HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Back in the early 1950s, when I was a kid, we called it "Decoration Day." Early in the morning of May 30, the Boy Scouts placed little American flags on the graves of those who had served in wars past. Veterans -- among them our mailman, who fought in World War I -- came door to door, selling red poppies. There was a parade down Main Street, led by a color guard and the high school band. At the town baseball field, speeches were made, prayers were said and we were all reminded of the sacrifices made by those who had gone into harm's way on our behalf. It was a solemn, sacred affair, for which I admit to no small amount of nostalgia.
In the aftermath of Vietnam -- the war we wanted to forget -- much of that changed. In 1971, Congress passed the National Holiday Act, turning Memorial Day into just one more three-day weekend. After that, the spirit of the day dissipated and the holiday became little more than an opportunity for half-price sales at the local mall.
Yet, here in Hawaii, Memorial Day still seems to have a special meaning. Some say that's because the Aloha state boasts more than 100,000 military personnel and their dependents among 1.3 million residents. Others claim it is because of what happened here on Dec. 7, 1941 -- when 2,388 Americans perished in a surprise attack perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Navy. I'm convinced it's some of both. This place is full of people who believe in a quaint notion: Never forget.
The designation "MIA" -- missing in action -- can be devastating for the family of any member of the U.S. Armed Forces. It can mean a lifetime of uncertainty about what happened to a loved one. But because of the dedicated sleuths here at JPAC, thousands of American families now know what happened to their missing soldier, sailor, airman, Guardsman or Marine.
Begun in 1973 as an effort to account for thousands of MIAs and POWs from Vietnam, JPAC is the smallest Joint Command in the U.S. military -- only 445 members -- yet it boasts the world's largest skeletal forensic laboratory. The scientists, anthropologists, historians and active duty personnel here are devoted to just one purpose: finding and bringing home missing American servicemen.
The task of finding the fallen can be daunting, and sometimes downright deadly. JPAC Investigation and Recovery Teams traverse trackless deserts, negotiate snake-infested jungles, plumb watery depths and scale remote mountain ranges -- all to find a single MIA. Once on site, a team may spend weeks of painstaking detective work, sifting soil -- literally leaving no stone unturned -- hoping to find the remains of Americans who fought and died on that very ground.
When human remains are found, they are returned to the laboratory here in Hawaii, where scientists use cutting-edge forensic technology to positively identify each missing American. For many families of the fallen, questions they've been asking for years are finally answered. And though the tools they use at JPAC are astonishingly sophisticated, the goal of everyone here is remarkably simple: to leave no one behind.
Because the people who work at JPAC are world-renowned experts at forensic identification, they are often called upon to assist in everything from criminal cases to natural disasters to horrific mass casualty calamities. After the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, JPAC personnel were sent to Ground Zero in New York City, to the Pentagon in Washington and to Somerset, Pa. When an Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 200,000 people on Dec. 26, 2004, JPAC personnel were dispatched to aid in identifying the dead. Yet, despite their involvement in these high-profile events, everyone here insists that their greatest satisfaction is in finding and returning missing American servicemen.
With young Americans once again fighting a brutal enemy far from home, it's significant that no other country has anything like JPAC. And no nation devotes more time, treasure and talent to bringing their fallen home as does the United States. Thanks to the men and women of JPAC, every member of our Armed Forces serving in harm's way can be certain that they will never be forgotten. The commitment here -- to re-unite families with those who have fallen, to no more unknown soldiers, to leave no one behind -- is uniquely American. It's a comforting thought on Memorial Day.