On a table just inside the front door of American Legion Post 28 on Stock Island sits a memorial small in size, but huge in symbolism.
It's a lonely-looking service for one, dedicated to the near 83,000 American military personnel who remain unaccounted for in all U.S. armed conflicts since World War II.
"We call it a Place of Honor," said Legion Commander John Dick, who served as a combat engineer in Vietnam in 1967 and '68. "It's dedicated to all the prisoners of war (POWs) and those who are missing in action (MIAs). There is a place of honor in every American Legion hall around the country."
At 6:30 p.m. Friday, the symbolism of the Place of Honor will be writ large during a 30-minute ceremony to honor the sacrifice and memories of POWs and MIAs, to be held on the second floor of the Stock Island institution. Following the ceremony, socializing will take place in the first-floor lounge. The public is welcome.
"We're going to set up a larger table upstairs, with five place settings, to honor the POW/MIAs from each branch of the armed services: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, and we'll play 'Taps,'" said Dick, who is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "The purpose of the American Legion and other veterans' organizations is to foster education, honor military veterans and assist the families of needy veterans and the community. Too many people think of it as just being a social lounge, but it's much more than that. It's a place of honor where we recognize veterans and honor their sacrifice."
As symbols go, the Place of Honor is a potent and poignant one.
The small table symbolizes the frailty of a single prisoner, while the white tablecloth invokes the purity of intention to respond to their country's call to arms. A single rose in a vase signifies the blood that soldiers may have shed in their sacrifice, as well as the faith of families and friends still awaiting their return.
A red ribbon on the vase represents the red ribbons worn on the lapels of those demanding a proper accounting of their comrades who never came home -- alive or dead. On the plate, a slice of lemon symbolizes the bitter fate of POW/MIAs, while a pile of salt brings to mind the countless fallen tears of family members waiting for word on the fate of a loved one.
An inverted glass is a reminder that the missing cannot toast with other Legion members at this time; the empty chair invokes a similar notion. A candle brings to mind the hope that lives in the hearts of veterans that one day the way home, away from one's captors, will be illuminated. Lastly, Old Glory reminds observers that many MIA/POWs may never return, and have thus have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the freedom of their fellow citizens.
Dick, who lives in Marathon, had been a member of the Marathon American Legion for a decade. Following some prodding from Key West members, however, he switched his membership to the Southernmost City, and became Legion commander in March.
He's determined that Friday's observance will become the first of many such memorials held at Post 28.
"This is the first time that this kind of ceremony has been held at the Key West Legion," said Dick, who also serves on the Monroe County School Board. "But I would like to do it every year, and I'd like to get more organizations involved with it, and eventually to bring in students from Key West High School. As the new commander, I'm trying to shake the place up a little bit. It's not that Post 28 hasn't been doing anything; I just want us to do more -- in fact, to do as much of this kind of stuff as possible."
So far, Dick said, the response from the near 300-strong membership has been positive.
"The members are very excited about this," Dick said. "These types of celebrations help to instill pride in our organization, whose main purpose is to help veterans and their families. This is going to help us bring that spirit back."
Retired Master Sgt. Gary Johnson, of Key Largo, is among those veterans pleased that the Legion will be hosting the ceremony.
"What it means is we are not forgetting about those who are missing," said Johnson, who served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1970 and '71. "We came home and got jobs, got married, raised families. But the people who never came home didn't get to do that, and they were being forgotten. Some of them may have been lost at sea, or died on the battlefield, and couldn't be identified. This [memorial] is for them."