The event was hosted by Missouri Chapter #3 of Rolling Thunder, and keynote speakers included State Rep. 132nd District Don Ruzicka, Colonel Michelle Hovland of the Missouri Army National Guard, and Shannon Wann-Plaster, the daughter of a recovered Vietnam soldier declared missing in 1971.
Monett Mayor Jim Orr opened the ceremony offering words of welcome and remembrance for those in attendance. He then read the poem "Freedom Isn't Free," attributed to Major Kelly Strong, USAF.
Ruzicka then addressed those in attendance, a large portion of them veterans, thanking them for their service to their country. Ruzicka said the people of the nation were deeply indebted to the soldiers who put their lives on the line to preserve America's freedoms.
"Today, I commend the patriotism and generosity of the organization Rolling Thunder," he said. "They work to support veterans, legislation, and have sponsored missions to southeast Asia to bring our POWs and MIAs home."
Col. Michelle Hovland, J2/6 for the Missouri Army National Guard, gave a moving tribute to veterans and those POWs and MIAs left behind in all wars and the disintegration of military benefits that greeted returning American soldiers from Vietnam.
"You veterans are still serving your country proudly," Hovland said. "making sure your country never again forgets their missing veterans."
Hovland went on to note that statistics indicate that an average of 18 American veterans commit suicide daily, and that Missouri ranked #1 in veteran suicides.
"Iraq and Afghan veterans are returning home with post-traumatic stress," Hovland said. "Every vet who is suffering disrupts the life of their family as they struggle for care, struggle for a cure from the traumas of war."
Hovland is a counselor for the Veteran's Center in Fayetteville, Ark.
Wann-Plaster then spoke of the moment she and her mother received the news that her father, CW2 Donald L. Wann, was missing in action after his plane was shot down over South Vietnam on June 1, 1971. She was 10 years old at the time.
"The government gave us a $10,000 check and said 'goodbye'" she said. "My mother and I were on our own."
Wann-Plaster went on to detail how the effects of that moment impacted her life, leading her to alcohol and drug abuse, and then on to Teen Challenge.
"There, I wrote letters of forgiveness to my mom and other people who had hurt me," Wann-Plaster said. "I wrote one to the Pentagon."
In that letter, she begged for details of her father's military service and information on where he might be. The Pentagon responded to her request, and Wann-Plaster eventually received an eight-inch thick file containing her father's information.
As time went on, Wann-Plaster received periodic updates from the military concerning her father's crash site and the excavated remains of the helicopter, boots and flight suits found at the site.
Wann-Plaster said at one point, the man who shot her father's plane down was interviewed by military officials. He gave convincing testimony and was able to lead investigators to a crater where he had dragged the remains of Wann-Plaster's father. On Aug. 18, after receiving DNA confirmation, Wann-Plaster was finally able to take her father home for burial at Fort Gibson National Cemetery in Muskogee, Okla.
Although her personal mission is complete, Wann-Plaster remains an advocate for families of other POW/MIAs and serves as the Oklahoma Chairperson for the National League of POW/MIA Families.
The names of 38 Vietnam POW/MIA soldiers were read and the 209 Korean POW/MIA that remain unaccounted for were acknowledged prior to the balloon launch honoring those individuals.
Rolling Thunder is a non-profit organization formed in 1987 and dedicated to raising POW/MIA awareness throughout the nation with their annual "Ride to the Wall," a motorcycle trip to the Vietnam Veteran's Wall in Washington D.C. Rolling Thunder has 88 chapters throughout the United States. Their motto is "We will not forget."
More information on Rolling Thunder may be found at www.rollingthunder1.com.