“A way to honor those whose service, sacrifice and patriotism took on a new meaning, under the most difficult of circumstances,” is how Col. Tom O’Connor described the purpose of the ceremony. “A way to honor those whose strength, courage and faith were tested under the harshest of conditions and those who never gave up.”
O’Connor was keynote speaker at the POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony held Friday, Sept. 12, on Fort Rucker. He was among those who gathered to pay tribute to comrades in arms from wars past and present.
“They taught us much about the courage and honor possible in war,’ O’Connor said. “They taught us about the ability to endure the hardships, fighting loneliness and to draw on the mental and spiritual inner strength to get through the challenges they faced.
“That faith in one another and the ability to conquer anything, those whose families never abandoned hope for the captured and who still hold out hope for the missing,” O’Connor said. “Their strength, unwavering faith, love are inspiration for us all.”
Daniel J. Stamaris Jr. traveled from his home in Headland to participate in the ceremony Friday. The retired Sgt. First Class was a 31-year-old staff sergeant serving as senior crew chief when the helicopter he was in during a rescue mission was shot down and he was taken prisoner of war during Desert Storm.
Five of the crewmembers were killed during the crash. “Three of us survived,” he said before Friday’s POW/MIA Ceremony. “I was separated from the other two and left to die over-night.”
The crash had broken everything in Stamaris' left leg, from the foot to his femur.
The Iraqis who found Stamaris went through his pockets and left him for dead. When they returned and found him still alive, they put Stamaris in the back of a truck and took him to an interrogation team.
Held prison of war for about eight days, Stamaris said that after the first two or three, “it got to be routine. I was in a prison type infirmary where they operated on my leg.”
On March 5, 1991, Stamaris was released. He recalled the day. “They came in and fed me. It was more food, better quality and some flat bread,” Stamaris said. “Then they came in and shaved me.”
That is when Stamaris said he knew that something—he was unsure what—was going to happen. “The wheels started really turning (in his head) and I thought they were going to use me for propaganda.
“Then they put me in an ambulance and I saw an Iraqi soldier who didn’t want anyone to know he’s a soldier and that just reinforced everything for me,” Stamaris said. “We drove around for a while and then stopped.
“Right before the back door opened up, I heard voices speaking in English,” Stamaris recalled. “Some had an American accent, some had more of a European accent, like I recognized from being in Germany and I thought ‘That’s interesting.’
“About that time, the doors opened and a six foot tall Caucasian guy walks up to the back of the ambulance and he showed me his ID and said he was with the International Community of Red Cross and that I was being released to them,” Stamaris said.
“My reaction was…..,” Stamaris said, dropping his jaw and demonstrating speechlessness.
“I always used to say that I didn’t go through nothing until I was corrected by a World War II veteran who said that if your freedoms were taken away from you for an hour, a day, a week, no matter what the length of time, you have gone through something.
“So many have sacrificed so much for the freedom of our country,” Stamaris said. “We need to remember our history and embrace our history.”
Ozark Mayor Bob Bunting agreed. Bunting is a retired colonel with 30 years military service and two tours in Vietnam under his belt. He retired after serving as Chief of Staff at Fort Rucker.
“This is a very special day, I am glad the country remembers,” Bunting said after the ceremony.
“I was a company commander in Vietnam when we went into Laos,” Bunting said. “Ten men were killed and we ended up with three MIAs.
“In 2001, they were identified and brought home,” Bunting said. “Our company showed up in Arlington National Cemetery and we laid those young men to rest.
“Today they welcomed home the Vietnam vets because we were never welcomed home,’ Bunting said. “It's a great feeling when you go to a ceremony and the Vietnam vets are welcomed home.”
“Today is the day where all Americans proudly pay tribute, honor and respect to service members who were prisoners of war and those who remain missing in action,” O’Connor said. “Today is the day where we reaffirm our commitment and our sacred obligation to the men and women who we place in harms way that we will never leave our fallen behind.
“We will do whatever it takes to recover United States servicemen and women who are captured or who have fallen on the battlefield and we will do whatever it takes to recover America’s missing in action,” O’Connor said. “As you mark this important ceremony, our thoughts are never far from those who are standing guard and those who make sacrifices for our freedom.”