In less than two months, a POW/MIA Freedom March will take over the National Mall in a show of support for the less than 2,000 service members some say are still unaccounted for after the Vietnam War, and for those troops who went missing in other conflicts. The Sunday before Memorial Day, nearly one million motorcycle-riding veterans will take their place, for "Rolling Thunder," an event on the Mall also in support of the POW/MIA issue.
At these events, supporters will wave thousands of black and white flags, each printed with a silhouette of a man next to a watchtower and a barbed wire fence and emblazoned with the words: "You are not forgotten."
Today, the POW/MIA flag is seemingly everywhere: on government buildings, at national cemeteries, at the post office. By law, the flag must also be flown on six national holidays above the country's most important buildings, including the White House, the Capitol, and every major military installation. It even flies at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where the U.S. has held more than 775 suspected terrorists since 9/11.
The POW/MIA flag flies in Guantanamo Bay. (Paul Shinkman/USN&WR)
Though the flag is only required to be flown on six days, many government buildings, such as post offices, choose to fly it all year. It is the only flag besides the American flag allowed to fly over the White House.
How did an unofficial flag honoring less than 2,000 Americans become an official national symbol that many Americans now see every day?
In large part, the ubiquity of the flag can be attributed to the sustained effort of a tiny, Washington-based organization: the National League of POW/MIA Families.
"It's very gratifying to see that this flag is one of most visible flags in the whole world," league chairman Ann Mills Griffiths tells U.S. News.
After a POW wife developed the flag in the early 1970s, the league successfully pushed for support from veterans and their families, and then for years for recognition on the Hill. In 1989, Congress passed legislation to install the POW/MIA on the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, and in 1990 it passed a law recognizing the flag as an official national symbol. It also named the third Friday of September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Former Republican congressman from New York John LeBoutillier, who was a member of Special House POW/MIA Task Force in the early 1980s and has been active on the issue ever since, says the flag was intended to be "a companion piece to the Stars and Stripes."
"This was intended at the time to symbolize the importance of the POW issue. That we've got this flag everywhere. And that we care about getting these men home more than any other issue," says LeBoutillier.
It remains a companion piece today—nearly 40 years after the Vietnam war ended—flying directly below or beside the American flag on many government buildings. On six national observances, it remains second only to the Stars and Stripes before any other flag. (The order, generally, is: U.S. flag, then POW/MIA flag, state flags, U.S. territory flags, and military flags). But not everybody thinks the symbol of a small advocacy group should fly alongside the American flag atop the White House.
"It's a mark of national insanity," says American cultural historian and Rutgers University professor H. Bruce Franklin, who has written critically about the POW/MIA movement. "There weren't any POWs left in Vietnam after Operation Homecoming. So how did this happen? ... Because people manufactured the POW issue. Ross Perot and [Richard] Nixon sat down in their office and manufactured the issue," he says.
Franklin isn't alone, though the opposition to the MIA/POW flag is far less vocal than its support. At the heart of the disagreement is a question: Are there any former service members still alive in Vietnam?
Both Perot and Nixon maintained for a time that prisoners remained in Southeast Asia, though Nixon later said that wasn't true. Today, the U.S. government says no service members remain alive there, relying on hearings from a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1993 that found that "there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."