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Navy tradition recalls missing, prisoners with lone place setting

ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN—Steven DeLuna approaches the tiny white table with reverence.

He picks up the white plate ever so carefully. Meticulously, he dusts around the small pile of salt in the center. He dusts the white tablecloth underneath.

Most of the time aboard this aircraft carrier, DeLuna, 19, of Plano, Texas, works with the Sea Sparrow air-to-air missile. But now, during a temporary duty in the wardroom, he's made it a personal mission to care for this solitary table, set for one, where no one ever sits.

The table is dedicated to the honor and memory of POWs and MIAs. While other chairs in the room have covers of royal blue trimmed with gold, the single chair at this table is covered in white.

Even when the room is rearranged for special events, the white table stays put.

DeLuna knows and appreciates Navy traditions. He knew what the table meant and asked to clean it during his stint in the wardroom.

"The entire time I'm cleaning," he said. "I just know that's one of those things to be solemn for. I try to be more on the respectful side, not rushing through it."

Similar tables exist throughout the military. There are variations, but most are small like this one. Its size symbolizes "the fragility of one prisoner alone against the oppressor," according to a small placard on the table.

On it, there's a glass of water is "to quench their thirst for freedom" and salt "to remind us of the pain they feel."

A maroon silk chrysanthemum signifies "the blood our fallen shipmates shed."

White china symbolizes "the purity of their hearts" and white linens "a clean bandage for their wounds." A small American flag and small POW-MIA flag also stand in bases on the table.

"On certain days, it just hits you, what it represents," said Ensign Mike Bell, 35, a disbursing officer from Union Springs, Ala. "It keeps that memory alive."

"There's people out there that you think of and remember," said flight surgeon Lt. Todd Guth, 29, of Franklin, Pa. "The shoes they're in are not too far from ones we could be in."

Capt. Charles Ladd Wheeler, executive officer of the Truman, has noticed that the table means different things to different generations. To him, it's the Vietnam War.

His father flew a B-52 in that war. For years, Wheeler himself wore a POW-MIA bracelet inscribed with the name of a family friend who was later determined to have been killed.

The Department of Defense lists 1,889 Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Among them are 387 from the Navy.

DeLuna feels a connection to such things. The day after he signed his enlistment papers, the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen and 17 sailors were killed. He graduated from boot camp three days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, he's in a war.

With about six weeks left on wardroom duty, he plans to be the one cleaning the table every day.

"I try to do it so people, when they walk by, know how much care is put into it," DeLuna said, putting the flags back in place and moving on to dust the white cover over the chair.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+bauers

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