TOWNSEND -- Roger Conrad Gaughan of Belchertown, a Marine during the Vietnam War, has yet to return home from his deployment to Indochina. He was 21 years old when he went missing in action on May 1, 1967, and he has never been recovered. But if Carol Beauchamp, chaplain of the Townsend Ladies Auxiliary, has anything to say about it, he will never be forgotten.
Even though Beauchamp did not know him personally, she said she feels a connection to Gaughan, who shares a first name with her husband, and she wears a POW/MIA bracelet bearing his name to remind herself and everyone else his sacrifice.
Beauchamp said she knows of the dedication of those who serve the country.
"My brother served 28 years in the Marine Corps," said Beauchamp. "He used to write me letters ... He said 'If I wasn't over here protecting you, you wouldn't have a Christmas."
Decades after the war, Gaughan is one of 39 Massachusetts residents who still remains unaccounted for in Indochina. A total of 1,897 American servicemen and civilians are still missing following the war. On the evening of Sept. 21, the Townsend VFW Post 6538 and its Ladies Auxiliary conducted a candlelight vigil in observance of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, remembering of all of the missing service members who fought for the country in Vietnam.
A dozen people gathered in the gazebo on the town common, all solemn-faced, all clutching tapered candles. Before lighting the wicks, the attendees bent their heads in prayer for the lost souls and read from a selection of emotionally wrought poems written from the points of view of prisoners of war.
"I'm someone's long-lost daddy, I'm my father's pride and joy; I was someone's gentle lover, and someone's little boy," read Betty Mae Tenney, the Ladies Auxilary president, from Patty O'Grady's poem "Unknown Soldier."
Following the poems, the candles were lit, and a roll call of the 39 men in arms missing in Vietnam was read.
When Townsend observed its first National POW/MIA Recognition Day on July 19, 1985, more than 2,477 American servicemen were missing in action in Indochina, 60 of them from Massachusetts. Since then, remains have been recovered and returned to the families, shrinking the number to what it is today. But Russell Jobe, the Townsend VFW post commander, said the ceremonies will continue annually while people remain missing.
"We want to make sure people don't forget about them," he said. "We want to keep the candle burning in hopes that they come home today."
Tenney said regardless of whether the servicemen have since passed away, her hope is that the remains be returned so their families can bury them and find closure.
"People who have loved ones who are still missing deserve answers," she said. "I just think it's very important to try to keep the public aware that there are still people who are unaccounted for. They might not be alive, but if it was your brother, your husband, your father, you'd want to know what happened."
Julie Williams, whose husband was killed in Vietnam, said that the military will always be a part of her life; she has been attending the ceremonies for years in honor of her husband and of the families who also lost loved ones. The tradition has become all the more important due to the fact that men and women are still laying down their lives every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.
"Troops are still deployed. With all of the tragedies and all of these things going on, these ceremonies have taken on even more meaning," she said.
Although the ceremony is specific to those missing in action in Vietnam, the VFW Post has not forgotten about the thousands of other U.S. servicemen who have gone missing or been held prisoner throughout the world's bloodstained history. According to the Post, more than 3,150 World War I servicemen remain unaccounted for, 78,550 from World War II, and 7,997 from the Korean War.
But with the annual ceremony, the flying of POW/MIA flags, and wearing commemorative bracelets or simple red ribbons, members of the Townsend VFW Post will continue to remember and honor those who have been lost but not forgotten.