In thanks we lift our hearts this day,
for those at home and far away
Who heard the call to love’s high goals
and answered with their very souls.
Bless all who serve where e’re they be,
on land, in flight, or on the sea.
(an alternate UU lyric to the Navy Hymn by Andrew Millard, minster of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula)
If there is anything Pagans understand, it is the power of symbolism. Its something Pagans have in common with military members. In the military, there is a tradition that most chow halls and mess decks participate in, regardless of branch. Every command I have been at (including the one am at now, as a civilian) has observed this day, with the setting of the POW/MIA table. If you aren’t familiar with this tradition, it occurs on the third Friday in September each year, though many commands and military affiliated organizations will perform the ceremony for other important events as well.
The ceremony itself varies. Often an honor guard enters, each member holding a cover (hat) for each of the branches of service–I’ve even seen one that carried in a ball cap for those civilians that have been POW/MIA as well (the poster above doesn’t, though often the Coast Guard is included as well). But the table is almost always small, and many times only set for one (or set for one of each service), to symbolize the one man alone and frail against his or her captors. The words often vary, but the tablecloth is always white to symbolize of the purity one’s intent in responding to their country’s call to arms.
Sometimes there is a black napkin, in symbolism of grief. The table is set with a single red rose in the vase, for the blood they many have shed or to remind us of the family and friends of our missing comrades who keep the faith, while awaiting their return. The case is tied with a red or yellow ribbon on the vase to represents the ribbons worn on the lapels of the thousands who demand with unyielding determination a proper accounting of our comrades who are not among us at this time. A slice of lemon on the plate reminds us of the bitterness of their fate, and the salt sprinkled on the plate reminds us of the countless fallen tears of families as they wait.
Depending on the ceremony, the glass(es) at the table may already be inverted. Sometimes though, the honor guard will bring the cover for the branch of the military to the table, set it at their place, and turn over the glass to symbolize that cannot toast with us this night. The chair is left empty–they are not here, but a candle is lit, the light of hope which lives in our hearts to light their way home. And then, a moment of silence, occasionally preceded by the words, “Let us pray to the supreme commander that all of our comrades will soon be back within our ranks.”
This is probably one of my favorite ceremonies from my time in the military. Not because I like the reason for having it, but because its poignancy is heart-rendingly powerful. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t done with sincerity, and the utmost respect. I’ve never been to one that didn’t make me cry. 83,000 men and women, from all branches of the military, as well as civilians remain missing since World War II–73,000 from WWII, 7,500 from Korea, 1,600 from Vietnam, 126 from the Cold War, and 7 since the Gulf War (Sgt. Bowe Bergedahl has been held prisoner by the Taliban since 2009). But even one is too many.
…Let us remember the still missing, far from home, whose bodies have never been recovered and returned. May they one day come home. Until they all come home.