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For veterans, the “Empty Chair” at their meetings, draped in a black POW/MIA flag or banner, is a symbol of brothers and sisters in arms who are still listed as missing in action or held as prisoners of war.
On Memorial Day, local veterans gathered to dedicate a permanent “Empty Chair” monument to remind the community of the sacrifices of their comrades.
“More than 80,000 Americans are unaccounted for from World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq,” said Sharon Plichta at the dedication service for the newest phase of the Blue Ridge Veterans Memorial. “These courageous Americans who dedicated their lives to preserving and protecting our freedom will never be forgotten.”
Veterans, city officials, family and friends gathered at the Galax Public Library on Monday to dedicate the POW/MIA monument, which signifies the completion of phase two of the overall construction of the memorial site.
Plichta, a member of Galax City Council, and her husband Frank — both veterans — have worked for several years with local veterans’ groups to make the memorial a reality.
The result of a strong community effort, the Blue Ridge Veterans Memorial was built to honor local veterans and give them and their loved ones a place to gather in prayer, celebration, mourning and comfort.
Over many months, community members and volunteers put in a significant amount of work, not just with the design and construction of the memorial site, but also the plumbing, electrical and other functional aspects. Thanks to their hard work, two-thirds of the memorial’s design are now standing: the POW/MIA monument and the Honor Circle, comprised of six granite pillars representing each branch of the U.S. Military.
The May 27 ceremony opened with a greeting from Frank Plichta, followed by the presentation of the National Colors, and the singing of the National Anthem by Aimee Dalton.
Before the monument was unveiled, a POW/MIA flag was placed and saluted.
Sharon Plichta took the microphone while Frank stepped forward to pull the white sheet from the monolith. The fabric fell away to reveal a polished, dark granite chair.
“Those who have served and those currently serving in the uniformed services of the United States are ever mindful that the sweetness of enduring peace has always been tainted by the bitterness of personal sacrifice,” Sharon Plichta said. “We are compelled to never forget that while we enjoy our daily pleasures, there are others who have endured, and who may still be enduring, the agonies of pain and deprivation of interment.”
She further explained that Frank had a special place in his heart reserved for those who are missing in action, having been appointed a Survivor’s Assistance Officer when he served in active duty in Missouri in 1970. He assisted the family of Capt. Dale Richardson, 25th Infantry Division.
“Captain Richardson was in a helicopter that was shot down in Cambodia 43 years and 25 days ago on May 2, 1970. For two years, Frank assisted the family in dealing with the loss of the parent’s son, the wife’s husband and the father of two young sons. Dale is presumed deceased, his body not recovered. Even so, Frank still wears Dale’s MIA bracelet after 43 years,” Sharon said.
After the empty chair’s reveal, Mayor C.M. Mitchell thanked the many who have contributed to the project’s fruition, including members of city council and city officials, as well as those who arrived at the ceremony to show their support.
“Throughout our history, we’ve stood ready against those who have tried to dominate the world. Throughout our history we have continued to defend the principles of freedom and liberty in wars and conflicts around the world,” Mitchell said.
“Today is a time to remember; to remember the faces of the prisoners of war, to remember the names of those missing in action and to remember and reaffirm the pledge our nation’s leaders have made to account for every service man who did not come home.”
This pledge is also true today, Mitchell said, that if a person falls in battle, we will do everything in our power to bring them home.
In the midst of the chaos and violence of war, many members of the military have been lost with no explanation. The list of local POW/MIA and those killed in action (KIA) totaled 39, but Frank Plichta noted that assembling a complete list had proven to be a challenge.
At the reading of each name, a bell was tolled by American Legion Post #245 Commander Gary Lowe in memoriam.
Two former POWs were recognized. Coy Ephrum Shaffner of Fries, a corporal in the U.S. Army who was captured during World War II on Nov. 11, 1944, and held as a POW in Germany for 203 days. During the Korean War, Arthur “Buck” Burcham of Fairview, a U.S. Army technical sergeant, was captured on Jan. 3, 1951, and held as a POW in Camp 5 on the Yalu River — the border between China and North Korea — for two years and eight months.
“God bless you both, and thank you for your service,” Frank Plichta said to each of them.
Following the ritual of gifting flowers at the memorial site, several veterans’ groups participated in the laying of wreaths before the empty chair.
Participating organizations included American Legion Post #245, Galax; Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #7726, Independence; Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter #710, Galax; Disabled Veterans of America Chapter #32, Galax; and Grover King VFW Post #1115 of Hillsville.
The ceremony was closed with a benediction by Edward Paisley, chaplain of American Legion Post #245, followed by a rifle salute by VFW Post #7726, and the playing of “Taps” by Linda Bartlett and Ruth Bennett.
The crowd was dismissed in silence.
As families gathered and photographed one another in front of the new monument, Shaffner walked over to get a closer look, and smiled. “I’m really glad I came to see this,” he said.
Earlier in the ceremony, Frank Plichta outlined the history of Memorial Day.
“It is a day to remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died. By the 20th Century, this day was extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars.”
He gexplained that many people celebrate by visiting cemeteries and memorials to honor those who died in military service, and place an American Flag on each grave. “In fact, American Legion Post #245 placed approximately 260 flags on the veteran’s graves in Felts Cemetery” on Glendale Road in Galax, he said.
With two phases of the Blue Ridge Veterans Memorial site complete, the next project is to lay the plaza, which will consist of granite pavers, each emblazoned with the name of a local veteran.
These stones, Sharon Plichta said, are a way to continue supporting the growth of the memorial. It is also an opportunity to honor a loved one who fought for their country.
This phase, she said, was expected to be completed this summer, but there is still an opportunity to purchase pavers and contribute to the ongoing fundraiser. “Any veteran with a connection to the Blue Ridge is eligible,” Sharon said.
• For information about ordering a paver, or to learn more about the Blue Ridge Veterans Memorial, visit blueridgeveteransmemorial.com or call (276) 238-9161. Their mailing address is P.O. Box 1023, Galax, VA 24333.