The POW/MIA Ceremony

DrillMaster Honor Guard, Instructional 36 Comments

Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA)
Remembrance Ceremony Information

RelatedThe Fallen First Responder Ceremony

Use this article as a training guide for an indoor POW/MIA Ceremony.

NOTE: The POW/MIA Ceremony setup and ceremony proper are NOT different for any service or organization, what you read below is it. There is no such thing as “POW/MIA USMC Regulations” or POW/MIA Army Ceremony”. There is only one POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony and only one way to set up the 5-Service Hat Table or Single Setting Table. Please do not try to add your own “special touch” to it. The same goes for the table. Do not remove or add items. This article explains the standards developed by the League of Families. Please maintain that standard at all times.

We are reminded of those who were missing in action every time remains are recovered in the jungles of Asia and even parts of the countryside in certain places in Europe.

We remember our fallen, missing and prisoners at several occasions each year. Every year each military installation across the globe has some sort of ceremony where the colors are presented, a firing party fires three volleys (this is NOT the 21-Gun Salute) and taps is played. When indoors, there are two types of standard ceremonies for the POW/MIA Table. The basic table has one place setting and the 5-service Hat Table has five settings. See the official script below for a complete description.

The Table Setup: The point to what you will read below is, minimal. Salt and pepper shakers are not necessary at all. the Salt is supposed to be a pinch, a tiny amount, on a single plate accompanied by a slice, not a wedge, of lemon. Silverware is optional as are napkins, but a complete five-course layout with an array of spoons and forks is probably going to be too much.

Terrible POW-MIA Table Setup

Chairs should have all four feet on the floor for the Missing Man (single setting) or Joint Service table setup. Chairs are going to get in the way of the five hat ceremony and this setup with leaning chairs, pictured below, can cause a tripping hazard and is just not appropriate at all.

Conversely, a single chair for the Missing Man Table (a single place setting at a small table), is quite appropriate.

Table Location: Off to the side somewhere on its own. There is no guidance regarding this, so you can locate the table where there will be the least amount of traffic (a foyer is not the best location) and somewhere that you feel is most dignified for your room arrangement.

Firing Party: A firing party can fire the Three Volley Salute. The minimum number of members for a firing party is four: one in command and three members who fire. The standard number is eight: one in command and seven who fire.

Playing Taps: A note on the playing of Taps (recorded or live) during the ceremony. This bugle call has become the norm for many ceremonies and some think it may not be appropriate since he POWs/MIAs may still be alive. Yes, it is a call played at funerals and no, the ceremony is not a funeral, but it is a mournful call that seems very fitting as we mourn our comrades-in-arms who are still missing or prisoners somewhere.

There is no official guidance regarding Taps from the League of Families, the organization that created the ceremony, my advice is to always be respectful; if you play it, you play it, and here is why you might want to play it (I wrote this as a reply to a question that you can read below):

Taps is  perfectly acceptable. While some in the Protocol world disagree, feeling that the tune is played at a funeral and that the POWs/MIAs are not officially recognized as deceased, Taps is also played at night signaling the end to the day’s activities. This is something that could describe the fate of our POWs and MIAs their day’s activities in the free world is at an end. The choice is yours. To me, playing Taps rounds off the ceremony perfectly.

Echo/Silver Taps: Please see this article. It is not authorized for funerals, but the POW/MIA ceremony would be a good place to sound this modified call.

The Battle Cross: This is another option that some may want to include. You can download the Battle Cross Stand diagram that I created years ago when on the Kadena Air Base Honor Guard on Okinawa, Japan.

Suggestion on Carrying the Covers/Hats

POW MIA Hat Carry


This GSA bulletin is the most recent information that I could find on the POW/MIA flag


AGENCY: General Services Administration

ACTION: Notice

SUMMARY: This bulletin cancels GSA Bulletin FPMR D–248, POW/MIA Flag Display, published in the Federal Register on March 26, 1998, notifying Federal agencies of the implementation guidelines of section 1082, Display of POW/MIA Flag, of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998 (Pub. L. 105–85, Nov. 18, 1997), now codified at 36 U.S.C. § 902. This bulletin clarifies that National POW/MIA Recognition Day is designated annually by Presidential Proclamation and provides guidance on the protocol for flying the POW/MIA flag and information on how to obtain POW/MIA flags.

EFFECTIVE DATE: June 10, 2008.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT For further clarification of content, contact Stanley C. Langfeld, Director, Regulations Management Division (MPR), General Services Administration, Washington, DC 20405,Dated: May 27, 2008.

Kevin Messner,
Acting Associate Administrator, Office of Government wide Policy. General Services Administration

TO: Heads of Federal Agencies


1. Purpose: This bulletin cancels GSA Bulletin FPMR D–248, POW/MIA Flag Display, and notifies Federal agencies of revised implementation guidelines of section 1082, Display of POW/MIA Flag, of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998 (Pub. L. 105–85, Nov. 18, 1997), now codified at 36 U.S.C. § 902 (the Act).

2. Expiration Date: This bulletin does not expire unless the Act is amended, superseded or cancelled.

3. Applicability: Federal establishments with responsibility for the following locations:

  • a) The Capitol;
  • b) The White House;
  • c) The World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial;
  • d) Each national cemetery;
  • e) The buildings containing the official offices of:
  • 1) the Secretary of State;
  • 2) the Secretary of Defense;
  • 3) the Secretary of Veterans Affairs; and
  • 4) the Director of Selective Service System;
  • f) Each major military installation, as designated by the Secretary of Defense;
  • g) Each medical center of the Department of Veterans Affairs; and
  • h) Each United States Postal Service post office.

4. What action must I take? If this bulletin applies to your Federal establishment, the Act required the head of your department, agency or other establishment to prescribe such regulations as necessary to implement the provisions of section 1082 no later than May 17, 1998. If you are responsible for the Capitol, then this action is not needed. The implementation regulations must be consistent with the general guidelines established by the Act as outlined in this bulletin. The Federal establishments affected by the Act may prescribe additional implementation regulations, as necessary.

  • a) When do we display the POW/MIA flag? You fly the flag on the following six days:
  • 1) Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May;
  • 2) Memorial Day, the last Monday in May;
  • 3) Flag Day, June 14;
  • 4) Independence Day, July 4;
  • 5) National POW/MIA Recognition Day (designated by Presidential Proclamation; historically, the third Friday of September); and
  • 6) Veterans Day, November 11.
  • b) What other days do we display the flag? In addition to the days enumerated in the immediately preceding paragraph, POW/MIA flag display days include the following:
  • 1) In the case of display at medical centers of the Department of Veterans Affairs, any day on which the flag of the United States is displayed;
  • 2) In the case of display at United States Postal Service post offices that are not open for business on any of the six days listed in the previous paragraph, the last business day before any days specified in the immediately preceding paragraph; and 3) In the case of display at the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, any day on which the flag of the United States is displayed.
  • c) How do I display the POW/MIA flag? The flag is to be displayed in a manner designed to be visible to the public. The Act shall not be construed or applied so as to require any employee to report to work solely for the purpose of providing for the display of the POW/MIA flag. If you are responsible for the Capitol building, the display of the POW/MIA flag pursuant to the Act is in addition to the display of the POW/MIA flag in the Rotunda of the Capitol as required by Senate Concurrent Resolution 5 of the 101 st Congress, agreed to on February 22, 1989 (103 Stat. 2533).
  • d) Why display the POW/MIA flag? Display of the POW/MIA flag serves as the symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to achieving the fullest possible accounting of all Americans who still remain, or in the future may become, unaccounted for as prisoners of war, missing in action or otherwise unaccounted for as a result of hostile action.
  • e) What flag is the official POW/MIA flag? The official POW/MIA flag is the National League of Families POW/MIA flag, as designated by 36 U.S.C. § 902.
  • f) What is the official protocol for displaying the POW/MIA flag? When displayed from a single flag pole, the POW/MIA flag should fly directly below, and be no larger than, the flag of the United States. If on separate poles, the flag of the United States always should be placed to the right of other flags. On the six national observances for which Congress has ordered display of the POW/MIA flag, it is generally flown immediately below or adjacent to the flag of the United States as second in order of precedence.

5. Who distributes official POW/MIA flags? GSA distributes the official POW/MIA flag. You can obtain flags through GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service by your usual ordering procedures.

POW/MIA Hat Table Ceremony

Let’s separate this into the two programs:

  1. Five-service Hat Table Ceremony
  2. Single-setting small table

The single-setting table does not require any honor guard members, just someone to read the script. The 5-service hat table ceremony does not necessarily require honor guard members, but they can add something very special.

Official Script with Optional Honor Guard Information

If used with some or all of the optional ideas, the ceremony should always be dignified, but does not need to be dragged out.

A note for setting up the table: Do not place salt and pepper chakers on the table. Also, there is not need to dump a pile of salt on the small plate either, it’s just a pinch.

  • Small plate(s) for lemon wedge/slice and pinch of salt.
  • Clear or white single rose vase with yellow ribbon tied around it and a red rose in it (can be a red ribbon and white rose).
  • Candle stick and base.
  • Cutlery and napkins placed next to the plate(s).
  • Wine glass(es).

Download the script here. Download the large table and the small table setup diagrams here.

The lemon slice and pinch of salt are on a small plate- not on each plate. No salt shaker or other condiments. Each place setting should have a dinner plate, folded napkin beside it and silverware on top of the napkin.

(Optional) Two Honor Guard members (Color Commander and POW/MIA flag Bearer) can enter, one carrying the cased POW/MIA flag at Port. Both stop at center, Bearer lowers cased flag to parallel with ground, ferule under right arm pit- right arm at a 45-degree angle. Commander moves to flag and uncases it by sliding cover off and draping it over his left arm (left arm remains at a 45-degree angle holding flag case). At this point Bearer unfurls flag until completed with spade parallel to floor. Bearer raises flag back to Port Arms, posts flag (complete posting sequence) in its own stand (with other colors or on its own next to POW/MIA Table) and Bearer and Commander depart.

(Optional) Five (six) Honor Guard members (then) enter with the five service covers in joint service order (USA, USMC, USN, USAF & USCG [& civilian]) and place them on the plates on the table and (depart or), depart to retrieve table items, remain to overturn glasses and then depart. (If using only a single place setting table, do not use any covers.)

 (Optional) As the Hat Bearers enter, light the candle and begin reading:

As you entered the dining area, you may have noticed a table – raised to call your attention to its purpose – it is reserved to honor our missing loved ones.

(Optional) two of the five Hat Bearers depart after placing covers to retrieve the Bible and the rose. Or everything can be placed on the table, with glasses already turned over and all departing (this is cuts the time of the ceremony a little).

The Five Service Hat Table

Set for six (five/one), the empty places represent Americans who were or are missing from each of the five services: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard (and military service civilians*), all with us in spirit.

*This means only the civilians who served with the military.

Some here were very young when the Vietnam War began; however, all Americans should never forget the brave men and women who answered our nation’s call and served the cause of freedom in a special way. Please be seated while I explain the meaning of this special table, and join me for a moment of silent prayer at the end. The table is round – to show our everlasting concern. The cloth is white – symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call to duty.

(Optional) Honor Guard member enters with vase containing red rose and adorned with a red ribbon and places it on the table.

The single red rose reminds us of the lives of these men….and their loved ones and friends who keep the faith, while seeking answers. The yellow ribbon symbolizes our continued determination to account for them.

(Optional) pause here until Honor Guard member places vase and remains at the table.

A slice of lemon reminds us of the bitter fate of those captured and missing in a foreign land. A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears of our missing and their families who long for answers after decades of uncertainty.

(Optional) Honor Guard member enters with Bible and places it on the table.

(Optional) The Bible represents the strength gained through faith in our country, founded as one nation under God, to sustain those lost from our midst.

(Optional) pause here until Honor Guard member places Bible and remains at the table.

The glasses are inverted – to symbolize their inability to share this evening’s toast.

(Optional) Honor Guard members raise glasses as if to toast, turn them over, place them back on the table upside down and depart

The POW Missing Man Table

Pause until Honor Guard members have departed.

The chairs are empty – they are missing… (silent moment)

Let us now raise our water glasses in a toast to honor America’s POW/MIA’s and to the success of our efforts to account for them.

(Optional) Firing party fires Three Volley Salute.

(Optional) Taps* can be sounded here after the silent toast. Note: The US Air Force does not allow for Taps to be sounded at USAF events.

Also see the National League of Families web site.

Comments 36

  1. Pingback: What is the meaning behind the image on the POW/MIA flag? | The DrillMaster

  2. I have done the POW/MIA ceremony several times. i am so glad that I do it exactly as you had explained. Yes there is a POW in Afghanistan, his name is Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl… Over 3 years now. Drive On Drill Master.

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  11. I appreciate you providing an explanation of the Missing Man table. I noticed that you stated above that no one should add to the table or change what has been established by The National League of Families. I also realize this post has been up for awhile. I wish to share respectfully with you this memo dated June 2013 that I located in order to (hopefully) clarify some things. The link to the memo is:

    The memo doesn’t mention anything about including service caps and it states that the table is to have six place settings.

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      Ms. Ciurro,

      Thank you very much for the information, after viewing the PDF and matching it with what is here, there is a tiny difference (the word “military” in front of “civilians” at the beginning), but it’s the same script. The actions of the honor guard bringing in the service covers isn’t scripted, but has been a tradition in the military for several decades now- that’s the only explanation I have for this action. I have watched it and performed it for years. Bringing in the POW/MIA flag is also not scripted, but is a nice addition and one which I have performed. The table should be set for six and that is what both scripts state. There is no civilian hat that would be recognized as representing all civilians that would be appropriate to be along side the service covers, so the place setting sits empty. I once took part in the hat table ceremony and had an honor guard member dressed in a civilian suit. No hat, though.

      The hat table ceremony is unofficial, so is the Marine Corps’ Missing Man Table which has different items on it but is actually referenced in MCOP 5060.2 (available on my Downloads page). Both have a long tradition, though. What I am trying to do, through this article, is to educate as many people as possible that salt shakers or other thoughts of “dressing up” the table, changing the color of the rose or the ribbon, having filled water glasses, a mound of salt and lemon wedge on each plate, etc. are not appropriate.

      1. As a point of clarification, for the Air Force, per regulation, we are expressly prohibited from providing Taps at a POW/MIA table. The single man table is considered a “Comrade at Arms” table, and Taps is optional.
        We are also strictly prohibited from providing firing party for anything other than military funeral honors without permission from the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office in Dover. These changes are effective 16 Feb 2013.

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      Mr. Quenzer,

      Thank you for the great questions! Here are the answers:

      Yes, having a POW/MIA Table setup for one all of the time is perfectly fine. As a matter of fact, you will see a table setup in American military dining facilities all around the world. The guidance is that the table must be in an out-of-the-way place. Usually the candle is only lit during the dinner meal.

      Please let me know if you have any more questions.


      Having a setup for one and not the 5 services is preferred unless you want to clean the service covers each week with all of the other settings. With the one place setting, all you need to do is clean one setting and replace the pinch of salt and slice of lemon. You may even be able to purchase a fake slice of lemon if you so desire. But a small slice changed every couple of days is not a big deal unless it starts to attract insects.

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        1. I have another question. Is there a Bible on the table, of a American Legion table. We have some people that dont want it there. We want to know the correct answer. Thanks Kathryn

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            Hello ma’am,

            The Bible is an addition and not mentioned as one of the original props in the official script. I believe it to be the centerpiece of the values displayed by the presence of the Table, especially when it is opened to Psalm 91.

            Unfortunately, these who hate the Bible do have a point here.

  12. Sir, I have did the POW-MIA table ceremony for the past 6 years according to veterans org. with 5 service caps and 1 pubil cap, i use salt and pepper with it, is there book wrong are what.

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      Hi Shannon,

      The League of Families (LoF) is the organization that created the POW/MIA Ceremony and the military adapted it to have the 5 service hats. The LoF script is above, word-for-word with my adaptation to it for giving cues to the honor guard. Nowhere does the script state that condiments are to be placed on the table, including salt and pepper- except for the pinch of salt on the plate(s).

      For me, the whole point is that each item on the table has significant meaning and it is unnecessary and even improper to add to the table’s contents. After all, we are talking about POWs and MIAs, we can safely assume that they do not have access to much of what we take for granted.

      Thank you for the question!

  13. Drillmaster,

    I just arrived here in Bangkok, Thailand two weeks ago. My commander put me in-charge in organizing a National POW/MIA recognition day ceremony this coming 19 September 2014. This is my first time and no experience in running this ceremony. You mentioned on your message that you already done the POW/MIA ceremony several times. I’m just wondering if you’re able to video document the entire POW/MIA recognition day ceremony (outdoor setting) from previous ceremonies. If yes, is it possible to get a copy? Thank you in advance.


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  14. I am co-chair for the All Service Academy in our area this year. We always have a POW/MIA table at our event. My question is regrading the playing of the TAPS, must it be played by a bugle or can it be played by a trumpet? I don’t want to be disrespectful but we are having a hard time finding a bugler. I understand we have the option to not play the TAPS at all. Which is the direction we will go if need be. Thank you for your input.

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      Hello Ma’am,

      A bugle or trumpet, even a cornet, is just fine.

      Thank you very much for the question and for honoring our POWs and MIAs.

      If there is any other help you need, please let me know.

  15. Thank you. I do have another question. Is TAPS played before or after the script is read.

    Appreciate your knowledge!
    Monica Sickman

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      After. Actually, the military services are tending not to play it at all, but there is no solid ruling. Playing Taps is a great way to remember our brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

      Always a pleasure, ma’am!

  16. I am planning the 240th Army Birthday at the NRO and there is much discussion on whether to include the POW/MIA ceremony. We have a joint honor guard prepared to perform the ceremony and having read your I still have a couple of questions.
    1. Can we remove the other services and just do the Army portion?
    2. The Army Band is actually supporting this event, should I have them play taps?

    Thank you for your wisdom,

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      Hello Laketha,

      Thank you for contacting me with two great questions. Here are my answers:
      1. It is perfectly acceptable to have just one service represented. All services do this on a regular basis having just one service cap on the table.
      2. Taps is also perfectly acceptable. While some in the Protocol world disagree feeling that the tune is played at a funeral and that the POWs/MIAs are not officially recognized as deceased. However, Taps is also played at night signaling the end to the day’s activities, something that could describe the fate of our POWs and MIAs. The choice is yours. To me, playing Taps rounds off the ceremony perfectly.

  17. The ceremony states a red ribbon on the vase, your diagram calls for a blue ribbon. Also should the napkin be black?

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      TSgt McCullough, I’ll have to recheck my info, but it should be a red ribbon. The napkin color is not specified, I’ve always gone with white, but that’s up to you.

      Thanks for your question!

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      TSgt McCullough,

      Thank you so much for identifying my typo! I figured out what happened- I remade the diagrams not too long ago which included the FIrst Responder Table. That ribbon is blue and I copied and pasted changing all kinds of information, except the ribbon color. Fixed!

  18. What is the protocol for flying the POW/MIA flag during the playing of Taps and Gun Volley during annual Veterans Remembrance Ceremony. I’ve been told to lower the POW/MIA flag during that portion the ceremony. I haven’t found any info supporting this procedures.

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      Mr. Miller,
      There’s no such requirement. That’s from someone making something up to create a more “specialer” moment because what we already have isn’t enough in their mind.
      The only flag that is lowered to half-staff is the American and that is to show mourning. No other flag except state and territory flags have that honor.

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