By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – “Nobody appreciates our military more than I and the other families who have lost loved ones. Carry on and know that we’re behind you.”
Those words, from Ann Mills-Griffiths, came after the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War and POW/MIA National Recognition Day Luncheon Sept. 15 at the Lee Club.
The expression from the event’s guest speaker, however, could easily serve as a summation of her decades-long efforts to bring U.S. service members home or the message of resolve and hope she conveyed to community members who gathered for the occasion. The current CEO and chairman of the board of directors, National League of POW/MIA Families, said her commitment is based on the simple principles of reciprocity.
“If we’re going to send people into combat, into harm’s way in various areas, then it’s our obligation to stand behind them and do our best to bring them home,” she said.
The annual event, a collaboration between the installation and Association of the U.S. Army, attracted roughly 200 uniformed personnel, veterans, Department of Defense-affiliated civilians and others to include several Gold Star family members of those who were lost while on active duty.
Mills-Griffiths, sister of Navy Cmdr. James B. Mills, a Naval Reserve officer and crew member of a plane shot down over North Vietnam during the war, has had a long relationship with the National League of Families. She was executive director and CEO of the non-profit for 30 years, partially relinquishing her duties in 2011.
Mills-Griffiths also was a founding member of the POW/MIA Interagency Group, a government component responsible for policy development and furthering relations with countries in Southeast Asia.
In her work with the NLF, she has developed relationships with families, discussed issues with high-level government officials and participated in negotiations with leaders of foreign governments in continuing efforts to account for U.S. service members.
During her speech, Mills-Griffiths talked about the challenges of navigating through governmental bureaucracy, dealing with the shifting landscape of foreign diplomacy and reassuring the families of more than 1,600 military members still missing from the war. Concerning the latter, she said not knowing the whereabouts of service members is a lingering dilemma.
“Having someone missing is a motivational factor in which I’m not in love,” she said. “It’s not the same as knowing someone died doing what they believed in defending our nation and our values.”
The plight of the families of those missing was exacerbated by reports of U.S. prisoner sightings during and after the war, said Mills-Griffiths.
“That’s harder than any kind of missing-in-action status sheet you can imagine,” she said.
Also during her speech, Mills-Griffiths made special mention of the mortuary affairs (military occupational specialty 92M) Soldiers assigned to the Joint Casualty Resolution Center and the Army Central Identification Laboratory, who worked on the first operation she helped negotiate in Vietnam more than 30 years ago.
“When I got the invitation to come here, I said I want to come and hear about the 92 Mikes,” she said.
Mills-Griffiths was given a tour of the mortuary affairs training facilities and she spoke to several 92M Soldiers after her speech.
“It was a very educational and rewarding experience for me,” said Mills-Griffiths.
She also said mortuary affairs Soldiers should be afforded a greater role in recovery operations.
While the event focused on POW/MIA issues, it also commemorated the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It will be observed until 2025, the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. Retired Army Lt. Col. John Woyonski, vice commander of American Legion Post 284, was one of several Legionaires present for the event. The Vietnam veteran said his presence is somewhat of an obligation to those who served and those who did not make it back.
“It’s a continued remembrance of comrades and those who are still missing and have not been returned to the U.S.,” he said.
He continued, “Veterans’ organizations are keen on that because all are brothers, and they deserve to come back to be repatriated give to their families closure for their losses.”
Jim Murphy, a former Army pathfinder who served in Vietnam from 1969-1970, said he was a first-timer to such an event but nonetheless felt a measure of pride in his service.
“I’m very happy about it (being present),” he said, “because it makes it seem like it’s was OK for me to serve because when I came home, it was hard to be proud of what we did because of the atmosphere.
“People were booing us and whatnot, and over the years, I haven’t talked about Vietnam at all – not even to my wife and family. They know I’ve been there and they know I served. It was almost like I was ashamed. Events like this allow me to get the pride in the country and the pride in our service.”
Prior to Mills-Griffiths speech, a Missing Man Table and Honors Ceremony was performed by the installation’s joint honor guard. The ceremony conveys the families’ and nation’s loss of military members and Civilians during war.
POW/MIA Day was first observed in 1979 to raise awareness for those missing and unaccounted for during the Vietnam War. It later encompassed all U.S. military members and civilians unaccounted for during war.