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Still searching

The POW/MIA issue is most commonly tied to the Vietnam War, but it’s also a part of ongoing conflicts. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been held in Afghanistan since June 2009 as a prisoner of the Haqqani terrorist network, an insurgent group with ties to the Taliban. With the U.S. still negotiating for his release, Sgt. Bergdahl’s imprisonment serves as a stark reminder of the costs of war.

“These kids volunteer to go to war, and we’re not supposed to abandon them. We left people behind in World War II, in Korea, in Vietnam, and now we’ve left one behind in Afghanistan,” said Vietnam veteran Ted Shpak, president of the Rolling Thunder D.C.’s board of directors.

Nearly 1,670 men and women who fought in Vietnam are still listed as missing. An additional 7,957 Korean War veterans remain unaccounted for, as are a staggering 73,681 veterans of World War II.

Thanks in large part to the work of Rolling Thunder, the National League of POW/MIA Families and other organizations, federal efforts to identify and recover the remains of missing servicemen have intensified over the past 20 years.

Just this year, the Defense Department announced the identification of 25 military personnel, ranging from an airman who went missing during World War II to Staff Sgt. Ahmed K. Altaie, the final missing soldier and casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom to be recovered and identified.

Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars were also identified this year.

Family members and friends of the missing often assume the worst, but any trace of doubt — or spark of hope — can lead to many sleepless nights, said Ann Mills Griffith, chairman of the board at the League of POW/MIA Families.

“It’s been the core motivation since our league was formed, the uncertainty,” she said. “Uncertainty is always the worst thing to deal with. It’s the strongest motivation to get clarity, to get closure. What it really means is, you need to find answers.”

The public outcry to retrieve living POWs such as Sgt. Bergdahl, Ms. Mills Griffith said, usually remains strong as long as there is proof they’re alive. But the desire to recover veterans of World War II or Korea, most of whom are almost certainly dead, wanes with time, she said.

“There’s just not that sense of urgency to rescue. Once you find out that the little kid who fell down the well is dead, the nation’s attention starts to turn away,” she said.

A chance to give back

While Rolling Thunder’s prime focus has been and continues to be the missing or known POWs, its members also relish the chance to interact and learn from veterans who made it home.

“It’s given me an opportunity to meet a lot of Vietnam veterans. You meet vets who are homeless, some who aren’t getting the care and support that they should,” said Wendell Wilson Jr., an Army veteran and member of Rolling Thunder Inc.’s Maryland Chapter 1. He and fellow members washed and rinsed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall at 6:30 a.m. on May 13, one of the ways participants seek to honor America’s heroes.

“You need to care about soldiers to be in Rolling Thunder,” Mr. Wilson said, as colleagues scrubbed the wall behind him. “You listen to conversations between husbands and wives, or you meet guys who have gotten ‘Dear John’ letters. … When you’re in Rolling Thunder, you have the opportunity to give back to them, just a little bit.”

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