MARINE CORPS BASE, CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii --
The service members sat on a bus blindfolded, unaware of their surroundings or destination. Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” blared through the speakers.
This is what personnel from U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific went through in order to experience conditions similar to those Vietnam War era POWs lived and died under.
The Marines and Sailors spent a day training and learning about the history of POWs and MIAs to commemorate National Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Recognition Day, which is on the third Friday of September.
“I don’t think we do a good job of remembering our POW and MIAs,” said Col. Terrance C. Brady, assistant chief of staff, G-1, MARFORPAC. “I think we got it wrong when we said, ‘We will not forget.’ We should say, ‘We will always remember.’”
Brady spent a day teaching Marines and Sailors about experiences of Vietnam POWs and MIAs.
Throughout the day, whenever the participants would move from one portion of the training to another, their eyes were covered.
“POWs were often blindfolded and moved with little to no notice and given no explanation for the move,” Brady explained.
Even though they had an idea of what the training was about, they had no clue what would come next. Brady assured them, it would all make sense in the end.
“All of Col. Brady’s [classes] are constructive,” said Sgt. Susan Ortiz, administrative clerk, Reserve Liaison Office, G-1. “You learn so much from them. Each part fits into place and combines to give you a better look at the broad spectrum.”
Once the service members arrived at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii rappel tower, they were led off the bus and ordered to take off their blindfolds. They were then presented with the first portion of the day’s training. They spent the next few hours rappelling and fast roping before moving to the next unknown portion of the class.
“The rappelling and fast rope was just a little warrior adventure training,” Brady said.
After they finished at the rappel tower, they were again cast into the darkness of the blindfolds, guided in a meandering path for several minutes and then told to sit and wait.
After only a few minutes of silence, the sound of rotor blades could be heard in the distance. Two CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters made a sweeping pass over the simulated POWs, came back around and landed in front of them.
The “prisoners” discarded their blindfolds and boarded the helos for the trip back to Camp Smith. As they flew over the ocean, the pilots made several hard turns and banks simulating the kind of maneuvers used in the terrain of Vietnam.
Once they landed, the class participants began a hike to the classroom, a shaded clearing in the forest above Camp Smith.
Once there, Brady began to piece together the reasons behind his unorthodox training style.
Several service members were given envelopes, each containing a specific story about individual Vietnam War POWs. The students who were given envelopes took turns reading these personal experiences aloud during the lesson.
To help the service members get a better understanding of what POWs went through, they were shown examples of abuse POWs endured.
“Humans do pretty brutal things to one another,” Ortiz said. “It puts things in perspective when you really think about what those men went through.”
The history lesson continued as the Marines and Sailors read more about the horrors the POWs faced.
“I want the Marines to understand the depth of each individual case,” Brady said. “These men are not just a number or a statistic.”
The lesson came to a close and Brady asked the service members to stand while a citation explaining the significance of the Missing Man Table was read. The Missing Man Table, also known as the Fallen Comrade Table, is a table set aside in U.S. Military mess halls in remembrance of POWs and MIAs still unaccounted for.
Brady began to set up a makeshift Missing Man Table as Taps sounded.
The service members stood at the position of attention and slowly saluted. Even as the music faded, they stood in silence.
With the day’s training done and the sun setting, the Marines and Sailors packed up all their gear and began the hike back to the MARFORPAC headquarters building.
According to the Defense POW and Missing Personnel Office, there are approximately 93,836 service members who are listed as missing personnel.
“[The class] made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself,” said Pfc. Erwin Taylor, a G-1 administrative clerk here. “It made me think about all those people who have worn the uniform before me. I thought about those who have suffered and died in the wars past and the ones happening now.”
This is what Brady said he hoped to accomplish with his lessons – a sense of awareness for the seriousness of the situation.
“If it doesn’t touch home, you don’t think about it much and you tend to forget about it,” Brady said. “I’m trying to make it touch home.”
Number of recorded POWs and MIAs throughout history:
• Revolutionary War – 1,426
• WWI - 3,350
• WWII – 78,750
• Korea – 8,177
• Cold War – 343
• Vietnam – 1,785
• 1991 Gulf War- 1
• Operation Iraqi Freedom - 4