ELKO — The table was reserved for servicemen and women who had disappeared during active duty.

Approximately 500 people attended the Elko POW/ MIA Association’s seventh annual Chili Feed at the Elko Convention Center Saturday evening. But before the crowd of people could enjoy their all-you-can-eat dinner, a special ceremony took place to promote the organization’s main message: Never forget.

The table on stage was adorned with a single red rose, a lit candle, a Bible, several upturned wine glasses, and other items. Each object was a symbol, Elko POW/MIA Treasurer Rich Dyer told the audience.

The five chairs around the table represented the five military services — U.S. Army, Marine Corps., Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. A sixth chair was added for civilians. The chairs were empty, because they were reserved for those who were unable to attend, Dyer said.

The wine glasses were upturned, because the prisoners of war or those missing in action were unable to share in the toast.

But the lighted candle stood for “hope of their return to their families and their nation,” Dyer said.

As the ceremony ended, the lights grew brighter and the auditorium’s curtain parted to reveal a large American flag that spanned the length of the stage.

A large photo of Army Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl, a native Idahoan who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009, stood behind the table.

The event’s guest speakers were board members from the National League of POW/MIA Families in Washington, D.C., who came down to Elko to thank the community for its support.

Proceeds raised from the annual Chili Feed go to the League of Families. Last year, the Elko chapter raised about $20,000 for the national organization.

“Coming to Elko, Nev., is one of the most inspiring and meaningful things that we ever get to do,” said Chairman of the Board Ann Mills-Griffiths.

Mills-Griffiths was the organization’s executive director for 34 years. Her brother, U.S. Navy Reserve Commander James B. Mills, was listed as MIA in North Vietnam back in 1966, during the Vietnam War.

“We’ve been here before and the support of all the (Elko) community has literally been a salvation to the League,” Mills-Griffiths continued. “It’s because of you and people like you ... all over the country that we are able to continue what we do.”

“The League’s sole purpose is to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War,” the organization’s website, www.pow-miafamilies.org, states. The League is a nonprofit organization and is financed from donated contributions.

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“We are deeply grateful, we offer our sincerest appreciation and you’ll never know how much it means to see such tremendous support from a county and an area — people like you — who mean what they say and say what they mean,” Mills-Griffiths concluded.

Lt. Col. David F. Gray, USAF (Ret.), the League’s vice chairman of the board, stressed the importance of open discussion in his speech.

“This event ... leads me to believe that we, Americans who care about this issue, are the heart of America,” he said.

Gray was a POW in a North Vietnamese prison for six years during the Vietnam War.

“We matter,” he said. “Our opinions matter ... Never be reluctant to share your opinions with government — that’s what our forefathers fought and died for. We are the inheritors of that. Say what you believe.”

Les Brown, the director of the Elko POW/MIA chapter and the Northern Nevada state coordinator for the National League of POW/MIA Families, was honored that Mills-Griffiths and Gray, as well as the rest of the League board members, attended the event.

“Having them here is an honor,” Brown said after the ceremony. “It tells me this association and this community are doing the right thing.

“But there’s no true way to thank those men and women in uniform enough for what they do. To honor those who haven’t come home yet is the least we can do — and to honor those who served, are serving, or will serve.”

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