These special chairs symbolize missing servicemen and those held prisoner

They stand like ghosts, reminders of men and women who suffered at the hands of the enemy and others whose fate remains a mystery.

Across the nation, America’s former prisoners of war and missing service members are honored in a unique way: empty chairs that forever shall remain unfilled. Today, 86,617 Americans are missing in conflicts dating back to World War I.

In Delaware, 31 POW/MIA chairs have been dedicated since October 2014, with the 32nd planned for Nov. 10 at the St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 2 in New Castle, said Rosely Robinson, who has coordinated 21 of the POW/MIA Chair of Honor Program dedications in The First State.

The POW/MIA chair program is sponsored by the nationwide nonprofit Rolling Thunder. It began as an effort to educate the public about servicemen, missing and dead, who they feel were abandoned after the Vietnam War. Since 1988, Rolling Thunder members from across the country have converged on Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about those servicemen and to demand the government provide a full accounting.

Robinson is director of A Hero’s Welcome Delaware, part of a nationwide veterans recognition group that works with Rolling Thunder.

A Hero’s Welcome was started 10 years ago by then 19-year-old Pottstown, Pa., native Sharon Hyland after watching her hometown Independence Day parade. She felt the Vietnam veterans seemed different, and judged they still were affected by the hostility they encountered when returning from what had become an unpopular war.

Soon afterward, Hyland quit her job and used her savings to begin ensuring all service members are honored for what they do for the nation. She started by greeting Marines returning from deployment with tiny American flags.

Hyland soon continued a family tradition and joined the Marines herself. She’s now stationed at the Pentagon and was recently promoted to the rank of major.

Her mother, Maria, carries on her work.

“It’s hard to get people to understand the sacrifices our military and their families make,” Maria Hyland said. “What we’re doing is helping bring the knowledge of that sacrifice to everyday people. We want to honor the military and our veterans, and we’ve gotten so much positive feedback, even from people who don’t have any connections with the military.”

Robinson and A Hero’s Welcome Delaware is a big part of that, Hyland said.

“Our mission is ensuring all military members get a proper welcome home,” Robinson said. “And that includes recognizing those who didn’t come home.”

Through her volunteer work, Robinson met Patrick J. Hughes, of Rolling Thunder.

Hughes said he was one of the many Vietnam veterans who, once they were discharged from the military, rarely talked about their service because of the negative public attitude.

“I didn’t admit I was a Marine or a veteran or anything,” he said. But that changed when someone at his office made disparaging remarks about those who had fought in Vietnam. Without going into detail, Hughes said his reaction to the insults almost got him fired.

Then a chance encounter with a woman whose naval pilot husband had never returned from Vietnam raised his awareness of the missing.

“That got me into doing things for veterans and eventually hooking up with Rolling Thunder,” he said.

The POW/MIA chair project was the brainchild of Massachusetts veteran and Rolling Thunder member Joe D’Entremont.

“Joe is a real NASCAR fan and he was at a track in Bristol, Tenn., when he saw a single black chair with the prisoner of war logo and a plaque,” Hughes said. “He was told it was set aside for the return of a POW and to bring attention to the fact there are still family members out there who don’t get folded flags or ceremonies for missing family members.

“They don’t get any of that until the serviceman is officially brought home,” he said. “Joe brought this up and Rolling Thunder decided it was part of our mission statement and that we should do it.”

With D’Entremont’s encouragement, Rolling Thunder eventually got similar chairs installed in every sports venue in Massachusetts and other sites, including the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” docked in Boston harbor. They also persuaded some of their congressional representatives to sponsor a POW/MIA chair in the Capitol.

Chairs and change

Although A Hero’s Welcome already had overseen the installation of seven POW/MIA chairs in Delaware -- the first was in July 2014 at Wilmington’s Frawley Stadium -- Robinson volunteered help work the program throughout the First State.

She is one of several people in the state who have worked to make sure all of Delaware’s POWs and MIAs are properly recognized.

Originally from Brazil, Robinson came to the United States years ago and, like many naturalized citizens, has developed an intense devotion to her adopted country.

“I started getting really involved because this is what I wanted to do,” she said.

Organizations wishing to place an official POW/MIA chair must follow guidelines set by Rolling Thunder, Robinson said. For example, each chair must be cordoned off so that no one ever sits in it, she said, but there is a lot of leeway in the actual display.

Stadium chairs are the most popular choice outdoors and can be ordered through Hussey Seating of North Berwick, Maine. Designed to be bolted to a permanent support, they come with the POW/MIA logo and are displayed with the seat open. A plaque explaining the chair must be mounted nearby, she said.

There’s also a portable folding chair suitable for indoor use when the display may have to be moved, Robinson said. The explanatory information is on the chair cushion.

The chairs usually are flanked by the American flag and the POW/MIA flag.

The cost is $400 for the stadium version and $100 for the folding chair, but can be waived, Robinson said.

“If you have a ceremony and the press and the media come out to cover it, the chair is free,” she said. The group only has to pay for shipping.

Sponsors sometimes depart from the standard display, Robinson said. The chair in the U.S. Capitol’s Visitor Center is an original seat ordered in 1857 for use in the House of Representatives.

At the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford, a white Adirondack chair emblazoned with the POW/MIA logo sits outside the building entrance, and a Victorian-style chair with a red velvet-covered back, seat and armrests occupies a corner of the Nur Shrine in New Castle.

A leather-covered POW/MIA chair dedicated in September 2015 is outside the governor’s office in Legislative Hall, and an entire pew in the St. Mary Magdalen Church, Philadelphia, is reserved for POW/MIAs.

Regardless of construction or looks, all have the same purpose, she said, and “these chairs signify those who are missing and be a symbol they must never be forgotten.”

As far as placement, “we want it to be in a public place and in a place of honor,” Robinson said. “You have to be vigilant and watch so no one sits in it.”

That has happened, Robinson admits, but most of the time it involves youngsters who don’t understand the significance.

And that is something she wants to change, Robinson said.

“It seems as if schools are not teaching kids about the Korean or Vietnam wars and what’s happening today,” she said. “I’d like to have a chair of honor in every school in Delaware.

“We want them in a place where everyone can see them because we want people to learn about these men and what they did for their country.”

NOTE: This story has been edited to clarify that more than one group has been involved in the dedication of the POW/MIA chairs in Delaware.