Originally Published: September 22, 2015 6:04 a.m.
PRESCOTT - On National POW/MIA Recognition Day, more than 100 local veterans, students, government officials and veteran supporters were able to shake the hands of some former prisoners of war who endured torture, loneliness and fear for the sake of America's freedom.
The Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System organized a ceremony in their Flag Pole circle to honor and remember all prisoners of war and those whose fate remains unknown.
Voices of youths appreciative of their elders who paved their path of freedom mixed with the voice of one who survived 2,725 days of captivity in a North Vietnamese prison camp.
"Every day we faced a battle for dignity, sanity and life," said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Ronald Byrne Jr., a pilot who during his military career between 1952 and 1974 flew 75 missions in Korea and 27 missions in Vietnam before he was forced to parachute into enemy territory.
For Byrne, now 86, those years will never be forgotten. Byrne can still recite the names of his cellmates, men who forged lifelong friendships because only they know what each other was forced to do simply to survive. For seven years, Byrne and his fellow prisoners woke to wonder if this day would be the one they go home, or the one they die.
Much of the torture Byrne and his fellow prisoners was aimed at forcing them to participate in North Vietnamese propaganda, including praise for the treatment by their captors.
Some of his memories of North Vietnamese tactics to control the prisoners elicited grimaces from the audience; he recalled a two-mile march prodded by North Vietnamese soldiers with bayonets and being forced to spend hours kneeling on a concrete floor, shackled in leg irons.
Many of these men risked physical peril rather than surrender their valor, their love of one another and their nation, he said. All are American heroes, said Byrne heroes, offering personal praise for U.S. Sen. John McCain, who was also a "guest" at one of the Hanoi "hotels."
Tri-City College Prep High School senior Grace Padilla, one of two student speakers, said it is because of the sacrifice of America's veterans over the years that she and her friends are able to wake up and see their mothers' smiling faces, to go dine at a favorite restaurant with friends, to be able to dream big dreams and see them come true.
"I'm so blessed to have my life, to live in a country that is trying to make it right," Padilla said.
Then she offered a personal thank you - she thanked her father, a U.S. Navy veteran who was deployed to Kuwait, for "coming home safely."
As part of the ceremony, the Prescott High School show choir sang not only the national anthem but also "America the Beautiful" as well as a patriot's salute to all branches of the military - performing each one's theme song.
In closing, Byrne paid a salute to all those who today honor and stand with this community's veterans. And received a standing ovation.
"Being here now, in this company, is the best reward I could have. I thank you all," Byrne said.
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