There was a small table set for one at American Legion Post 209 in Orfordville on Saturday.
The reservation was for prisoners of war or veterans missing in action who never returned home. The table was adorned with a rose, table setting, lemon and a lace tablecloth, with each item carrying symbolic significance.
The small table sat in the front of a room of 50 or more veterans and family members from Wisconsin’s American Legion First District, which stretches across southern Wisconsin from Rock County to Waukesha County.
The district hosts an annual POW/MIA memorial event on the third weekend in September to coincide with National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the third Saturday of the month.
It was the first time since 1993 that Post 209 hosted the event, post Cmdr. Allen Morris said.
The commemoration started with a silent march followed by speeches. Then the Legion’s First District Cmdr. David Latimer read the names of the 26 Wisconsin veterans who served in the Vietnam War and are still unaccounted for.
In true Wisconsin fashion, attendees stopped at the Legion’s bar between the march and the ceremony to grab a beer and catch the start of the Badgers football game. Cans of Miller Lite and Old Style dotted the tables.
Morris said he was pleased with the turnout for the march despite the rain, but Latimer said he was saddened the public did not come to the march the way they might have for Santa Claus or other holidays.
He said the general public might not understand the compassion American Legion members have for POWs or MIA veterans.
Every person in the room Saturday saw things during their service they would take with them to their graves, and it’s difficult for outsiders to understand the bond forged by that shared experience, Latimer said.
Mary Kolar, secretary designee for the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, also gave a speech at the Orfordville gathering.
She said an initiative at UW-Madison could help Wisconsin identify more unaccounted-for veterans.
Three already have been identified by the Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project, Kolar said.
Charles Konsitzke, associate director of the university’s biotechnology center, told The Gazette the program is focused on recovering MIA veterans and will soon develop a system for gathering family contact information.
Morris, 32, a Marine from Orfordville, said organizing his first POW/MIA recognition event was stressful but that he was motivated by his desire to serve the community.
He said he is the youngest commander the Orfordville Legion has had in about 20 years.
He got involved with the group because it is the largest community organization in the village and because he was seeking the same sense of camaraderie he felt in the Marine Corps.
Morris is atypical for an American Legion commander because of his age. Veterans organizations nationwide are fighting declining enrollment and lack of participation by young eligible members, as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2017.