NEWPORT, Maine — Maine has a long history of sending soldiers to battle dating back to the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. As everyone knows, those soldiers return either as combat veterans or combat victims.
But there are two more categories — soldiers missing in action and prisoners of war — that may well be the hardest of all to endure for families awaiting the return of their loved ones. They’re categories in which 13 Mainers from all branches of the military have found themselves.
To commemorate their sacrifices and commiserate their unknown status — and to memorialize National POW/MIA Day on Friday — cadets in Nokomis Regional High School’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, along with some local veterans, spent seven hours in a silent vigil. With U.S. and POW/MIA flags flying at half staff above them, the uniformed cadets stood as still as statues while the Nokomis student body went about their normal routines around them.
Friday marked the 17th consecutive year this exercise has played out at Nokomis during the national holiday. According to Army National Guard 1st Sgt. John McKim (Ret.), who helps run the school’s JROTC program, Nokomis is the only high school on the East Coast that observes POW/MIA Day in this manner.
“It’s a nice way to bring attention to a serious issue,” said Army-National Guard Staff Sgt. Tim Vashon of Newport, an Iraq War veteran who stood with the student cadets Friday. “Especially for school-aged kids to realize the sacrifices people made before them, and even before me. I consider this an honor and an obligation.”
Frank Harding, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 11191 of Newport, said his organization, along with American Legion Post 105, also of Newport, have maintained involvement in the solemn day since its inception.
“It’s a way to help people think outside of their own personal box,” said Harding. “There are MIAs and POWs out there who are still suffering. It’s important to recognize those people and never forget that they are still sacrificing.”
There are 81 Nokomis students involved in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, according to McKim. The program consists of a for-credit class that explores ethics, morality and fitness issues, but nothing is required of the participants after their high school graduation. Despite that, some of them still opt to join the military, such as Caitlin Parent, a sophomore from Plymouth, who intends to join the Army.
“During middle school, I used to be kind of a bad seed,” said Parent. “Now I’m getting pretty much straight A’s. This program has taught me discipline and to shape up.”
Laura Craig, a senior from Etna, said she intends to attend four years of college before joining the Air Force. She hopes to complete basic training the summer after her freshman year. If she remains with the ROTC program through college, she will enlist as a commissioned officer.
“This gives me a chance to honor the ones who are not here,” said Craig after a half-hour shift posted near a flagpole in front of the school.
Some of the JROTC cadets said they face some ridicule from other students — such as being called the “Pickle Brigade” when they wear their green uniforms to school one day a week — but none of that matters.
“We don’t care,” said Parent. “We do this with pride.”