Three formations of ROTC cadets and midshipmen stood silently at attention in front of Old Main before twin empty flagpoles.
As the national anthem started, sung by the Wild Blue Yonders vocal group, the Old Glory and the black POW/MIA banner were hoisted to the top, then ceremoniously lowered to half staff. Crisp salutes snapped across the formations.
And a reverent tribute began.
In honor of those whose fate remains unknown, Friday was declared National POW/MIA Recognition Day with a service on the Old Main lawn by all branches of the Penn State ROTC.
ROTC students, their active duty faculty and local residents gathered in remembrance for those who have paid a price for defending their country. Together, they honored military personnel who have been captured or have gone missing in action.
The joint presentation was organized by Air Force ROTC Cadet Capt. Paul Black, who acted as master of ceremonies for the somber occasion.
“Today we acknowledge that we owe a profound debt of gratitude to all those who have given themselves to protect our union and our way of life,” read a presidential proclamation declaring the day of recognition. “We honor them by working to uphold this sacred trust.”
According to the proclamation, the black banner was flown over the White House, U.S. Capitol, as well as various state buildings, memorials and national locations across the country.
“We raise this flag as a solemn reminder of our obligation to always remember the sacrifices made to defend our nation,” the proclamation said.
A missing man table, a longtime symbol of service people gone missing, was presented on the steps of Old Main. For the ceremony, each element of the table was explained for its significance:
• A small table representing the frailty of a single man.
• Five empty chairs representing each branch of the military and those who weren’t able to attend.
• A white tablecloth representing the pure motives of answering the call of duty.
• A single red rose in a vase representing the life of each missing individual and the family and friends who wait for answers.
• A ribbon around the vase symbolizing the country’s determination to account for the missing.
• A slice of lemon representing the bitter fate of those who were captured.
• A pinch of salt symbolizing the tears endured by those missing and their families.
• And finally, an inverted glass symbolizing those who aren’t able to toast with their comrades that day.
A guard came forward, and in a show of training and ceremony, twirled a rifle in a mock inspection, preparing to stand guard.
The table will be guarded until 6 p.m. Saturday, with guards switching every hour. Black said all the guards are cadets, and all volunteered for the service.
“We consider this a somber vigil,” he said. “It’s in remembrance, not celebratory, so we have someone out here to guard (the table).”
Black said that POWs and MIAs are never considered to be gone, no matter the length of time. Part of the importance of the event is to bring recognition and encourage the continued search.
“We don’t look at the year and think, oh, he’s gone,” he said. “There are MIAs from as far back as World War I, and they’re not considered lost until their remains come back.”
American Legion Post 245 Commander Richard Seifert, who said he has been attending these events for three years, said the service is a great way to show support for the veterans who served.
He added that when he returned from Army service in Vietnam, the public was not welcoming. “It’s great to see the support now for the troops is really good.”