Hill Gym holds seat in perpetual reserve for missing and imprisoned troops

No matter how many fans cram into Hill Gymnasium in Gorham to cheer on the Huskies, one seat will always remain empty.

The Chair of Honor is permanently reserved in memory of all the members of the U.S. military who were held as prisoners of war or declared missing in action. It was unveiled at center court in a ceremony on Friday, September 16.

Cindy DeCosta and a fellow member of Rolling Thunder pull back a blanket to reveal the POW/MIA Chair of Honor.
Cindy DeCosta and a fellow Rolling Thunder member reveal the Chair of Honor.

“My biggest thing is making sure that it didn’t become a political statement, that it was more of remembering the veterans,” said Brenda Lopez, a senior Social Work major and Marine Corps veteran. “That was what it was all about, and that’s exactly what happened here today.”

Lopez is president of Husky Veterans. The group brings together students with a background of military service to help each other transition back into civilian life. A member who had seen a Chair of Honor at other venues suggested that USM should get one. Lopez set about to make it happen.

She began by contacting the Westbrook chapter of Rolling Thunder, a non-profit group made up of motorcycle riders who support POW/MIA issues. Rolling Thunder will donate a Chair of Honor to anyone who can further its mission by putting it on display.

The chair is modest in design. It’s a black folding chair with a metal frame and padded seating. The backrest is decorated with the POW/MIA logo of a captured service member in silhouette. On the seat is written:

“You are not forgotten. Since World War II, more than 81,000 U.S. service personnel are unaccounted for. This unoccupied seat is dedicated to the memory of those brave men and women and to the sacrifices each made serving this country. We are thankful. God bless you. God bless America.”

Rolling Thunder also had a big presence throughout the unveiling ceremony. At the center of it all was the group’s Chairman of the Board, Cindy DeCosta, who also works at USM as Associate Director of Student Financial Services.

Members of Rolling Thunder Chapter 2 Maine attend the unveiling of the POW/MIA Chair of Honor.
Rolling Thunder Chapter 2 Maine is based in Westbrook.

DeCosta addressed the crowd about POW/MIA history. For her next trip to the podium, she recited a list of major military conflicts from the last century, pausing after each one as a bell was rung in tribute to all the troops who remain lost.

The chance to thank one POW in person made DeCosta choke up. Leon Tanguay traveled from his home in Sanford to be at the ceremony. He served in the Army during World War II and spent nine months in a German prison camp.

World War II veteran and prisoner of war Leon Tanguay poses beside the POW/MIA Chair of Honor.
Leon Tanguay of Sanford spent nine months in a German prison camp during World War II.

When the time came to finally reveal the Chair of Honor, DeCosta once again stepped up to do the honors. Applause swelled as she and another member of Rolling Thunder pulled back the black sheet that was keeping it hidden. Her voice trembled with emotion as she later described the moment.

“It helps to bring closure to the families who have missing (troops). It’s hard to put into words, to be honest with you,” DeCosta said. “It fulfills our promise, the nation’s promise, to these families.”

Lopez wanted the event to do justice to the big emotions it was sure to stir up. She turned for help to Katherine Reynolds, an Administrative Specialist in Veterans Services. Together, they built a program that reflected a cross-section of the campus community.

President Jacqueline Edmondson speaks before the POW/MIA Chair of Honor is unveiled.
President Jacqueline Edmondson addresses the crowd at POW/MIA Chair of Honor unveiling.

A student from the Osher School of Music sang the National Anthem to begin the ceremony while a color guard from the USM ROTC program held the U.S. flag at attention. Music School Director Alan Kaschub played Taps to close the program. Between the two performances, speakers included President Jacqueline Edmondson and Robert Placido, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs for the University of Maine System.

An Air Force veteran, Placido talked about the bracelet he used to wear that was engraved with the name of a service member who disappeared in the Vietnam War. He’d fallen out of the habit of wearing the bracelet, but the ceremony made him want to dig it out again.

UMS Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Robert Placido speaks about his military ties at the unveiling of the POW/MIA Chair of Honor.
Robert Placido is the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs for the University of Maine System.

Camden Ege is a fellow Air Force veteran and Assistant Director of Veterans Services. His role at the ceremony was to explain the Missing Man Table, on display near the podium. It was set for an uneaten meal with an unlit candle and an empty glass. The only food on the plate was a wedge of lemon to symbolize the bitterness of absence. While the table would be gone soon after the ceremony, Ege was glad the chair would remain.

“The hope is that having this chair displayed in such a prominent position brings awareness to this reality,” Ege said. “Most students have no exposure to Vietnam or even the first Persian Gulf (War). Their exposure is with the more recent global war on terrorism, which really didn’t have many prisoners of war and missing in action.”

A color guard from the ROTC program presents the U.S. flag at a ceremony for the POW/MIA Chair of Honor.
The arrival of the U.S. flag, courtesy of members of the ROTC program, signaled the start of the ceremony.

The Athletics Department’s job as the chair’s caretaker began when the ceremony ended. Director of Athletics Al Bean and Women’s Basketball Head Coach Samantha Norris were at the unveiling to pay their respects and take stock of the new addition to the gym’s environs.

The retractable bleachers are a complicating factor in discussions about a permanent location for the chair. An ideal spot would be clearly visible but also protected from the gameday bustle.

At the volleyball match on Tuesday, Sept. 20, the chair was placed in the lobby to be seen by each person who entered. Other options are under consideration to bring it inside the gym for future games.