South County Times newspaper, September 23, 2016.
“Freedom isn’t free.” That is a phrase Rocky Sickmann has heard many times throughout his life. And he understands the profound meaning behind that phrase through personal experience. He was a young marine guarding the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, when it was over-ran by Iranian militants in 1979. Sickmann was one of 52 hostages held in captivity for 444 days.
“It means fighting through the darkest days and nights to serve and letting your loved ones walk directly into harm’s way to protect the country that we have,” Sickmann said to a standing room only crowd. “It doesn’t come cheap or easy, and always involves sacrifice. Our Prisoners of War (POW), our missing in action (MIA), and their families are all symbols of the price of freedom…”
On September 16, Sickmann addressed those attending a 2016 National POW-MIA Recognition Day Ceremony at the Jefferson Barracks visitors center. The ceremony was hosted by the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum. The event was originally planned to be held in front of the Museum on Hancock Road, but rain forced the move inside to the visitors center.
Sickmann shared insights from his time in captivity during his keynote address. He was tied-up for the first 30 days. Locked in a room for 444 days and only allowed to spend 15 minutes outside a total of seven times. There were days and nights of physical and mental torture. He told of his memories of games the Iranians would play, like Russian roulette and mock firing squads.
Sickmann said those situations often made him reflect on memories of his family and childhood near Washington, Mo. He said he replayed every one of his high school football games as he sat bound in a corner of a room. Those thoughts helped him survive.
Sickmann said he was given a second chance. A chance to count his blessings no matter what life’s circumstances are at any given point in time.
“Life, you see, is a special gift. It is a gift from God. It’s a gift that we sometimes take too much for granted. At times it is hard, but I believe these gifts must be embraced every day and lived out to the fullest,” Sickmann said. “Don’t let the days escape without recognizing and appreciating all these gifts. Set an example for yourself to reflect upon the things that are truly important to you.”
The Remembrance Day is set aside as a way to honor and remember the sacrifices made by our POW and MIA, according to the president of the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum Paul Dillon.
Dillon said our POWs were U.S. representatives who bore the brunt of hate from our enemies. They endured unimaginable hardships and faced inconceivable cruelty, both physically and mentally.
In the case of the MIA and their families, Dillon said it is nothing like a Hollywood movie – there is no music and no one is there to see them when they went missing. They are simply gone. The families are left with no closure and to continually wonder what happened to their loved one. And that legacy of sacrifice from our POW and MIA should never be forgotten.
There are still nearly 83,000 U.S. MIA, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The ceremony also served another function – the deactivation of the Missouri Department, of the American Ex-Prisoners of War (AXPOW), a non-profit, Congressionally-chartered veteran’s service organization. The organization was initially founded under the name, The Bataan Relief Organization, in 1942.
Col. John Clark, U.S. Airforce (Ret.), a Vietnam veteran, former POW, and past State Commander of the Missouri Department of AXPOW, spoke during the deactivation service. He said since WWI and through subsistent conflicts, there have been approximately 150,000 POWs, and of that number about 18,000 died while in captivity.
Clark said the number of former POW living today is “dwindling rapidly.” Most of the living members are now in their 80s and 90s. Clark pointed out the five WWII POWs attending the ceremony. He put the single-digit number in perspective – at one time, the national organization’s membership was once around 80,000.
As part of the deactivation, the organization closed its treasury by splitting the remaining funds between the Jefferson Barracks POW-MIA Museum and Welcome Home, an organization that helps homeless veterans. The Missouri Department of AXPOW’s organizational documents and flags were also donated to the museum.
“It is fitting that this (deactivation) ceremony be held here today because this museum is a legacy of these men and women,” Clark said. “The memory of the Missouri Department (of AXPOW) will be carried on in this museum.”
Dillon is also a next-of-kin member and past Commander of the St. Louis Chapter of AXPOW, one of the Missouri Department chapters deactivated at the ceremony. His father, “Red” Dillon, was serving as a WWII ball turret gunner aboard a B-17 nicknamed the “Fritz Blitz” when his plane was shot down in 1943. He spent nearly two years as a POW in the German Stalag 17B.
“Time has caught up to them. It is time for this (deactivation),” Dillon said. “We want to do this while there are still some left alive so we can give them a final salute and a little bit of fanfare to let them know they won’t be forgotten.”
Dillon said the deactivation is hard because the organization was an important part of members’ lives. Many of the POWs came home physically wounded, but also mentally and emotionally scarred. He said a person does not simply walk away from the things these POW survived unscathed.
“You’re not prepared, I think, as a human being to go through these things. And so the organization was a way they could feel comfortable and talk to one another,” Dillon said. “They healed each other.”
The Missouri Department of AXPOW’s flags were accepted by the museum unfurled, which means the flags were not folded or encased. This gesture has a special symbolism. The POWs had to surrender their flag once as captives and they will not be made to do so again. The museum will display the flags and carry on the organization’s legacy.
“This is just turning another page for them,” Dillon said. “Their legacy will still be alive and their colors will still be flyin’ – unfurled.”
Where the Names and Faces Will Never Fade
The goal of the Jefferson Barracks Pow-MIA Museum is a simple one – to educate future generations and to honor the legacy of those who sacrificed and endured.
“There are stories that need to be told,” Dillon said. “And maybe we’ll make that black POW-MIA flag mean more and not be taken for granted.”
The museum was officially dedicated in 2013. Due to structural decay of the building, however, the museum was only open for special occasions. In 2015, renovations began on the historic structure.
The museum, a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, leases the building from St. Louis County Parks and Recreation. As part of the lease agreement, the building’s exterior must be restored to the original 1896 appearance. The inside of the museum is being renovated into a modern museum.
The renovations and historic restorations, to include an ADA accessible elevator for the second floor and basement, and the equipment and technologies needed for the museum does not come cheap. The estimated cost for the project is $3.8 million. To date, the organization has raised a little more than $500,000, according to Dillon.
The museum organization has received four grants, two from the St. Louis County Port Authority, and one each from the Gannett Foundation and Ft. Wood Community and Spouses Club. Money is also being raised through museum memberships, the sale of memorial bricks, and events like murder mystery dinners and POW-MIA Museum nights at Busch Stadium. Also museum memorabilia sales and donation drives outside retail locations.
A security system valued at $3500 has also been donated to the museum by ABF Security Systems of Fenton, owned by Fenton Mayor Mike Polizzi and his brother Joe.
Mike Polizzi said he was contacted for a security system installation bid at the museum by Russ Whitener, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 1028 in Fenton. Whitener also represents the Fenton VVA on the museum’s board of directors.
Polizzi said he and his brother decided to donate the security system and installation after learning about the museum, the limited funding and the all-volunteer efforts.
“We made the decision to donate because of the cost. There is nobody there making any money,” Mike Polizzi said. “This is strictly for the goodness of the community and to remember the service of our POW and MIA.”
The museum organization would like to reopen in time for next year’s National POW-MIA Recognition Day in September 2017.
Dillon said there is a need to preserve the POW and MIA stories for the education of future generations. He said he would like for visitors to the museum to come away with a new found respect. And, maybe even in a small way, for visitors to feel like they got to know their country’s former POW and MIA.
The POW’s are passing away and their amazing stories are being lost, Dillon said. Those stories contain insights that will allow us to learn about ourselves as a country and about its people. He would like for visitors to the museum to come away knowing that no matter how difficult the hardships of our POW, there were Americans who endured, overcame, and survived.
“We just hope that they come away knowing about the courage of our POW and MIA. Maybe it will kind of bolster faith in ourselves. People need to know that we can and will face the enemy no matter how violent, cruel, demented or ruthless they are,” Dillon said. “And that we will endure and we will overcome. I think that’s probably the message of the POW and our MIA and their families.”