The cavernous lobby of the Stamford Government Center is festive: large Christmas trees are decorated with red, green and gold ornaments; garland is strung from the second-floor balcony; and wreaths wrapped in white lights are sparkling in the glass facade.
But, to the side of the bright trees, along the large windows fronting Washington Boulevard, there is a quieter display.
It’s a single small table set for a meal, and one chair with a camouflage jacket hung on the back.
The display appears to have nothing to do with the holiday.
In fact, it has enormous meaning.
It’s a “missing man table,” laid out for members of the American military killed, captured or missing in action. The tables are arranged by the families who miss them terribly during the holiday season.
Patricia Parry, mother of Brian Bill, a Navy SEAL killed Aug. 6, 2011 near Kabul, Afghanistan, got permission from Stamford Government Center officials to place the missing man table beside the lobby window.
“We do it at our home for all family events, holidays, and Brian’s birthday,” said Parry, a Stamford resident. “The table shows they are not present to eat with you and drink with you, but they are with you.”
The missing man table appears to have grown out of the movement to bring home prisoners and recover those missing in action during the Vietnam war, according to military history websites. There are no records of the origin of the display.
But it has been incorporated into many official military functions, and mess halls often display a missing man table, also called a fallen comrades table. The elements of the display are not prescribed, according to military websites. They are rooted in different military traditions, so they vary.
Among the usual elements is a table that is round, to symbolize everlasting concern for lost service members.
The tablecloth is white, illustrating the purity of motive among those who answer the call to serve.
The glass is turned over, symbolizing a toast that cannot be shared.
The red rose is a sign of the blood shed to preserve freedom.
The yellow ribbon represents family members who held hope that their loved ones would return.
The plate holding a slice of lemon is a reminder of their bitter fate.
The salt on the plate symbolizes the tears of those whose lost loved ones to military service.
“It’s very special to do this,” Parry said. “For our family, it shows Brian is there sharing the holiday meal with us. He has a seat at the table.”
Bill, a special warfare operator assigned to an elite SEAL team, was 31 when he died along with 29 fellow service members after a rocket-propelled grenade struck their Chinook helicopter during the global war on terrorism.
Bill was a 1997 graduate of Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford and graduated Norwich University in Vermont, a military college, along with Coronado Naval Amphibious Base in San Diego and Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach, Va., both Navy SEAL training centers.
He was a mountaineer, skier, pilot and triathlete who wanted to become an astronaut after his service in the SEALs, his family said following his death.
Bill was awarded three Bronze Stars with Valor, a Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, two Combat Action Ribbons, and three Good Conduct Medals.
It means a lot to families when people recognize the sacrifices of military service members, Parry said.
She described what happened when she and her husband, Dr. Michael Parry, an infectious disease specialist at Stamford Hospital and Bill’s stepfather, drove to Virginia Beach for a Memorial Day military ceremony.
“We stopped to pick up some lunch at a little place, I think it was in Maryland, and they had a missing man table set up. It was amazing,” Parry said. “In Stamford, we aren’t near a military base; we don’t see soldiers walking around in uniforms like they do in Virginia Beach. It’s part of their world. It’s just not part of our world here.”
But her family “has felt a lot of really warm support from the community,” Parry said, and she set up the missing man table at the government center to encourage people to think of service members during the holiday season.
“I hope the people who see it take away understanding and respect for veterans,” Parry said, “and that they remember and honor those who did not return.”