Suzanne Ogawa Carries on Her Mother’s Legacy of Service.

by | Aug 2023

WE’VE SEEN it countless times and may appreciate its significance. We may have looked at it close enough to allow its somber black-and-white design to fill us with some sense of loss or appreciation for the sacrifices made to secure our freedom. Or we may have hurried past it, accustomed to seeing it flying below our beloved American flag.

The National League of Families Prisoner Of War (POW)/Missing In Action (MIA) flag is more than printed nylon; it’s a fabric whose threads are the more than 81,000 Americans who remain missing from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars, and other conflicts.* It represents the families that grieve their loss and whose lives were changed by a telegram, a phone call, or a knock on the door.

It exists due to the fight of one woman for families unable to display a service banner symbolizing the sacrifice of their service member. It represents wives of missing Vietnam soldiers writing letters, making calls, and pressing for answers when told not to ask questions. And it represents a legacy of service to others who need to know they are not forgotten.

Photographed by Brittany Johnson.

Suzanne Ogawa was 2 years old in 1970 when her mother, Mary Hoff, received word that her husband, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael G. Hoff, had been shot down over Laos, leaving her to raise five children alone. It left her with no personal effects, body to bury, or details surrounding his mission. When her world crashed to the ground, like the plane her husband piloted, Hoff’s mission began.

Her own life of service started at home and broadened from there. She sacrificed and sent her children to a private school to receive an education that would become the foundation of Ogawa’s faith. At the same time, Hoff quietly worked with the families of the missing and with Vietnam veterans as they returned home, service fueled by faith and peace restored to Hoff following her husband’s disappearance. 

“I have such great examples of service in my parents because [my dad] sacrificed his life for our country,” Ogawa said. “But my mother sacrificed everything for us. She fought for them and my dad. She supported our veterans because they weren’t welcomed home. They were spit on and had no support.” 

Hoff assisted her son during his battle with brain cancer and spent 25 years serving people experiencing homelessness. Her last battle was with Parkinson’s disease, and again, she fought faithfully and with a joyful spirit. She passed away in 2015.

Photographed by Brittany Johnson.

In the early 2000s, she asked Ogawa to represent the family at a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) update meeting. It was an opportunity to review a three-inch file on her mother’s efforts and a small bit on her father’s disappearance. Ogawa saw the depths of her mother’s battle with new eyes.

“There was a Western Union telegram that my mother sent to Henry Kissinger and letters and Freedom of Information Act [requests] that she filed for us because there was lots of cover-up at the time. My dad was shot down over Laos, and we weren’t supposed to be at war with Laos. Anger came across [through the file contents] that I’d never really witnessed in my mother because, thank goodness, she rediscovered her faith in God and was able to reconcile and find peace with it, even though she never stopped fighting to bring him home,” Ogawa said.

There are many layers to Hoff’s story and her fight to let the forgotten know they’re seen, but it’s not the true heart of the matter. The heart is the heart of the matter, encouraging others to find their calling and service to others and walk in it.

“To me, it’s really more about educating people; it’s a history lesson, but I also hope it inspires people to think about how they can serve,” Ogawa said. “People have losses for different reasons. We’re not alone in this; we’re all trying to live the best way we can. Arthur Ashe, one of our favorite tennis players, said, ‘True heroism is remarkably sober and very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.’ Anybody that serves anyone in any capacity, no matter how big or small it is — that’s what we’re here for.” 

Photographed by Brittany Johnson.

Ogawa continues to support POW/MIA families, and every time the remains of one missing are returned, it stirs hope.

She said, “Every time I read about another one being brought home, regardless of the conflict, it’s a wonderful thing. It gives us hope. I was there with a fellow MIA daughter [at the burial of the remains of one MIA], and we both shed a tear because we hope one day we get this kind of closure. Even though you’ll still have the loss, it’s nice to have that closure and give them the proper burial you want for your loved one.”

Letting someone know they’re not forgotten gives hope for every kind of loss. Where might you offer hope today? GN 

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