Tappahannock resident Patti Rowley remembered all too well the day she first heard the news.
She had just arrived at her middle school when she saw her priest walk in the door.
“For some reason in my gut, I knew he was there for me,” said Rowley.
She approached her priest and asked why he was there to see her.
He replied that the plane belonging to her father, Col. Charles Stoddard Rowley, had been shot down and he was missing in action. Rowley fell to her knees.
“I prayed and I asked God…if there was ever a time for me to do something about this situation, to make it really loud and clear,” she said.
More than 40 years later Rowley continues to advocate for her father and other soldiers like him by sharing his story with the community, just as she did Friday in observing National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
First held in 1979, the day of commemoration serves to honor and acknowledge the men and women who fought for their country in armed conflicts and are missing in action (M.I.A.) as well as those who were or remain prisoners of war (P.O.W.).
Although not a federal public holiday, National POW/MIA Recognition Day is observed across the nation.
Early in the day on Sept. 20, Essex County residents and officials gathered at the war memorial in Tappahannock where they heard Rowley’s story.
Later that night, Rowley recounted the same events, including her father’s plane being shot down over Laos, the alleged lie by a casualty officer that her father had been dropping care packages over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the photographs taken after the crash of a man believed to be her father, to veterans, their families and community members at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7167 in Warsaw.
Attendees learned about the evidence Rowley discovered of her father’s alleged survival and how it conflicted with the reports from the U.S. Government, which held a mass burial for human remains that were discovered in 1993 at the site of the plane crash.
She showed the audiences an issue of the Life magazine with a photo of a P.O.W. compared side-by-side to a photo of her parents, as well as a clean-looking dog tag that was discovered at the crash site and said to belong to her father.
“How can a dog tag that’s been in the jungle and been through a fire be this pristine?” said Rowley with the item in her hand.
She also spoke of when she shared her father’s story at one of the first organized events held by Rolling Thunder, an advocacy group that seeks to bring full accountability for P.O.W.s and men and women who are M.I.A.
“I could not see anything but a sea of people,” said Rowley. “It was an amazing turnout and I was thrilled to be able to tell my story.”
As for seeing the many people who heard her speak on Friday, Rowley said that their support meant the world to her.
“It’s been a long journey from having very few who listened or cared to having many that care and truly believe what I say,” said Rowley.
As to why her story remains relevant today, Rowley said her father and the other men and women missing in action are heroes for serving their country and should never be forgotten, and that what occurred with her father continues to happen today.
Near the end of the speech, Rowley asked the audience to take a bracelet for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who has been in the captivity of the Taliban since June 2009. Rowley added she had spoken with Bergdahl’s father.
“His heart is broken. His son is gone,” said Rowley. “He hears from him periodically because the Taliban want his family to know he’s alive, and they will let them know when he is dead if we do not negotiate and bring him home.”
She implored her listeners to advocate for those who are still missing and to write their congressmen, senators, the president and vice president and demand the release of all prisoners of war.
“These men are not machines,” said Rowley. “They’re not disposable. They put their lives out there for our country.
“The least we can do is to bring them home,” she added. “The very least.”
For more information about National POW/MIA Recognition Day and the National League of POW/MIA Families, visit http://www.pow-miafamilies.org/events/recognition-day/.