'With us in spirit'

Picnic pays homage to Hometown Heroes

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The chair is empty.

The plate has only a slice of lemon and some salt. A black napkin and a white candle rest nearby.

No one will ever sit in this chair. No food will touch this plate.

This is the missing man's table, a tradition with roots dating back to Vietnam. It is done in remembrance of prisoners of war.

Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 brought the tradition to the fourth annual Hometown Heroes Picnic Saturday at Craig City Park. The picnic, attended by about 500 residents, commemorated Armed Forces Day by paying homage to past and present American fighting men and women.

And, as evidenced by the missing man's table, it didn't leave out those who were left behind.

"This table symbolizes that they are still with us in spirit," VFW commander Bud Nelson told the crowd. "The chair, of course, is still empty because they're still missing."

The idea of the missing man table, a tradition that has spread to other branches of the military, is generally credited to the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, the so-called River Rats of Vietnam.

Each item associated with the table has meaning.

The tablecloth represents purity of heart, the black napkin shows the sorrow of captivity, and the white candle stands for peace. The lemon represents the missing soldier's fate. The salt is for the tears families shed for their missing loved ones.

Saturday's event was sponsored by the Craig Daily Press and included contributions from locals businesses and organizations -- KRAI, VFW, American Legion, City Market, Coca-Cola and Elk's Lodge.

The Cedar Mountain Lions Club served 450 hamburgers and 100 hotdogs to the public for free, while volunteers dished out side dishes and pans of desserts brought by the public.

But, it wasn't just the food that brought the public to the picnic.

Daily Press publisher Bryce Jacobson pointed to local VFW members, as well as veterans in the audience, as examples of sacrificing for themselves for a common good.

"They were put through hell and yet they stand here today," Jacobson said.

Also speaking Saturday were two residents with differing vantage points of war but who share the same overall, supportive sentiments.

Mark Juarez, a 1997 graduate of Moffat County High School, is a former Marine Corps sergeant. He is a veteran of operations in the Middle East and Kosovo.

"I hope there are very few 9/11s," said Juarez, who participated in the hunt in Afghanistan for the attack's architect, Osama bin Laden.

He also helped guard the World Trade Center site after the attacks, where he gained an audience with President Bush and then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"There is a reason we go overseas -- so they don't come here," Juarez said.

He also said those protesting American military campaigns have veterans to thank for the privilege. "The reason we go to war is so they can say what they want to say," Juarez said.

Tracey Lathrop, mother of Craig native and 23-year-old Army Spc. Scott Jones, said she was proud of her son and the community that supports him.

"Everywhere you turn, people are thanking him for his service," Lathrop said about Jones, who on Friday left Craig for another stint in Afghanistan.

"He is proud to be where he is. He wants to keep the streets of the United States of America free and safe from terrorists."

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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