The Missing Man Table – Alabama Veterans’ Museum

By: Sandra Thompson
On September 15, the Alabama Veterans Museum once again hosted the POW/MIA Recognition Day event, which included what is known as the “Missing Man Table” ceremony. The speakers were Major Al Nuss, (Ret) and Command Sergeant Major Mike Criscillus, (Ret) and the ceremony was attended by veterans and civilians alike.

The Missing Table Ceremony began not long after the end of the Vietnam War, and is full of symbolism, which is explained below. It grew out of a concern for raising awareness of the plight of Vietnam POWs and MIAs. There is a protocol and an official script for the ceremony, which was developed by the US Navy, but over time the observance has changed, and is not currently governed by the DOD.

There is no designated time of the year to “set the Missing Man table”, and many branches of service use the birth date of their branch, or pause during a military ball to pay honor to their missing brethren. Veterans’ Day or Memorial Day can be used as well to observe “Missing Man.”

The following official description and meaning of the Missing Man Table elements is taken from Wikipedia:

  • Table: set for one, is small, which symbolizes the frailty of one isolated prisoner. The table is usually set close to, or within sight of, the entrance to the dining room. For large events of the Missing Man Table is set for six places: members of the five armed services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard) and a sixth place setting reminiscent of the civilians who died during service alongside the armed forces or missing during armed conflict. Table is round to represent everlasting concern on the part of the survivors for their missing loved ones.
  • Tablecloth is white, symbolic of the purity of their intentions to respond to their country’s call to arms.
  • Single red rose in the vase, signifies the blood that many have shed in sacrifice to ensure the freedom of our beloved United States of America. This rose also reminds us of the family and friends of our missing comrades who keep the faith, while awaiting their return.
  • The red ribbon (yellow ribbon for Air Force ceremonies) represents the love of our country, which inspired them to answer the nation’s call.
  • Slice of lemon on the bread plate: represents the bitter fate of the missing.
  • Salt sprinkled on the bread plate: symbolic of the countless fallen tears of families as they wait.
  • Inverted glass: represents the fact that the missing and fallen cannot partake.
  • The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God. (The Bible has been removed from several displays at federal facilities due to pressure from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation)
  • Lit candle: reminiscent of the light of hope which lives in our hearts to illuminate their way home, away from their captors, to the open arms of a grateful nation.
  • Empty chair: the missing and fallen aren’t present.

The Museum’s hope is that more citizens of Athens and Limestone County will join us for next year’s ceremony, and we would like to thank Major Nuss, CSM Criscillus, and Colonel Mel McLemore for their help in seeing to it that the fallen are not forgotten.
By Sandra Thompson
Director, Alabama Veterans’ Museum