Citizens and community leaders honored Pfc. Francis Wills, a local soldier who went missing while serving in Vietnam, at a Sept. 25 ceremony at the Charles County Government Building. Feelings of joy, pride, grief and sorrow intermingled among the large crowd that gathered, which included several members of Wills' family. A long list of dignitaries and citizens paid tribute to Wills, who went missing during a 1966 patrol in Phy Yen Province.
"Today, ladies and gentlemen, we are here to honor all of our veterans, but particularly, our veterans of the Vietnam era," said Candice Quinn Kelly, president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners. "In addition, we are here to take some time to reflect on those who were POWs. And most importantly today, we are here to bring home Francis DeSales Wills. He lived only 22 years, ladies and gentlemen, and it's taken us almost 50 years to bring his spirit home. And so for his family today, we wrap our arms around you."
Representatives of Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski and Congressman Steny Hoyer recognized the Wills family by presenting them with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol and a certificate of Congressional recognition.
Delegate Peter Murphy, chair of the Charles County Delegation, spoke about how proud he is of Charles County for flying the POW flag. "Charles County is the first in Maryland willing to step out and fly this [POW] flag every day of the year," he said.
Like all of the speakers, Murphy praised the James Shekleton, member of Rolling Thunder Maryland Chapter One, for organizing the ceremony in honor of Wills. Murphy presented Shekleton with an official citation from the Maryland General Assembly in recognition of that effort.
Murphy also presented Wills' relatives with a Maryland General Assembly citation. "Be it hereby known to all, that sincerest sympathy is extended to the family of Francis DeSales Wills. His patriotism is exemplified by his willingness to voluntarily serve during the Vietnam War. As the only MIA Army soldier from Charles County, he will not be forgotten."
But Wills was a soldier for freedom before he enlisted in the U.S. Army. "The Charles County branch of the NAACP is proud of Pfc. Francis DeSales Wills," said Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County Chapter NAACP. "We are proud of his service to his country. to fight for his country, and we're proud of his service to the Charles County branch of the NAACP and the fight he endured right here in Charles County. I am here to talk about one of Charles County's finest."
Wilson presented Wills' family members a resolution honoring him not only for his service, but also for his participation in an anti-discrimination sit-in at local establishments. "He made unselfish strides to address issues and problems affecting African-Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities. His leadership roles were further noted in his service as Charles County's NAACP youth council president from 1962 to 1964."
The next speaker, Capt. Michael Smith, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, spoke about his own family's experience of a loved one who went missing while serving in Vietnam. "It is indeed my privilege to join you in this dedication ceremony and particularly to honor Private First Class Francis Wills and his family," he said.
"POW/MIA Remembrance Day, of which this flag-raising ceremony is a celebration of, has a personal significance to me," said Smith, whose uncle went missing in Vietnam in 1966 after his fighter jet disappeared.
It was only last year, said Smith, that a search team identified the wreckage of his uncle's F-4. "Not knowing what happened to my uncle for over 40 years was difficult for my entire family, as I'm sure it is for your family," Smith told Wills' family.
Smith noted the Department of Defense's commitment to bring all service members home. "To the family and friends of Pfc. Wills, and the POWs and MIAs represented here today, I offer sincere appreciation for your strength throughout the years as you have waited for news about your loved ones," he said. "I sincerely hope that one day soon you will learn their fate, like I did, so that you too may finally be at peace."
For Shekleton, the moment was bittersweet. He thanked all the service members in attendance for their service and for supporting the ceremony. "We're here today to honor Private First Class Francis Wills of the 101st Airborne, U.S. Army," he said. "Francis Wills is just one of approximately 1,700 men still missing from the Vietnam War, and he is the only one from Charles County. Raising the POW/MIA flag today in honor of Francis Wills shows as a community we will never forget him, the sacrifices him and his family has made. Someone said that dying for my country isn't the worst thing that can happen. Being forgotten is. So raising this flag today shows these men will never be forgotten."
Shekleton's voice shook as he paid tribute to Wills and his service. Words of encouragement by his Rolling Thunder buddies and most of all, by Wills' family, helped him maintain composure. "Thank you for making this possible today. Thank you very much."
The remarks from Wills' family, however, provided the ceremony's most poignant moments. Janice Wills Brooks, little sister of Francis Wills, thanked all who made the ceremony a reality and paid tribute to her brother. "Francis DeSales Wills; blessed memories," she said. "Of the heroes gone to rest, leave them be. Let them slumber in the hearts of those who love them, a blessed memory. In our hearts today, Francis DeSales Wills, our blessed memory. Memories of a young man and community activist destined for greatness. First youth president of the NAACP. Graduated from the segregated Bel Alton High School and later insisting that his younger brothers and sisters attend integrated Walter J. Mitchell Elementary School. 'Momma, they will get a better education,' he said. Memories of a young man who instilled hope and dreams. 'Reach for the stars,' is what he told me. 'You may not make it to the stars but reach high. Memories of a young man who looked out for his younger brothers and sisters. He told our mom 'if something happens to me, build a home for my brothers and sisters.' Memories of a young man walking away, not looking back, not accepting a ride to the bus station, walking away and not looking back. DeSales: father, brother, friend, companion. we love you. We were blessed to have you in our lives and you will always be our blessed memory."