STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Drive by an American Legion post, and you may see a black flag, which says POW/MIA. You might see that flag on a lawn or on the back of a motorcycle.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The flag was designed in the 1970s to keep attention on troops who were missing from the Vietnam War. And it remains common, even though recent American conflicts have seen virtually no POWs unaccounted for.
INSKEEP: Alaska Public Media's Zachariah Hughes looks at what the flag symbolizes to a younger generation of veterans.
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ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: It's 26 degrees as members of the Service High School band shift from foot to foot trying to stay warm. They're bringing up the tail end of a parade for veterans, just ahead of a clown walking on stilts, a reindeer led by a leash and a cadre of older bikers.
Flying behind the motorcycles is the black POW/MIA flag with a white silhouette of a young man trapped behind wire and a menacing guard tower. The text underneath says, you are not forgotten. And the image is everywhere - patches, flagpoles - there's even a Dodge Charger with a paint job of the somber emblem taking up the car's entire side. The license plate reads P-O-W-M-I-A. And it belongs to someone from a local American Legion post, where Woody Quackenbush is a member.
WOODY QUACKENBUSH: I mean, during the Vietnam War and stuff, they'd send people out on patrol. They didn't know where they were.
HUGHES: Quackenbush has a long gray beard and is standing next to a beige three-wheeled hog. He enlisted in the Army in 1962 when he was 17 years old. He says during and after the Vietnam War, the POW flag was a way to draw attention to soldiers the government didn't work hard enough to recover.
QUACKENBUSH: We're still trying to find a lot of people that didn't come back, and they don't really have any records of where they are or what to look for. Once in a great while, they find somebody. But it's a shame.
HUGHES: Officially, there are still 1,602 Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. That's a lot, but it pales in comparison to past conflicts, where neither the science nor the will was in place to recover the dead. From World War II alone, there are nearly 73,000 service members still listed as missing. But this is an accounting of warfare that's becoming extinct. In the last three decades, the total number of American service members left unrecovered by the military is six.
ROGER SPARKS: The best one from the...
HUGHES: Roger Sparks recently retired after more than two decades serving as a Marine infantryman and later a pararescue jumper who deployed to some of the most rugged parts of Afghanistan. Now, he works as a tattoo artist in a suburb of Anchorage.
SPARKS: The conflicts that we're fighting now, you know, it's not an atmosphere that you're being held captive.
HUGHES: Sparks is a highly decorated vet who did a total of 10 combat tours. He says that for many younger veterans, the POW flag no longer marks a literal absence.
SPARKS: I almost view that as, well, that's their era of symbolism, whereas now I look at that, and I'm like, well, that was for them. You know, like, I can really identify with the severity of their experiences, but I don't feel I have ownership of that.
HUGHES: Sparks grew up in Texas surrounded by Vietnam vets. Those men were draftees who generally did one combat deployment. Today's volunteer military is made up of people more like Sparks. And he sees the country's relationship with its wars as marked less by fervent support or opposition than by general indifference. Part of why Sparks thinks the POW flag resonates today with so many veterans, service members and families is less for the silhouetted young man behind barbed wire than the words below about not being forgotten.
SPARKS: I think that when you look at the flag, you can say, well, that's patriotism. But when you look at that POW/MIA flag, it's more of combat loss - you know, like, the reaping, just horror of what has been paid for this country to go on. And I think that's why people feel so strongly about it.
HUGHES: When Sparks started tattooing guys in Afghanistan, they'd sometimes do sessions right after returning to base from pararescue operations, almost like a ceremony to process what they'd experienced. He says no one's asked for the POW insignia. For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes in Anchorage.
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