The Empty Place Setting at the Table

All across America, families of service members—those fortunate their family member returned home and those whose family member tragically did not—will leave a place setting at their holiday table for those who never came home.

For many, it is a solemn reminder of sacrifice and loss, but for many more, the empty place setting also sparks great memories and, ultimately, great stories.

The ultimate fear among soldiers who went off to fight for their country, explains retired Army Captain Tyler Merritt, is that their sacrifice and service will be forgotten as time fades or dismissed as society’s attitudes turn on the reason they were sent into battle.

Merritt explains in the military family, the empty place setting is referred to as the “missing man table,” adding many believe the practice gained national attention during the Vietnam War when so many soldiers vanished during military operations. The prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action movement emerged as a result.

“Today, the missing man or fallen comrades table is a recognized part of military ceremonial functions, mess halls, and American Legions,” said Merritt, who was a member of the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

Merritt explains these tables are set with objects of deep meaning on the burden of service to members of the military. “The white tablecloth represents the pure heart of the service member, the single red rose represents the family members, friends, and loved ones of those missing, and a vase with a yellow ribbon tied (around) it conveys hope they will eventually return home,” he said.

Merritt says there is also a pinch of salt for uncertainty, a single slice of lemon symbolizing the bitterness of their fate, “and there will be [a] turned over glass on the table, which expresses the helplessness of those missing to share a toast with their loved ones, as the single lit candle represents a beacon for their eventual return home,” he said.

Since the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, there have been nearly 1.3 million U.S. military fatalities, according to numbers calculated by Statista, with the Civil War claiming the most lives at 620,000, followed by World War II at 450,000.

Merritt said it is sad when we leave service members behind. “That is what is important about the tables: You are causing friends and family members to remember that individual, to remember that they’re gone but not forgotten, or they’re missing and still being searched for, but they’re not a memory,” he explained.

Every soldier goes into battle understanding they may or may not come out alive. What they fear most is that no one will say their name again and that their sacrifice and service will be forgotten. “We should always demonstrate that we never forget; we need that for the individuals who are still serving because if we’re throwaway soldiers, then you don’t have that will to fight; you don’t have that desire to close with and destroy the enemy like we do,” Merritt explained.

Merritt, a West Point graduate, runs Nine Line Apparel, named after the military code word for getting wounded soldiers off the battlefield, out of Savannah, Georgia. The clothing is almost all patriotic themed, using all American-made materials, with many of the staff being retired military veterans.

Fifteen years ago, 1st Lieutenant Travis L. Manion of the U.S. Marine Corps was killed during combat operations in April 2007 in the Anbar province of Iraq while serving his second tour of duty. The Pennsylvania native was assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, based out of Camp Pendleton, California. He was only 26 years old.

Ryan Manion, the daughter of a Marine Corps colonel and sister of Travis Manion, has made it her life’s mission to make sure her brother’s name, along with his call to service and the ultimate sacrifice he made, is never forgotten through the Travis Manion Foundation, or TMF, that she has run as the executive director since 2009.

Her brother and his fellow Marines were ambushed while searching a suspected insurgent house in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. A sniper killed the Doylestown native as he was drawing fire away from his wounded teammates; he was awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor.

Founded by her late mother, Janet Manion, TMF works with veterans, raising money for its programs that provide direct professional training and internships for military service members, as well as their “If Not Me, Then Who…” annual gala that recognizes selfless service and leadership in the military community.

Ryan Manion said while her family does not personally keep an empty table at their home during holiday dinners, she knows many that do. She added she has attended numerous military events where the table is the first thing you see when you walk into the hall.

“We don’t set an extra place at the table, but it’s something we recognize specifically on Thanksgiving. We do a very special toast to those who are not at the table with us,” she said.

“For Travis, we recognize him every day, but at all our holidays, we recognize his absence, and we’ll say a little something about him. So, I guess we do it in a less traditional way than actually setting the place setting,” she added.

Manion finds the practice incredibly meaningful. “I think it’s beautiful. There are times where I’ve walked into a restaurant, and I’ve seen it at a family-owned restaurant, and I think it’s so beautiful that they go out of their way to do that. I love it when I see it at events,” she said.

In a country where less than one-half of 1 percent of people serve in our all-volunteer military, there is often a sense of isolation among military members and their families, as well as veterans and their families, and the idea that their service and sacrifice are forgotten because it is not omnipresent in our culture.

Merritt said that is the concern but noted the outpouring of emotion and support seen when 13 U.S. service members died in the chaotic and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 served as a good reminder of the respect regular Americans have for the military.

“When I saw all of those small bars and restaurants and high school and college football games all honoring their passing by placing 13 place settings in their restaurants or 13 beers at the bar or 13 empty chairs on the sidelines of games, that was powerful,” he said.

Ryan Manion agreed, saying, “It reminded me of the good in people and the respect people have for our military members. I think where we are right now, a nation for the first time in what, 20, 21 years, not at war, right? I think it’s even more important now to continue to recognize these sacrifices that have been made over the last 21 years and before then.”

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