Some POWs spent 10 to 20 years in captivity, thinking their country had forgotten about them, he said.
"These men were American veterans until the day they died. We must never let that happen again and we must not forget that it happened," he said.
Beck, 51, said he investigated the fate of the country's prisoners of war while working for the Secretary of Defense.
Since his move from Hagerstown at age 13, Beck has traveled around the world three or four times and participated in 14 military operations, he said.
Now, Beck, who lives in Arlington, Va., spends his time poking fun at government bureaucracy as an editorial cartoonist for a satirical newspaper called The Real Washington.
On a lighter note in an otherwise solemn ceremony, Beck explained the difference between veterans and nonveterans.
"A veteran is somebody who is willing to walk off and go to war. Nonveterans are those who tell him how to run the country when he gets back," he said.
Downtown traffic was rerouted for the traditional 11 a.m. ceremony so there would be silence while veterans groups laid 26 wreaths at their memorial in front of the courthouse.
Dorothy Smith read a poem in honor of Ernest Deetjen, 101, the last man in the World War I Last Man's Club who died last week.
Washington County honored veterans in a variety of ways on Tuesday.
The Joint Veterans Council of Washington County placed wreaths at the veterans memorial at Halfway Park.
Commander Ray S. Linebaugh, an Air Force veteran who saw combat in Vietnam, said he doesn't regret the experience that turned him from a boy into a man. But neither would he want to relive that time.
"I lost a lot of friends in Vietnam and I think of them often," he said.
Bob Glausier, commandant of the Marine Corps League of Washington County, talked about the corps' 222-year history after the wreath-laying ceremony at Halfway Park.
Former Marine and South Hagerstown High School Principal Robert "Bo" Myers brought a contingent of his students to hear the message of sacrifice.
About 500 students and adults attended a patriotic assembly at Clear Spring High School.
"We're just convinced that it's something our students need to be aware of," said organizer Richard Snyder, chair of the social studies department.
The Clear Spring Lion's Club surrounded the American Legion there with luminaires Tuesday evening for a banquet.
"We do this as a tribute to all the veterans who gave us the freedom to do these kinds of things," said Lion's Club member Tom Knode.
"I'm honored just to be here," Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said at the Halfway Park ceremony. "Let's hope in the future we don't have to lay any more wreaths for any more wars."