Early in my career as a respiratory therapist, while working at Miami Valley Hospital in the early 1970s, like most Americans, my heart went out to the men who were captured during the war and held as POWs by the North Vietnamese.
At that time, rumors of inhumane treatment, physical abuse and torture were starting to emerge from the hell-holes that served as prisons for those who were captured.
In May of 1970, an organization known as Voices in Vital America (VIVA) started selling POW bracelets. Each bracelet bore the name of an American POW. The stated intention of VIVA was that our Prisoners of War would never be forgotten.
I was one of many people who bought a bracelet. The commitment we made was to wear our bracelet until the POW whose name was on the bracelet came home. Eventually, over 5 million bracelets were distributed.
That small, small commitment, wearing a bracelet, was nothing … absolutely nothing compared to the commitment those brave men made to serve this country with honor.
Major George Day was shot down on August 26, 1967. His parachute brought him down just north of the DMZ.
Initially, he escaped, but was later recaptured. Broken, bleeding and shot, he was eventually imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. For a while, he shared a prison cell with John McCain.
I wore his name on a POW bracelet until his release in March 1973.
As a young man, I was overwhelmed by the stories of courage and bravery that were demonstrated by these men. Beaten, tortured, starved and abused in every conceivable, horrific way possible, they very rarely gave in to their captors. When they did it was more than understandable.
After spending over seven years as a prisoner in North Vietnam, James Robinson “Robbie” Risner was released in February 1973.
Later that year, his book, “The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese,” was released. I read it immediately. His story was mind-numbing.
I have read many books about the heroics of our military, but the Robbie Risner’s book and his account of the gross inhumanity that was endured by him and all of our POWs changed me.
During my first year as a county commissioner, the board was asked by Ray Souder and Cliff Rosenberger why we didn’t have a memorial honoring every person from Clinton County who ever served in the military.
We didn’t have an answer. But after that meeting I met with our director of Veterans Services, Ray Souder. In his office, Ray and I made a commitment that we would assemble a committee and make it happen.
In one of our many meetings, Colonel Thomas Moe, Director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, drove to Wilmington to meet with the veterans memorial committee. In 1968, when Colonel Moe was a Lieutenant, he was shot down over North Vietnam and spent five years as a POW.
The Colonel had no idea that we had already met with another former POW and had invited him to the same meeting. At that time, Paul Kari was living in Clinton County. Paul was captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965 and spent seven and a half years in captivity. He was anxious to meet his old friend again.
We were having a good meeting with good discussion about our memorial. There was a knock at the door. Ray answered the door and Paul Kari stepped inside.
Our regular meeting ended.
As soon as those two men saw each other, the rest of us vanished from their view.
It was the most amazing meeting between two people I have ever seen.
No words were spoken. The two men reached for each other. They embraced.
The emotion in that bear-hug filled the room and filled our hearts. My eyes filled with tears. It’s nearly indescribable.
Eventually, they talked about nearly everything except the war – except their time as POWs.
I’m proud of the men on the veterans memorial committee who worked to honor our military with the construction of the Clinton County Veterans Memorial.
I’m also proud of Jennifer Woodland. She has committed herself to honoring our military every day. Jen has spearheaded our efforts to display veteran’s pictures on banners from our downtown to the eastern edge of the city.
It is a heartwarming, patriotic display.
Our veterans have brought honor to us with their service.
Let us honor our military every day.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.