It was an old wound, buried by decades. One that people might not notice anymore if nobody called attention to it. At this point, who would?
Candice Quinn Kelly heard from her local Rolling Thunder chapter about a Charles County, Md. man, Francis DeSales Wills, who was reported missing in action in 1969 while flying a reconnaissance mission in Vietnam, likely shot down over Da Nang.
“They said we should be flying the (prisoner of war-missing in action) flag, and it made sense,” said Kelly, who is president of the county board. “I looked into it more and realized Wills was the uncle of one of my good friends.”
Photo courtesy of Charles County, Md.
The Prisoner of War-Missing in Action Flag flies at the Charles County, Md. courthouse, along with the county, state and national flags.
One email led to the next and before she knew it, Kelly was organizing a special ceremony to recognize Wills, with hopes that it would bring closure to his family.
“We could finally give him the goodbye he deserved,” she said. “It would be a nice, quiet occasion for his family.”
An appropriately low-key remembrance for a young man who, at 17, walked to a Waldorf, Md. train station from La Plata so he could sign up for Air Force duty and send the money home, eschewing a ride from his family.
Instead, as word spread, Charles County wound up with what Kelly said was likely its largest event.
“Hundreds of people showed up,” she said. “We ran out of food, so we knew we had a lot of people. I never expected that many people to show up, to care.”
Clearly the Vietnam War has not been over long enough for it to take a back seat in Charles County residents’ minds.
It was a time in Kelly’s life that evaded reconciliation, a feeling she knew countless others shared.
“I was a child of the ‘70s, and we watched the news on television but it was hard to make sense of it,” she said. “These veterans were heroes, but we didn’t welcome them home that way. There’s an overwhelming sadness we didn’t do better for them. Whatever we do now, it’s too little too late.”
As the flag was raised above the Charles County courthouse, Kelly thought it could go further. Every county in the state could, and should, fly it.
With help from the Maryland Association of Counties spreading word of the effort, Charles County operated an exchange through which Charles County would send a POW-MIA flag in exchange for the other county’s flag.
“We have a complete collection now,” Kelly said. “Everyone is doing it.”
The association’s winter conference will include a display of the flags and a roll call of lost servicemen from each of the counties, plus a looped DVD with information about the project.
“We can never make that right, but we can relive moments and give to that family what we all as a county, state and country could have done if we did better,” she said.