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Pittsfield Holds First POW/MIA Ceremony
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
11:40AM / Sunday, September 17, 2023
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Woody Vaspra and Hank Morris conduct the ceremonies at Pittsfield's World War I memorial on South Street.

Mary Verdi sings the national anthem.

A table setting to symbolize the missing in action.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local veterans held the city's first Prisoner of War (POW) or Missing in Action (MIA) remembrance service on Friday at the South Street Memorial Park.

The inaugural ceremony was held by the Charles Persip American Legion Post 68 on National POW/MIA Recognition Day to honor soldiers who are unaccounted for and as a pledge not to cease efforts to bring them home.

Army veteran Henry "Hank" Morris attended a fellow Vietnam veteran's funeral in Albuquerque, N.M., last year and was inspired to start the tradition.

"I am embarrassed to say that I did not know that the third Friday in September is National POW/MIA Recognition Day," he said. "When I returned to Pittsfield, I asked the Post 68 If we could hold our own POW/MIA recognition day. They all voted in favor and this is our annual ceremony."

Commander Lenwood "Woody" Vaspra had several friends who were POWs, one of them for 8 1/2 years.

"When we saw each other after he came back in 1973, all we could do was look at each other and cry," he said. "Because there are just no words to know what they went through."

One of his roommates was MIA after being in the first aircraft to cross the Cambodian border and was shot down.

"The Air Force called me and said that he was missing in action and I said, 'Well, don't call me back unless you find him and find him alive,'" Vaspra explained. "I never got the call."

Earlier in the day, the Post 68 attended the opening of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall at the Dalton American Legion. It was Vaspra's first time seeing it and he said it was a fitting day.

"Today is where many Americans across the United States pause to remember the sacrifices and service of those who were POWs as those who are MIA and their families," Vaspra said "Because remember, families go through just as much heck as the POWs and they know that

Congress and the president solidified the recognition day in 1979 after a drive for more accountability from families of more than 2,500 Vietnam War POW and MIAs. There have been more than 138,000 since World War I.

"Today is where many Americans across the United States pause to remember the sacrifices and service of those who were POWs as those who are MIA and their families," Vaspra explained.

"Because remember, the families go through just as much heck as the POW/MIA and we know that."

Included in the ceremony was a POW/MIA table of remembrance that is set for one symbolizing the fact that members of the country's armed forces are missing from the ranks.

"The table is small symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner alone against his or her suppressors. The tablecloth is white, symbolic of the purity of their intention to respond to their country's call to arms. The single rose in a vase signifies the blood they were willing to shed and sacrifice to ensure the freedom of our beloved United States of America. The rose also reminds us of the families and friends of our missing comrades who keep the faith while awaiting their return. The yellow ribbon on the vase represents the ribbons worn on lapels of thousands with demand with the unyielding determination of proper account for their comrades that are not among us. A slice of lemon on the plate represents the bitter fate," Morris read.

"The salt sprinkled on a plate reminds us of the countless volunteers, the families, as they wait. The glass is inverted they cannot toast with us at that time. The chair is empty. They are not here. The candle is reminiscent of the Light of Hope, which lives in our hearts to eliminate their way home from their captors to the open arms of a grateful nation. The American flag reminds us that many of them may never return and paid the supreme sacrifice to ensure our freedom."

Morris was commended for going beyond the call of duty in his work for veterans and thanked him for initiating the new ceremony.

Also during the ceremony, it was announced that local Vietnam veteran Martha Green will speak in Washington, D.C., on Veterans Day at the Women's Memorial in Arlington.

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