CHARLOTTE, North Carolina –
“No one does more for veterans.” This mantra was repeated hundreds of times while I shook the many hands of the veterans who spoke it.
Steve Ryeland, a 45-year member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), expressed to me his personal reason for joining.
“I joined the VFW because I wanted to help veterans,” said Ryeland. “I spent my year in Ubon, Thailand and our mission was to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail. When I got out of the military the last thing I wanted was to join a military organization, but they made me realize that this is a veterans assistance organization, so that is why I belong today.”
The VFW convention, held in Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of the largest gatherings of veterans in the country. Veteran and military affiliated organizations all represent themselves with booths that filled the Exhibit Hall. Among them, an organization with a persistent mission to assist a special kind of veteran; veterans who never returned from duty, veterans still missing from foreign wars.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is dedicated to locating and returning service members from past conflicts such as the Vietnam War, Korean War, and World War II (WWII). DPAA’s booth displayed artifacts from the Korean War and a screen playing videos of excavations done in India and Vietnam. The videos highlighted just a small portion of the day to day work of DPAA in the field.
Crowds of people gathered to ask questions and some inquired about missing service members from their past. But mostly people were just grateful-- grateful for an organization that has members so dedicated to such a noble mission.
Ronald Rusakiewics explained his experience with having gone out with members of DPAA a few years ago.
“I had the great experience of going back to Vietnam with DPAA, we went to three dig sites,” said Rusakiewics. “I was absolutely impressed with the people, with the service members who were so dedicated to the mission of returning those who were left behind. These teams are well prepared to handle anything so that they can be the best they can be while they are living and working in the jungles.”
As a member of DPAA, his words are humbling. I have been with DPAA for 3 years now and there is no doubt that what we do is important, but to know that people are counting on us, to know that people are grateful for our mission, I am sure I am not alone when I say that this is what motivates us to work that much harder.
As a service member there is no greater honor than to honor those of our past. I am grateful for the men and women who paved the way for me to be where I am today. What better way to show our gratitude then by bringing them home to their families.
Ryeland speaks for many when he tells me just how important it is to him and many others like him.
“I appreciate everything you guys and gals do, it kills us to know that our friends are left in Vietnam and of course Korea and WWII but for me particularly Vietnam,” said Ryeland. “Knowing that they are out there, I just really appreciate all the work you do to find them and bring them home, thank you.”
Community, a feeling of fellowship, of family, a sentiment shared between veterans and military alike. Those who made it back, have made a commitment to help future generations like myself, while refusing to forget those they have lost in the past. I have been a part of our military for 11 years. As a Soldier who has served in Iraq, it is a tremendous comfort to know that if I were ever lost, no matter how long I was gone, I would never be forgotten.