Mrs. Pat Mearns, Air Force spouse
Mrs. Kathy Ensch, Navy spouse

Mrs. Pat Mearns, an Air Force spouse of MIA/KIA Major Arthur Mearns, and Mrs. Kathy Ensch, a Navy Spouse of POW Capt Jack Ensch. Both ladies are from the Vietnam Era when Military Spouses were told by our military and government to maintain a low profile on the POW/MIA issue, as they were told to refrain from talking publicly about the status of their husbands.

Given the status of their husbands, however, Mrs. Mearns and Mrs. Ensch, were members of the National League of POW/MIA Families, which was a group of Vietnam POW/MIA spouses who formed together to advocate for their husbands held captive and those unsure of their spouse’s status, POW/MIA or KIA. The League unofficially started in the late 1960s in the home of Mrs. Sybil Stockdale, a Navy Spouse of Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was considered the highest ranking in the Hanoi Hilton POW camp. It started as an unofficial support group (in my early days as an AF Spouse, we called these "Sq Coffees"). Mrs. Mearns said that, after her husband was shot down, she moved herself and her two daughters from Japan to California to be with her parents. It was after this move that she began attending the meetings at the Stockdale's home. Mrs. Mearns stated that, at that time, she was a very young, naive woman, and she sought help from fellow military spouses as she was unsure of how to cope with her current reality. In order to grow the unofficial support group, Mrs. Stockdale went against Navy protocol and invited the spouses of local Coronado POW/MIAs to her home. It was not long after sharing their stories and grief with one another that they wanted answers. At these meetings, the spouses started writing letters to military and government leaders asking for information and requesting that they inform the American people of what was really happening to the military members who were being held captive. The number of spouses joining continued to rise as the POW/MIA numbers continued to rise. They soon realized they had more strength in numbers and found a "sisterhood" of support by banding together. While the largest groups were found in Coronado and Virginia Beach, Military Spouses began meeting all over the country. These Military Spouses worked countless hours— writing letters, making phone calls, and traveling back and forth from Virginia Beach and Coronado to speak to government officials in our Nation's Capital.

They walked the halls of the United States Capitol building with clipboards, speaking to Congressmen on behalf of their husbands. They had meetings at the Pentagon with Navy and Air Force officials, asking for updates and letters from their husbands. The Spouses also traveled to Paris for the Peace Talks, hoping for time with Vietnamese officials advocating for humane treatment towards the POWs. Mrs. Mearns, one of five spouses who initially went to Paris, asked the Vietnamese officials for an official list of the POW/MIAs. It had been years since her husband was shot down and seen with a full open chute with no communication of his status. The League members continued to travel to Paris and other countries many times along with their children advocating for their husbands and fathers.

The first POW/MIA story was published in the news in 1968. This was a huge win for the Spouses and further orchestrated their efforts of "speaking" for their husbands. In the first letter Mrs. Stockdale received from her POW husband, she learned he was not being treated as our government and the Vietnamese government had stated. She wanted our government and the American people to understand the truth and demand that the Vietnamese comply with the Geneva Convention of War. Mrs. Stockdale and a few other spouses worked with Naval intelligence to send coded letters to their husbands held captive in Hanoi Hilton. They did this knowing that, if their husbands' captors discovered the messages, they could be killed. A single red rose on the letter was a sign of an encrypted message. Their husbands would then know to soak the special paper the letter was written on to reveal the coded message. The messages were then passed on to one another via morse code from cell to cell.

Mrs. Stockdale and other spouses waited seven years for their husbands to be returned to them. Other spouses, like Mrs. Mearns, waited years to learn the fate of their husbands. Mrs. Mearns held onto the hope and prayers that her husband was one of the POWs. The original painting of "The Letter" is of the two daughters of Col and Mrs. Mearns writing a letter to God praying for the return of their father. The painting is hanging in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB today. Mrs. Mearns waited 10 years and 349 days to be notified that her husband was killed in action in North Vietnam. In 1977, his remains were released, along with 22 Americans who were killed in North Vietnam.

Mrs. Stockdale was encouraged by a few government officials, who supported the efforts of those military spouses, to make the League official to better serve their mission. In 1970, the League was incorporated and named the National League of POW/MIA Families. Mary Hoffa, a Navy, POW spouse, and a member of the League, recognized the need for a symbol for the POW MIAs so that Americans will never forget those held as POWs and the remains of our fallen heroes. She took on this task and reached out to a flag manufacturer who designed the flag we know as the POW/MIA Flag. Today, the POW/MIA flag is flown from government buildings all over our country. As military spouses, we often witness the POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony at military events; after hearing the story of the creation of a movement as a symbol of America’s commitment to our POW/MIAs, however, I can tell you now, after 33 years of serving alongside my husband in the AF and AFRC, this ceremony carries a more significant weight in my heart and mind.

In 1973, 509 POWs were released from North Vietnam— 332 Air Force, 149 Navy, and 28 Marines. The voices of the POW/MIA spouses were a contributing force in their homecoming. These military spouses are now being recognized and honored for their sacrifices and advocacy for their husbands by The League of Wives Memorial Foundation. The Foundation has been advocating and fundraising to build the first Military Spouse Memorial statue. The statue will be dedicated on 21 June in Star Park in Coronado, CA. The bronze statue that depicts Mrs. Stockdale and three other female figures forming a circle will be positioned to look out over the Pacific Ocean as if waiting for their husbands to return. A space is intentionally left open for any military spouse to step in that space and be a part of this military spouse story.

Our military spouses of all branches have a voice today to better the lives of our families serving. More recently, Military spouses spoke up in front of Congress regarding military housing concerns they had for their families. The voices of Military Spouses have also resulted in many law changes regarding professional licensing and the complexity involved in relocating every several years. They/We are able to advocate for themselves and their families because the military spouses that came before us, walked the same halls and made their voices heard for the first time.

League of Wives Memorial Project

50 Years Later: A Wife's War at Home - LIFE

Colonel Art Mearns And Pat Mearns To Be Honored In Ceremony Aug. 21 | Coronado City News |

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