Of the millions of Americans who have served in the nation’s military during the last century, more than 91,000 remain unaccounted for.
“That’s 91,000 families that have an empty chair at the table at Thanksgiving or Christmas and birthdays,” said Larry Burnell, president of Cumberland-based Rolling Thunder Chapter 1.
The sacrifice of those service members and their families has been honored throughout the country with the placement of POW/MIA chairs in various public spaces, including more than two-dozen Rhode Island city and town halls.
Ahead of Monday’s City Council meeting, Cranston joined that growing list with the unveiling of a chair on the second floor of City Hall.
“Tonight, all of us are gathered here proudly to display this chair permanently to make sure that we help keep the memory alive of all of our POW-MIA heroes,” Mayor Allan Fung told a group of veterans and civic leaders during the ceremony.
“It’s something we felt that we could do together that would really show honor to all those people who never came home, to let them know that they’re not forgotten, let their families know that they’re not forgotten … We stand with you,” Council President Michael Farina told those present.
The chair – which carries an inscription reading “You Are Not Forgotten,” and sits cordoned off in a prominent location near the stairwells and elevator – has been placed through a collaboration between the city, the office of Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee and Rolling Thunder. The Cumberland-based local chapter is part of a national nonprofit organization that is dedicated to remembering and bringing home POW/MIA service members.
Larry Burnell, president of Rolling Thunder Chapter 1, said that in addition to city and town halls, chairs have been placed in venues such as the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium.
“They’re very visible and they’re all cordoned off, and they all say the same thing … It’s good to get the message across,” he said.
Rolling Thunder’s work extends beyond the public memorials. Burnell said the organization is one of many that support efforts to locate and bring home the remains of service members who went missing during their time on the battlefield. It also strives to assist veterans in need in a variety of ways, from conducting food drives to providing heating assistance or building wheelchair ramps.
“These people that are a part of my chapter, they’re very dedicated, all volunteer, always there when I need them,” he said. “We try not to say no to anybody, and we try to help everyone we can … It’s just what we do.”
Monday’s ceremony also served as a tribute to a Cranston native who went missing in Vietnam in 1971 – Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Clark “Sonny” Walton Sr.
Walton grew up on Potter Street in the city’s Eden Park section and attended Cranston High School. He was a member of the wrestling team and was active in Boy Scouts, earning the rank of Eagle Scout.
He went missing during a long-range reconnaissance mission in South Vietnam and remained classified as MIA until his remains were located in 2007. His son, Sgt. 1st Class Lewis C. Walton Jr., escorted his father home to Rhode Island.
The elder Walton’s daughter, Jacquelyn Walton, was among those present for Monday’s dedication. She said her father was a “proud Cranstonian,” and she said ensuring the memories and stories of POW/MIA soldiers are kept alive is vital.
“I think it’s important that we tell our kids about this, more than facts and figures … We need to remember them,” she said.
MEMORY LIVES ON:
Mayor Allan Fung addresses a group of veterans and civic leaders during Monday’s ceremony to unveil a new POW/MIA chair at Cranston City Hall. 2
SHOW OF HONOR:
City Council President Michael Farina speaks during the unveiling of the new POW/MIA chair at City Hall. Looking on is Mayor Allan Fung. 3
The POW/MIA chair, which is cordoned off and bears and inscription, is situated in a prominent place on the second floor of City Hall. 4
Closeup of chair 5
Larry Burnell, president of Cumberland-based Rolling Thunder Chapter 1, took part in Monday’s ceremony. The new chair has been placed through a collaboration between the city, Rolling Thunder and the office of Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee. 6
Jacquelyn Walton, daughter of Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Clark “Sonny” Walton Sr., addresses Monday’s gathering as Larry Burnell looks on. Walton’s father went missing in Vietnam in 1971, and his remains were returned to Rhode Island in 2007.