Among the thousands of logistical decisions that faced U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Bellevue, was a small but symbolic one: whether to hang...

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WASHINGTON — Among the thousands of logistical decisions that faced U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Bellevue, was a small but symbolic one: whether to hang the prisoners-of-war/missing-in-action flag outside his Capitol Hill office.

About half the 535 congressional offices display the black flag, along with U.S. and state flags.

Reichert’s predecessor in the 8th Congressional District, retired Republican Jennifer Dunn, has passed on her POW/MIA flag, but Reichert’s top aide said he wanted to learn exactly what it signified before putting it up.

And there’s the rub.

The POW/MIA flag, the only banner from a private organization ever to hang in the Capitol Rotunda and fly over the White House, means many things to many people, and not even members of Congress agree on its precise point.

Hanging the POW-MIA flag

Which members of state’s congressional delegation display it?

Members who display the banner: Sen. Maria Cantwell, Democrat; Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens; Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma. (Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Bellevue, had not displayed the flag as of last week, but said he would.)

Members who don’t display the banner: Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat; Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island; Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle; Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton; Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver; Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco; Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Spokane.

The banner displays a man’s silhouette with a guard tower in the background. His head is framed with the letters “POW MIA” and the slogan “You are not forgotten.”

It was designed in 1971 for the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, a group organized to press for the release of all prisoners and repatriation of remains from the Vietnam War.

The National League of Families is still active, monitoring Vietnam’s cooperation with repatriation efforts. The group is not involved in veterans’ affairs or in issues about subsequent wars, choosing to stick to its original mission. Meanwhile, the flag has come to represent every concern by every veteran of every conflict.

“The flag is used and recognized by all kinds of groups. It’s used without permission,” said Carlos Freitas, spokesman for the National League of Families. “Unfortunately, it was never trademarked.”

By law, the banner must be displayed in the Capitol, major military installations, federal cemeteries and U.S. Postal Service offices.

The League of Families says it annually takes its flag to lawmakers with a request that they fly it at their offices.

“In terms of popularity and capturing the public’s imagination and what it may or may not mean, there is nothing like this POW flag,” says James Ferrigan, protocol officer of the North American Vexillological Association, which studies flags and flag symbols.

Ferrigan said he once owned a flag shop and wondered why people bought the POW/MIA banner.

Vietnam POW-MIA facts

In 1973, Vietnam turned over 591 prisoners and said it held no more.

Of the 47 Washingtonians whose remains are still unaccounted for, all but one either were killed in action or presumed dead. The Rev. Archie Mitchell of Ellensburg was a missionary working in a jungle leprosarium when he was captured by the Viet Cong in 1962 and never seen again. Some groups contended Vietnam kept prisoners long after hostilities ended, and the fear struck a chord in the popular consciousness.

In 1985, actor Sylvester Stallone starred in “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” the fictional tale of a former Green Beret sent to rescue GIs in Vietnam. The movie grossed more than $150 million and contributed to a belief among some that Vietnam was continuing to hold prisoners.

The National League of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, the group behind the POW-MIA flag, leaves the question open. The group’s Web site cites intelligence that some American prisoners were never returned.

In the early 1990s, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a Vietnam veteran, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, sought to get to the bottom of the live-prisoner question. Their report concluded there was no evidence “that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”

“They said, ‘Because I want to support our troops.’ But this flag isn’t for supporting the troops,” he said. “The National League of Families immediately lost control of it. It’s morphed in our culture.”

At the door of every lawmaker’s office on Capitol Hill hangs their home-state flag and the U.S. flag. There is no precise number of how many have added the POW/MIA flag, but a casual estimate put it at about half.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she hangs the flag as “a sign of respect.”

“It’s symbolic,” said Charla Neuman. “It’s not just POWs. It’s for veterans who want to make sure you’re remembering their sacrifice.”

But many lawmakers, including the state’s most prominent conservative in Congress, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, do not hang the banner.

“I proudly fly the flag I’ve always believed matters most to our POWs and MIAs: Old Glory, the flag they fought to defend,” he said in a statement. “Ours is a government office and the flags flown there are government flags — the flag of our nation and the flag of our great state.”

Navy veteran and liberal Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, also has declined to hang the flag.

“I have people say ‘Why don’t you hang the U.N. flag?’ I represent 690,000 people,” he said. “I can’t fly everybody’s flag. I prefer to keep it simple.”

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, said he’d noticed the flags when he walked the halls of Congress and soon put one out.

“There are men and women who are unaccounted for, and we need to remain committed to bringing those remains home,” he said. The banner also is a reminder that some veterans have returned home but were psychologically damaged, Larsen said, “and we need to focus on their care.”

League of Families spokesman Freitas says the group keeps track of the banners displayed: “We take note of who has the flag and who doesn’t.”

After a query by The Seattle Times, Reichert’s chief of staff called the group to ask about its cause and protocol.

And now, he said, the POW-MIA flag will be found in front of Reichert’s office, too.

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or