Some 25 million veterans live in the United States. Only maybe 2,000 of those live in Brown County.
And only the smallest of a fraction of those attended the Brown County Veterans Day service Sunday at Riverside Park.
“The number doesn’t matter,” Keith “Gary” Flanagan told those gathered under a pavilion at the park. “Whether its five or 5,000, we’re here for the same reason, to honor our veterans. If you’re here, and you’re a veteran, we’re here to honor you.”
The number present may have been small, but the veterans or family members there represented each major conflict including and since World War II — Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and the War on Terror.
Brown County Service Officer Billy Murphey introduced Flanagan, reading most of a very long biographical sketch. At the time of his retirement in July, Flanagan, was the resident expert for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the longest serving member of the U.S. team in Hanoi.
But Flanagan shared that the early intentions of his long career were not as noble as they might have seemed from the reading of his resume.
In November of 1972, he said, his draft number was 18. Friends, cousins and his brother (who had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam) counseled he should choose a branch of service and join before he was drafted and the branch was chosen for him. That, at least, is the short story of how Flanagan came to join the Air Force.
His timing in joining, he said, with the pullout of American forces to come in early 1973, made him among “the last of the guys trained to fight the War in Vietnam.” Flanagan explained that for years, post conflict, relations were extremely strained, and there was almost no way to get any information about the 2,500 Americans not accounted for at the war’s end, who had not returned home. By 1975, the few more than 5,000 Prisoners of War were released back to the United States.
Through what Flanagan termed as a tremendous effort of the JPAC, the number of 2,000 was whittled to 195, to 141, to — now — 31 people (29 men and two women) who served in Vietnam, who have not been found or for whom there is no accounting as to what became of them.
“We’ve been asked by people all over the world, every where I go, by Vietnamese, by Americans, why we do it. Why we continue to search,” Flanagan said.
“The short answer is, because they deserve it. The real answer is that we as Americans continue to look for our own because we can and because it’s the right thing to do.”
Flanagan said the success of the recovery of those MIA in Vietnam, has allowed for JPAC to expand so that there are five recovery teams for World War II and each conflict since. Some 81,000 WWII service men are missing, Flanagan said, and there’s a potential to recover 31,000. Of the first Gulf War, one Navy pilot is still missing.
“It’s a pyramid. Our resources are such, that of the more recent combat situations, we are more likely to have full or close to full recovery,” Flanagan said.