The third Friday of September is National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Many Missourians pause that day to pay tribute and respect to those men and women who have been designated Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. My father was a Marine aviator reported lost over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in 1966.
My dad was a career Marine, the spit-and-polish kind they use as recruiters. I was a young girl and my family was living in Springfield, Missouri when Gunnery Sergeant Galen Humphrey put in for an overseas assignment. It was the 1960′s and the war in Vietnam occupied the United States military, the same way Iraq and Afghanistan have for the past decade.
My mom had a routine for dad’s occasional deployments: she would move her four young children to St. Joseph, Missouri to be closer to my dad’s family. Their support made life easier for us. And that’s where we were living when the military told us that my father’s plane, a re-fueling jet, was missing.
For years, I thought my father was coming home from Vietnam. It was a family tenet that he was. But, he never did. We lived in hope, then in resignation. The federal government was generally unresponsive, but the people of St. Joseph were wonderful. Sometime during high school I decided that he wasn’t coming home. My mother never remarried.
Years later I had the chance to review the file on my father’s status. It was a thick file, but inside was a single bare page of known facts sandwiched between hundreds of letters my grandmother had written to the Marines, the Pentagon, the White House and practically every elected official from Missouri, asking for any information they had, any help they might offer. My Grandmother was like that, never giving up on things. I try to be like that, too.
Life after my father was lost to us taught me many lessons that guide me to this day. Faith is stronger than fear. Knowing is better than not. Family is everything.
A few years ago, we discovered that my dad wasn’t supposed to be on that fateful mission. Another navigator left a letter at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall explaining how it all came to be. The letter told the story of how my father had asked to take the other man’s place. My dad had ordered a special gift for one of us kids and he wanted to pick it up on the layover.
Thanks to someone who visited the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Collection, I have a copy of that letter. My heart goes out to that other soldier. In closing, he wrote this about my father and the other five men serving on that flight, “To these six fine Leathernecks, my friends that I flew with, we all salute you! And especially to you, Galen, who fate had take my place on that flight that day. I know you are there with other Marines, guarding the streets of heaven. They gave their lives for their country. May they rest in peace.”