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Remains of MIA special forces soldier identified

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 10:58 a.m. MDT

An undated photo shows Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods who has been missing in action since Oct. 24, 1964. The Woods family has been notified that his remains have been found.  (Robert Smith, Associated Press) An undated photo shows Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods who has been missing in action since Oct. 24, 1964. The Woods family has been notified that his remains have been found. (Robert Smith, Associated Press)

Lisa Szymanski spent years sleeping with a photo of her father under a pillow, hoping he would return home. Finally, Szymanski's mother ended the practice — and her father never came home.

Now, Szymanski and her brother know what happened to Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods almost 50 years after he packed up his duffel bag, reported to Fort Campbell and left for Vietnam. The military has found and identified Woods' remains near the site where his plane went down in Cambodia in 1964.

"This is really happening, and they really did find him after all these years," Szymanski told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Fort Myers, Fla.

Bill Costello, a spokesman for the Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., which oversees the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, confirmed that officials contacted Szymanski. Officials are trying to work out a date to brief the family about the remains.

Steve Woods looks at a photo of his father, in Clarksville Tenn., on Sept. 18, 2013, Staff Sgt.  (Robert Smith, Associated Press) Steve Woods looks at a photo of his father, in Clarksville Tenn., on Sept. 18, 2013, Staff Sgt. (Robert Smith, Associated Press)

"Until that happens, Past Conflicts doesn't consider the case as positively identified," Costello said.

For his son, Steve Woods of Clarksville, Tenn., the news from the military thrilled him.

"This was a great day for me," said Woods, who also linked to a picture on his Facebook page of his father's name on the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Lawrence Woods, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group, left his home in Clarksville, Tenn., in 1963. Steve Woods remembers playing on the front porch and seeing his father walking by in full uniform.

"He told me, 'I gotta go,'" Steve Woods said. "That was the last I had seen of him."

The deployment would be the last in a military career that started when Woods was 15 and lied about his age to join the Army in 1940. After being kicked out, Woods signed up again once he reached 18 and, except for a brief period, stayed with the military thereafter.

Steve Woods cries in Clarksville Tenn., Wednesday, Sept 18, 2013, as he holds a photo of his father's medals, Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods who has been missing in action since Oct. 24, 1964, when his plane was shot down near the border of Vietnam and Cambodia.  (Robert Smith, Associated Press) Steve Woods cries in Clarksville Tenn., Wednesday, Sept 18, 2013, as he holds a photo of his father's medals, Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods who has been missing in action since Oct. 24, 1964, when his plane was shot down near the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. (Robert Smith, Associated Press)

The family received letters from their father from Vietnam but didn't know exactly what he was doing or when he was coming home.

While in Vietnam, Lawrence Woods served as a cook and medic, sometimes flying resupply flights to troops. On Oct. 24, 1964, a Fairchild C-123 Provider took off from Nha Trang Air Base on the southwest coast of the country. The crew was set to resupply ground forces operating near the border of then-South Vietnam and Cambodia.

Enemy fire struck the plane near the resupply point at Bu Prang about 100 miles northeast of Saigon. The airplane exploded during the crash. Seven crew members from California, Colorado, Maine, New York and Texas were eventually found. Woods remained missing.

"They couldn't find my father's remains because he was in the back of the plane, and that's where the plane blew up," Szymanski said.

After receiving notice of the crash and presumed death, many family members hoped Lawrence Woods would one day come home, said Szymanski, who was 13 when her father deployed.

"We always felt that maybe he was a prisoner of war," Szymanski said.

Steve Woods collected all the photographs, letters, telegrams and memorabilia of his father's in the ensuing years and built a memorial featuring two flagpoles and small plaza on his front lawn for all the soldiers still missing from the Vietnam conflict.

"I built that for my dad, but I did not build it just for him," Steve Woods said.

When the news came that his remains had been identified, memories of the man they last saw five decades ago came flooding back for Szymanski and Woods — tales of how hard he worked in construction, his devotion to the military and his demeanor.

"Oh God, his laugh," Szymanski said. "He laughed a lot."

A funeral for Lawrence Woods is set for the spring at Arlington National Cemetery. Steve Woods doesn't mind the delay and thinks it is appropriate his father be buried with the other crew from the plane. For now, Steve Woods and Szymanski are just glad to know how their father's story ended.

"The book of my dad's life will finally be closed," Steve Woods said.

Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP

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