Jovial joking in the warm sun turned quickly to somber remembrance as a group of Carroll County's Vietnam veterans raised the POW/MIA flag at Westminster's post office Friday.
The black flag with its solemn message of hope -- "You are not forgotten" -- now flies as a daily reminder of those left behind after America's conflicts abroad.
"The greeting between Vietnam veterans when they meet is, 'Welcome Home,' " said Vietnam veteran Rick Will at the ceremony. "But it is an uneasy greeting, because we can never truly be home until all our brothers and sisters are back. A piece of each of us has been left in Vietnam."
Richard Jozwiak, Westminster's postmaster, said he agreed to fly the flag after Mr. Will wrote to say recent Senate hearings confirmed that soldiers from as far back as World War II still are unaccounted for.
More than 25,000 soldiers from World War II, more than 8,000 from the Korean War and 2,262 from Vietnam are still prisoners of war or missing in action, Mr. Will said.
"I wrote back and said it would be an honor for us to fly the flag every day," Mr. Jozwiak said. "This brings attention to the people in Westminster that there are POWs and MIAs still left behind."
Westminster's is the second post office in Maryland to fly the POW/MIA flag every day. The main office on Fayette Street in Baltimore also flies it, Mr. Jozwiak said.
In memory of all veterans, the post office flags will be flown at half mast until noon on Monday, Memorial Day, Mr. Jozwiak said.
Mr. Will, secretary of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, said he also called Friday's press conference to ask people to support his trip to Vietnam. He and 10 other veterans nationwide will be "in country" for about three weeks in July to investigate reports of American prisoners of war seen alive in Vietnam. The trip, originally scheduled to leave June 15, has been postponed because Mr. Will is undergoing a shoulder operation this weekend.
"We have intelligence people in Vietnam that have information we are going to follow up on," he said. "Unless I'm the team leader, I won't know for sure where we are going until we get there, for security reasons."
Mr. Will said he believes the Vietnamese eventually will release any remaining American prisoners on their own. However, it is now financially advantageous for the Vietnamese to continue holding them, he said.
"They are waiting for us to give them the $4.5 billion they were promised in the Paris Peace Accord," he said. "They denied they had French prisoners for 17 years until they finally released them."
The group expects more resistance from the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Will said.
"There are still some people in the inner circle of our government who don't want them [the veterans] to return," he said. "They have been denying their presence for so long."
Mr. Will said he still needs about $2,000 toward the $4,500 cost of the trip.
Donations, marked "For POWs," should be addressed to: Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 650, P.O. Box 1725, Westminster, Md. 21157. Any money left over will be used by the chapter for scholarships or veterans assistance.