Padres former POW honored at home plate - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Padres former POW honored at home plate

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SAN DIEGO - By News 8's Craig McKee - Friday night was more about appreciation than a win for the San Diego Padres. With the stands packed full of eager fans ready to watch the game an announcement came over the loudspeakers.

TONIGHT IN HONOR OF NATIONAL P-O-W/M-I-A RECOGNITION DAY, WHICH FELL ON SEPTEMBER 17TH, WE PAY TRIBUTE TO PRISONERS OF WAR AND THOSE MISSING IN ACTION OF ALL OUR NATION'S WARS.

Jack Ensch, the Padres Military Affairs Director, stood on the warning track behind home plate unaware that he was about to receive a special honor from the Padres organization. You see Jack works closely with the men and women in uniform, both active duty and wounded warriors to give them a slice of Americana and take in a ball game at Petco.

He's never the one in the spotlight as he reserves that right for the service members. However, that all changed as the announcer asked him to come to the field along with his wife as a little bit more was discovered about Jack Ensch.

ON AUGUST 25, 1972, THEN LIEUTENANT JACK ENSCH WAS RIDING IN THE BACK SEAT OF AN F-4 JET WHEN HE WAS SHOT DOWN BY A SURFACE TO AIR MISSILE OVER NORTH VIETNAM...HIS NAME JOINED ONE OF THE MANY EMBOSSED ON THE P-O-W BRACELETS AS A RESULT OF THAT DAY.

POW/MIA bracelets were worn during the early 1970's as a way to keep those who were missing or being held captive, as a result of the military campaign in Southeast Asia, in the minds and hearts of Americans.

This past March, months before standing on home plate at Petco Park, Jack Ensch received a package in the mail.

"Bracelet arrived in the mail I opened it up and looked and realize, I said 37 years ago today was when I flew out of Hanoi," recalled Ensch.

He was in the last group of Prisoners of War to leave Vietnam in 1973.  Little did he know during his time in Hanoi Hilton, the most infamous POW prison in Vietnam, that a POW/MIA bracelet was being worn in his honor by 14 year old Joleta McNelis in Washington State.

"There were many nights and this is true, that I thought I'm home - I'm warm - I'm ok so where is he and how is he doing," Joleta McNelis said.

Jack ejected from the F-4 and was captured as soon as he parachuted to the ground.

Joleta, who had a brother in the war bought and wore the bracelet for 3 years.

"When I went off to college it got put away," she said.

She didn't revisit the search until the bracelet was re-discovered in a box her mother had given her many years later.

"We didn't have access to the internet. We didn't have access to things we do now," she explains. "When I pulled him up on the computer and saw his picture I just shrieked and I think everyone jumped because I said, I found him, I found him!"

That discovery prompted an email to the sailor she'd thought of for years.

"I read it and got a little lump in my throat and think wow she had kept it all these years," Ensch said.

With the announcer at Petco Park reading Jack's history to the crowd and photos of his release from Vietnam on the Jumbotron, Jack was surprised by the once 14 year old little girl who just wanted to make sure he was alright and to bring his bracelet home.

"I've gotten letters, exchanged letters and emails and phone calls with various bracelet wearers that returned them, but you're the first I've ever met face to face.  Thank you," Ensch told McNelis.

Jack says it's very important to remind everyone that there are many service members who remain unaccounted for and many more bracelets that need to come home.

Since his release 37 years ago he has received more than a hundred of the bracelets from people across the country.  While he says he's kept some, the majority of them he donated to the POW exhibit at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.

After Jack's release his military career continued. He spent more than thirty years in uniform serving as the Executive Officer at Top Gun at Miramar in addition to filling the shoes as Commanding Officer of Naval Training Center San Diego.

He retired from the Navy in 1995 and joined the Padres organization where he created the Military Affairs Department - serving San Diego's vast group of military service members.

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