by Lauren Moses and Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
Friday, September 17 is POW/MIA Remembrance Day, a time when Americans reflect and remember all the brave military service members who have either been prisoners of war or have gone missing in action.
This year, however, POW/MIA Day is especially important with the Afghanistan War debacle still fresh in our minds, a crisis in which thousands of Americans found themselves trapped behind enemy lines and unable to escape the Taliban’s takeover.
Indeed, this POW/MIA Day serves as a sobering reminder of one of America’s core military values: Not leaving your fellow countrymen and allies behind.
As our nation looks to move forward and heal the wounds of the Afghanistan withdrawal, we’re grateful for the arduous sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, who helped ensure a great number of American citizens—our neighbors and friends—returned home safely to their loved ones.
But we must also remember those who never made it home. The heart and the message behind this special, solemn day is for us to collectively say:
You are not forgotten.
Here at First Liberty, we’ll never forget America’s POW/MIA’s who’ve paid the high cost—enduring torture or cruelty by the enemy—in service to our great nation so that we can enjoy living in freedom.
That’s why our continued commitment is to defend America’s service members from attacks on their religious liberty, including the freedom to remember fellow service members and their families by including an element of their faith—be it a Bible, scriptural text or other religious symbols.
Honoring the Sacrifice of Those Who Never Made It Home
POW/MIA Remembrance Day formally became a national observance when the President and U.S. Congress passed a resolution in 1979. Since then, our country observes every third Friday of September to remember those who’ve been captured by the enemy and the ones who never returned from the battlefield.
The Department of Defense reports that 81,671 service members are MIA since WWII and 138,103 service members were POWs, many of whom never made it back to their families. Without their heroic sacrifice, millions would not experience the freedoms and safety we often take for granted.
But one thing that isn’t immediately evident is how faith and religious freedom play a vital role when honoring our POW/MIA’s.
In fact, the first observance of POW/MIA day was held in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., highlighting the importance of faith in the lives of service men and women.
What’s more, there’s a longstanding memorial tradition involving religious elements that pre-dates the official observation of POW/MIA Recognition Day itself: The setting of a remembrance table in countless Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs facilities to honor POW/MIA’s.
These tables are typically decorated with several items, each carrying symbolic meaning to help remember their sacrifice. And because faith has played a critical role throughout America’s military history, it’s common to find a Bible or other religious texts incorporated into POW/MIA remembrance displays.
However, there are some anti-religious activist groups whose agenda is to crush religious freedom and strip away the liberty of military families to honor their loved ones with elements of their faith.
First Liberty is fighting a case in federal court to defend a POW/MIA Remembrance Display at a VA medical facility in Manchester, NH after a supporter of the deceptively named “Military Religious Freedom Foundation” complained and demanded the removal of a WWII veteran’s family Bible from the display.
The Bible on display at the Manchester VA hospital belonged to U.S. Army Air Corps Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Herman “Herk” Streitburger. He began his service at twenty-one (21) years old as a gunner and radio operator aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber during World War II. Weeks after the D-Day invasion, TSgt Streitburger and his crew were on a mission to Vienna, Austria when their bomber came under attack by German Luftwaffe fighters. Their plane was shot down, killing two crewmen. He and eight others were captured by German forces.
Herk was imprisoned in Germany, but managed to escape with two others, hiding in the woods until they were rescued by British troops. He held out hope because of his faith and graciously donated a Bible to be part of the POW/MIA Remembrance Display, a symbol of how scripture helped strengthen him during his captivity.
TSgt Streitburger explained in his own words the value and importance of faith:
“If ever I had fallen behind on my prayers, I made up for it during my captivity and my combat days.”
Herk went on to state that his prayers provided him “great solace.”
On this special and commemorative day, we express our gratitude to Herk and all of America’s POW’s, for the courage and determination they exemplified while enduring terrible hardships. And, of course, we recognize the great debt of gratitude we owe to the brave heroes who never made it back home to their families.
Because they sacrificed so greatly for us, First Liberty will continue to fight for them—and to defend the constitutional right of all service members, as well as their families, to express and live out their faith.