SOUTHWEST ASIA — When you walk into many dining facilities in the Air Force, you see it in the corner or off to the side: the lone chair and place setting. In the hurries of our day, we become numb to the sight of it: the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action table with a setting for someone who has never returned. Every year, on the third Friday of September, we remember and honor former prisoners of war and the families of those whose loved ones never returned from war.
The U.S.—with an all-volunteer military and holding the right of life as the first of all inalienable rights— considers it a sacred duty and solemn obligation to never leave anyone behind and to always remember those who remain missing.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is the Defense Department’s lead agency to recover, identify and account for missing Americans from our nation’s past conflicts and fulfill this promise.
There are currently over 82,000 Americans missing from past conflicts dating back to World War II. There are 72,823 missing from WWII, 7,683 from the Korean War, 1,594 from the Vietnam War, 126 from the Cold War, one from Operation El Dorado Canyon, two from Operation Desert Storm and three from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
These Americans fought on nearly every continent and in every corner of the globe. The mission to account for our nation’s missing is a global operation and dedicated to the families who still wait for their loved ones to return.
My first understanding of the POW/MIA mission, like most people my age, came from ‘Missing in Action’ and ‘Rambo’ movies. I never thought much more of it than that until I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. As part of a history class senior project, we were given an assignment to write a report on someone who died in the Vietnam War.
Later that year, my high school took a class trip to Washington, D.C., where each of us would make a rubbing from the Vietnam War Memorial of the person we wrote about. This action completed our assignment and 12 days after graduation I reported to the United States Air Force Academy to begin my Air Force career.
During my second year at the Academy, I was tasked one weekend to monitor the dormitory area. It was a boring job, and in the quiet and monotony my mind began to wander. I began thinking about the Air Force pilot I wrote my report on, and recalled he was from Colorado. I then decided I would flip through the phone book and call people with his last name to see if they were related.
The first person I called, I asked if they knew Capt. Roger Helwig, and she replied that she did. She was Roger’s mother. That phone call resulted in meeting Roger’s mother and father and going to their home where they showed me pictures of Roger and his medals and told me stories of their son. I provided them the report I wrote about Roger and prior to my graduation from the Air Force Academy, I met them one last time to let them know I would never forget their son.
Years later, as a C-130 (Hercules) pilot, I found myself inserting an investigation team into Laos, into the very province where Capt. Helwig was shot down September 11, 1969, and never recovered. Years after my Laos assignment, in 2016, I found myself assigned to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
There I discovered all the work the Agency had done, excavating jungle, diverting a river, numerous interviews with locals, cataloging family DNA reference samples and conducting years of research all to find Capt. Helwig and Capt. Roger Stearns, two pilots flying F-4 Phantom IIs as forward air controllers along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Stearns was recovered and identified in 1990. The only item recovered at the crash site for Helwig was his dog tag.
Helwig’s dog tag was returned to his widow in August 2016, and on May 9, 2017, a remembrance ceremony was held for Capt. Helwig at the United States Air Force Academy cemetery which I was honored to attend. There I met his widow and his brother, his mother and father since passing, and a few of his squadron mates from Vietnam, all telling new stories, reinforcing the character of the man I wrote about 19 years ago.
The POW/MIA flag, table, bracelets and recognition day are reminders of the highest nobility of those servicemen and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and the dedication of their families who still endure the pain of waiting for their return. There is not a day I do not think of Capt. Roger Danny Helwig from Colorado and hope that my service is an honor to his memory and the sacrifice of his family.