A table set for one sat in the middle of the Jacksonville City Council meeting Tuesday night to symbolize prisoners of war or missing-in-action service members who were unable to be there to witness the start of a public movement to bring a national POW/MIA memorial to the First Coast
Before council members approved an ordinance to lease approximately 26 acres at the former Cecil Field Naval Air Station to a group organizing the cause, they got the chance to hear Cynde Covington explain the significance of the table.
Covington is the daughter of Cmdr. Fred Wright, one of 16 Navy pilots memorialized at a POW/MIA monument on the property owned by the city.
The site was dedicated in 1973 by friends and family who wanted to be sure the memories of their loved ones would not be forgotten. There are now markers and trees for each of the 16 aviators who were stationed at Cecil Field and then classified as prisoners of war or missing in action during the Vietnam War and first Gulf War.
The city took over the land when the Navy closed the base in 1999, and now a local organization is working with the city to restore honor.
“Ever since the city has taken over it has been abandoned, it has been forgotten,” said Mike Cassata, president of Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial Inc.
The former base is now the site of the Cecil Commerce Center — a developing business park where companies like FedEx and Amazon are replacing the former military presence.
Many members of the POW/MIA group attended Tuesday’s meeting to show their support. Cassata said their hope is to turn the memorial into a national destination to educate the public and honor all POW/MIA military personnel.
“When you go to Pearl Harbor you feel it, and that’s what we are trying to capture with this memorial,” Cassata said.
He said when they started the project three years ago, they were surprised to learn there isn’t a national POW/MIA memorial in the United States. Now they have letters of support from several legislators vowing to back a national monument in Jacksonville.
One of those offering support is U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war.
“As home to more than 150,000 veterans and three major military installations, Northeast Florida is a perfect location for a POW/MIA monument and memorial,” McCain said in his letter. “With Jacksonville’s vibrant military and veteran population, and sterling reputation as a military-friendly city, I am confident that this monument will be well-supported.”
McCain was stationed at Cecil twice.
“There is going to be an area on this property that is going to remember Cecil Field, but we also want to include the 83,000 missing in action,” Cassata said.
One idea is to organize them by state, he said, but the group is still trying to figure out the specifics.
The first step is to spruce up the chapel on the property so it can be used for private ceremonies.
“It became a storage facility for the city, but now it’s going to be a military chapel again,” Cassata said.
He said they expect to use the old theater as the initial memorial center, but they have an aggressive plan in place that allows for a facility that can potentially max out at 150,000 square feet. But they need funding.
Anyone interested in donating time or money can visit the group’s website powmiamemorial.org.
Cassata said he was encouraged by the council’s enthusiasm for the project when they first presented the lease proposal at a previous meeting. He said he was shocked when all 19 members co-sponsored the bill.
If Mayor Lenny Curry signs off on the lease agreement, the group will pay $1 a year for the first five years followed by $2,400 a year for maintenance.
The council received a POW/MIA flag from the group Tuesday night as the spotlight was fixed on the lone table setting.
A tradition usually reserved for military banquets or balls, the civilians and active military in attendance listened as Covington spoke about the table.
The empty wine glass served as a reminder that there are comrades who cannot drink a toast or join in the festivities. A white tablecloth represented the purity of their response to the country’s call to arms. A single red rose reminded everyone of the loved ones who are missing.