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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The flapping American and POW-MIA flags flying above the black granite memorial near Naval Air Station Oceana were lowered to half-mast Friday morning as about four dozen Vietnam veterans, naval personnel and local officials stood under a hazy blue sky to honor the 1,741 U.S. service members still listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from that contentious war.
The modest, solemn ceremony mirrored hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar events held across the country on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, proclaimed a day earlier by President Obama. The stark black-and-white POW/MIA flag, with its familiar silhouette of an imprisoned man's head, a strand of barbed wire and a guard tower in the background, also is flying Friday over the White House and other government buildings and memorials around the country.
At the small, well-manicured Virginia park, just off Oceana Boulevard, supporters also unveiled a large new Flame of Hope Memorial sign at the entrance, replacing a much smaller plain wooden sign that could barely be seen much less read by passing motorists. The flame, burning continuously since 1984, sits atop a 7-foot black granite memorial, the park's centerpiece.
The money for the new sign was raised by the Hampton Roads Association of Naval Aviation. Retired Rear Adm. Fred Metz, a member, helped a former prisoner of war, retired Navy Capt. Jim Mulligan, his wife Louise, and others remove the cover. Mulligan, flying an A-4 Skyhawk, was shot down over North Vietnam on March 20, 1966, and remained imprisoned until Feb. 12, 1973.
"I don't know if I could have withstood what Jim and other people did," said Metz, a former A-6 Intruder pilot who deployed four times to the war, during the ceremony.
Following remarks, two wreaths were laid at the base of the granite rock — one by the Navy and one by the Patriot Guard Riders, motorcyclists who attend military funerals and ward off protesters. One member, retired Cmdr. Dick Landick, served from 1960-1994 and aboard two ships — the destroyer Rogers and the carrier Kearsarge — during the Vietnam War.
"It's a very humbling experience," Landick said of attending such ceremonies. "You think about it daily — the people we left behind. You reflect on the friends that you had over there, and the events since. It's just a day of reflection."