DIXON – A small group people gathered Saturday night at the Veteran’s Memorial Park for the lighting of a Christmas tree, a seemingly common activity during the holiday season.
This tree’s bright lights are more than festive bulbs, though: They represent Illinois military veterans still listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.
“These are people,” said Rich Sanders of Dixon, VietNow national president. “I’m sure they’d like to be home for Christmas, and their family would like to have them.”
Rock River Valley VietNow has held the vigil for 24 years; it will continue to do so until each soldier returns home, organizers say.
The dozens of red bulbs represent soldiers missing in action, and green bulbs represent those who have returned home. There’s a white bulb for one lost in World War II, a blue bulb for one in the Korean War, and two orange bulbs for two soldiers missing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The tree will remain lighted throughout the holidays.
The vigil began at noon, and every 15 minutes a member of the group read the name of an Illinois veteran still listed as a POW or MIA.
Near the tree sat a small table with an empty table setting symbolizing the soldiers who have not returned from war.
There are 944 men listed as prisoners of war as of 1954, and more than 1,600 men listed as a prisoner of war or missing in action from the Vietnam War. The government has listed them as “missing, presumed dead,” said Bill Kessling, national POW/MIA chairman.
“Do we believe these men are alive? Probably not,” he said. “Without proof, we must presume they are still alive.”
Darlene Bernhardt, 61, of Franklin Grove, has been a member of VietNow for years. Her husband, Terry, is a Navy veteran and her daughter, Tracey Churchwell, is an Army major.
Bernhardt said the vigil makes her grateful her daughter came home from Iraq safe and sound.
“You just wish they could be home with their family,” she said of the missing men represented on the tree.
At the end of the vigil, the crowd grew silent as “I”Il be Home for Christmas” was played.
The song, especially the line, “if only in my dreams,” is a further symbol of the hope soldiers and their families have of their safe return from war, Sanders said.