By Donald Wittkowski
R. Bruce Land, who served in the Army in Vietnam, recalled one particularly dangerous nighttime mission in 1971 that forced him to confront his second-biggest fear as a combat soldier.
“Your biggest fear is getting killed in action, of course. But always in the back of my mind was a fear of getting captured,” he said matter-of-factly.
On that night mission in 1971, when Land and his fellow soldiers were assigned to booby-trap a hill, the call came in from headquarters that they were surrounded by the enemy.
Land said he agonized over the thought that he would be taken prisoner. Fortunately, though, he and his comrades somehow evaded the enemy and made it out without anyone being captured.
The 68-year-old Land, of Vineland, who is now a Democratic state Assemblyman representing the 1st Legislative District, stressed that not all of the American soldiers in Vietnam were so lucky. The ones who ended up as prisoners or still remain missing all these years later were honored Friday in Sea Isle City in a solemn ceremony during a national day of remembrance.
“We must never forget the men and women who have been lost in action,” Land said while becoming emotional during his remarks at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony at Sea Isle’s Veterans Memorial Park.
The sparsely attended ceremony included about 20 military veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. The mostly elderly vets proudly wore caps and clothes decorated with their military insignias.
While speaking to the crowd, Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desidero noted that POW/MIA Recognition Day “reminds the nation to bring home each and every warrior.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape, Cumberland, Atlantic, who is a dentist, recalled the horror stories he heard from veterans when he served his medical internship at two VA hospitals.
“It leaves a permanent, indelible mark on each and every one of us,” Van Drew said.
As a nation, “we have a responsibility to do everything possible” to recover the remains of those who went missing in action and bring them back home, Van Drew said.
Another speaker, Norman Marlin, the commander of the Cape May County American Legion, read the war-inspired poem “Come For Me,” which pleads with the nation never to forget the soldiers, sailors and airmen who remain missing or who were captured.
“Please, please, America, come for me,” Marlin said while reciting the poem’s haunting last line.
A moment of silence was observed for U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who died on Aug. 25 at 81. McCain served as a Navy pilot during Vietnam, becoming a national hero for enduring more than five years of torture and deprivation as a prisoner of war after his jet was shot down.
Despite the brutality he suffered at the hands of his captors in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, McCain never lost “his sense of loyalty, integrity and duty,” Marlin said.
Another poignant moment during the ceremony came when the Rev. Don St. George, the chaplain of the Cape May County American Legion, draped the national POW-MIA emblem over an empty chair to symbolize all the Americans who never made it home from war.
John Vollrath, commander of the District 17 VFW in Cape May County, said that about 78,000 American servicemen remain missing from World War II, 8,000 from Korea and close to 1,600 from Vietnam.
National POW/MIA Recognition Day falls on the third Friday in September every year, giving the country a time to reflect and remember. Speakers at Friday’s ceremony in Sea Isle said the message always remains the same for the Americans who were lost in war: “You are not forgotten.”