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29th Annual Lansing Watchfire

An enormous fire was lit Friday on Myers Point to symbolically provide a beacon for US war veterans, Missing In Action, to find their way home.  The watch fire is a tradition that many communities follow across the United States on POW/MIA Recognition Day.  This was the 29th year the watch fire has been lit by Vietnam Veterans of America Chapters 337 and 704 in the Lansing Town Park.  Organizer Harvey Baker says that each year more people have come to pay their respects.

"It's about still honoring the guys who are missing in action," Baker says.  "This is a symbolic fire to light the way for them to come home. That's what it's about.  To call attention to the 88,000 who are missing in action.  88,000 -- it's a huge number.  So little has been done, and yet, because of ceremonies like this bodies are being recovered all the time now.  They're still being dug up in Tarawa and Korea and so on, and being repatriated.  We would like to thank the Town of Lansing for allowing us to use the park for the last 28 years.  "Being out on this point has let the bright light from our fire shine for the many miles around, and, hopefully, might be seen by those missing in action."

Click here for pictures of the 29th Annual MIA/POW Watch Fire at Myers Park
The ceremony preceding the fire each year is short, but extremely moving.  Cornell ROTC Brigade units line the side of the area, with veterans of various wars holding flags including the black MIA/POW flag next to the podium.  With active service members who are able to make it to the event, the past, present, and future of the US armed services are represented.  Lisa Ladieu sang the National Anthem, followed by a prayer by Chaplain Jerry Fulmer, and then this year's featured speaker, Chief Petty Officer Thane Benson addressed the crowd.  Ladieu was recognized this year for the work she does with Chapter 377 of Vietnam Veterans of America, and singing at major events.  After the ceremony Ladieu sang 'God Bless America' as the veterans formed a gauntlet leading to the fire, which had been lit during the ceremony.  Each person, including bystanders, stood in line for their turn throwing a piece of wood onto the fire.

"The watch fire has been a tool of military action throughout the history of warfare," Baker said. "When soldiers were separated during battles they were able to find their way back to their own units because of the fires that were lit at night to gude them back.  There are still over 88,000 Americans listed as Missing In Action from our various wars.  Over 1,500 Americans are still listed missing from the Vietnam War. When we started doing these fires, there were over 2,700 reported as Missing In Action.  Out of that 1,500 men still listed as Missing In Action 104 of them are from New York State."

He singled out two local men from among the missing New Yorkers: 13th Bomb Squadron Captain Robert B. Andrews, who was shot down in 1951, and 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron 366 Captain William Phelps, who was shot down in 1971.

Benson, joined the Navy Reserve in 1994, and was deployed in Afghanistan, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Iraq, and Kandahar, among other places, as well as disaster relief efforts in the United States.  He painted a verbal picture of what it must be like to be a prisoner of war, and the "vague, but devastating" message parents receive when their child is listed as Missing In Action.  he called on the ROTC cadets to learn, remember, and practice the code of conduct, which he read to the assembly.  he said that many returned prisoners of war related that adhering to the Code of Conduct helped them endure their captivity.

"Often when service members leave home to protect our country significant community support is evident.  With high hope and great expectations, off they go.  After the call -- Mrs. Smith, i regret to inform you your child is missing in action -- there is very little community support.  Families endure alone, and that is what makes this event so important. We would all be remiss to forget those missing in action.  Remember."

Of course the main focus every year is the fire itself.  Donated wood is piled on Myers Point until it is larger than a house.  Scattered in the wood pile are American flags that have been dropped off to be honorably disposed of in the fire.

"The people that showed up with wood today... we didn't know who they were and they showed up with wood because they knew about it," Baker said.  "That says a lot about the watch fire.  And the flags... we had thousands of flags that we are disposing of properly.  Thousands!  They came from everywhere.  It's rewarding that people are listening."

Baker, a Lansing native now living in Groton, is a Vietnam War veteran.  He graduated from Lansing High School in 1965, then joined the Marine Corps.  He spent two tours in Vietnam from 1966 to1968 as a scout dog handler with a German shepherd named Rommel.  Baker had the idea for the watch fire and has been one of the prime movers of the event since it began.  He says that it has been a goal to make the 30th one next year the biggest yet.  While some veterans say the 30th may be the last one, Baker says he would like to keep going past 30.

"We plan on making 30 years," he says. "We have not decided that this is the last one next year.  30 years is a goal.  Some of us are getting a little old and it's hard to handle.  Some other guys are saying why stop?"

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