law 105-85 itself was in my judgment
 extremely ill-considered, and its results actually an affront to many in the
 veteran community and their families.

 I was an Associate member of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial
 Committee between 1984 and 1989. During that period, the commission fended
 off a number of vigorous (I would also say zealous) attempts to include the POW
 Flag on our memorial. A few months ago, I was shocked to discovered that the
 California Department of Veterans had issued a request to have the POW/MIA
 flag added to the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial despite the original
 Commission's objections already of record.

 I wrote the following note to the CDVA representative who made the request
 and that note (see below) contains the essence of our rationale in opposing the
 display of the POW Flag in the first place. We hope you share our position in the
 matter and are willing to act to reverse that legislation simply because it would
 be the right thing to do.

 In any case, I'm hopeful that the majority of American Veterans will join us in
 an effort to reverse the law, especially once exposed to reasoned debate on its
 merits. Some of those reasons are contained in the message I wrote to the
 CDVA representative and I certain there are more overlooked in my haste to
 prepare this note:

 Subject: CA VN Vets Memorial & POW Flag
 Date: Thu, 04 Feb 1999 15:56:55 -0800

 "Dear Sir,

 I understand a request was made by you that the POW/MIA flag be flown on
 the flagpole of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are some
 things about that issue you should consider before pushing that request further
  up the line.

 On numerous occasions [between 1984-1991, and even after disbanded], the
 California Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission was asked to include the
 POW/MIA flag on our memorial and in every instance the request were denied
 unanimously. The Commission members were adamant that the POW Flag
 NOT be flown there, and I am in complete agreement with that position.

 The strongest opponent of all was from the legendary B. T. Collins, himself.
 While at first blush that might not seem the politically correct or honorable
 position to take, I'll try to explain our position in a way that might help you and
 other Veterans appreciate it.

 For one thing, there is already a "POW/MIA flag" flying on our memorial. It's
 called the Stars and Stripes.... The American Flag. Our National Flag represents
 the sacrifice and suffering of ALL Veterans and their families, not just a narrow
 spectrum of the veteran population as the POW flag does, and its universality
 in that respect makes it the only appropriate symbol to fly on that flagpole.

 That I think was my biggest concern.

 The POW/MIA flag is a powerful and emotionally-charged (even
 politically-charged) symbol that focuses attention upon (and by its very nature,
 affords unique honor and status to) a very small percentage of the veteran
 population. That is neither fair nor desirable where a memorial purports to
 honor the sacrifice and contributions of the whole not those of particular
 segment of the whole.

 Our concerns ran (and still run) deeper than that as well. I/We did not then and
 still do not believe that anyone can demonstrate that the POWs/MIAs (or their
 families) have suffered more or sacrificed more than any other of a very large
 cross-section of the veteran population here in California, or the US as a whole
 for that matter.

 Arguments that some of our comrades might still be held in bamboo cages, or
 that their families have suffered more than the families of other Veterans simply
 do not hold up to close inspection in the light of day.

 In fact, I/we do not believe the POW/MIA is more deserving of a separate flag
 honoring their sacrifice than many other classes of Veterans in this country,
 and that it can actually be demonstrated that there are several and much
 larger groups of our Veterans who are certainly at least as deserving, if not
 more deserving, of a special flag than their POW/MIA counterparts!

 Whether or not you agree with me/us, consider these approximate statistics
 from the Vietnam war ALONE (I do not have them for other wars or I would
 quote them instead):

 MIA's - 2,250
 KIA - 58,000
 WIA - 303,000
 Severely disabled - 75,000
 100% disabled 23,214
 Lost limbs - 5,283
 Multiple amputations - 1,081
 In the light of the above realities, I must ask those who want the POW/MIA flag
 to fly at our memorial (and over our nation's public buildings six days each year)
 these few questions:

 Just what exactly is it about those 2,250 MIA/POWs (or the suffering of their
 families) that sets them apart from or above all the other Veterans (and their
 families) reflected in the above numbers?

 What makes the POW/MIA deserving of their own special flag and a Federal
 law requiring it be flown over all federal buildings on six special days each year,
 while these others remain effectively ignored and unrecognized?

 Where is the flag for the other tens of thousands of Veterans who've been
 "imprisoned" here at home by the wars of their own generations, such as those
 permanently hospitalized since returning from their war (30 years in the case of
 some Vietnam vets, and as many as 50 and more years in the case of our
 Korean and WWII vets!); those made quadriplegic or paraplegic; those who
 were blinded; those suffering multiple amputations (including three an four
 limbs!); the mentally destroyed; the maimed and disfigured.

 Has their sacrifice been less? Has the suffering and sacrifice of their families
 been less?

 And what of our war dead? Was their sacrifice less, or did they suffer less in
 their dying? Have the families of our comrades who died in combat suffered
 less than the families of our POWs and MIAs?

 Experience has shown me they have not.

 Case in point: The best friend of my high school years, Lawrence Lee Keister,
 was killed in action while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry,
 26Jan69. With him died the spirit of his of his family. Neither his mother nor
 his father ever recovered. To their own dying day they hoped and prayed it
 had all been some huge mistake, that the mangled body in that coffin was not
 really their Larry, and that some day he would come walking through their door.
 They certainly suffered as much as any POW Family may have suffered and I
 can vouch for that suffering personally.

 And, speaking of the dead, just exactly where is the flag honoring them?

 And where are the other five special days of the year our millions of battle-dead
 are recognized and honored each year? After all, we only honor our battle-dead
 with just ONE day of remembrance each year (Memorial Day), not six as in the
 case of the POW/MIA Flag.

 I think you get the point, or at least I hope you do.

 Those in the POW/MIA "movement" may view my position as unpatriotic, or at
 best completely insensitive, to the plight of the POW/MIAs and their families, yet
 nothing could be further from the truth.

 I believe ALL our Veterans and their families should be honored by the flying of
 a flag, not just a select group of veterans.

 I believe the POW/MIA is no more deserving, nor less deserving, of such an

 We believe our obligation is to the whole, not to its pieces.

 Millions of Americans gave their lives or parts of their lives and bodies to defend
 and protect the Stars and Stripes and the abstract notion of "Freedom" our
 nation's Flag represents.

 They did not give their lives or spill their blood and sweat on the distant shores
 of this planet to defend and protect a POW/MIA Flag; they did not raise the
 POW/MIA Flag in the Ardennes Forest nor on Iwo Jima, nor Pork Chop Hill, nor
 Hill 875 near Dak To.

 No, what they unfurled on a branch or stick or pole or antenna was the Stars
 and Stripes - The American Flag.

 That is why I believe that the US Flag is the only flag that should be flown on
 any publicly-owned property at California's memorial (or on any memorial apart
 from a POW memorial, for that matter), for more than a single day each year
 set aside to honor this specific subset of the veteran population.

 As you can see, the POW Flag is not the object of universal support and
 reverence in the veteran's community that many think it is, and there are many
 of us who feel strongly it should not be displayed on any public buildings, much
 less the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial."

 Michael Kelley
 Sacramento, California
 Associate Member, CVVMC, 1984-91
 Company D, 1st Bn, 502d Inf Rgt, 101st Abn Div, RVN 69/70
 WIA 16Sep70, and Retired for Physical Disability"

American Flag Bar