For Mark Lane Stephensen II, the burial of his father's remains Friday in the Riverton City Cemetery will be admittedly bittersweet - despite a hometown funeral before family and friends and with full military rites. It's a matter of being better late than never - even though the 21-year period that Air Force Col. Mark L. Stephensen was listed as a missing-in-action casualty of the Vietnam War often seemed to approach "never" standards.
"There's a sense of satisfaction that he is finally being afforded something he deserved 21 years ago," said Mark Stephensen II.His father disappeared in 1967 after returning home from an aborted reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. His plane reportedly crashed, but the whereabouts of Col. Stephensen were unknown for more than two decades - until his remains were recovered and returned by the Vietnamese and identified earlier this summer.
The younger Stephensen was 12 years old - with younger siblings of ages 10, 8 and 4 - when his father became a Vietnam War MIA. But he held onto earlier recollections of his father. "Like any son of an Air Force pilot, I lived and ate and slept with a hero," he said.
Living with the possibility of disaster often meant facing the unknown with rationalizations. "That couldn't happen - not to my Dad, not to my family."
But it did happen to Col. Stephensen and to his family - a tragedy that took a generation to become resolved. "Things that have been buried very deeply over the years will finally be reconciled," said Mark Stephensen II in a telephone interview from his Boise office. "The agonizing over the years have softened the emotions."
But not necessarily the loss.
*** Col. Stephensen was born May 29, 1930; the Riverton native being the eighth of 10 children of Hazel Giles and Stephen F. Stephensen. A Jordan High graduate, he attended Brigham Young University until he followed the footsteps of an older brother by enlisting in the Air Force in 1950.
His military training - including specialization in reconnaissance - took him throughout the United States and even afforded him a chance to march as a cadet in the inaugural parade for President Dwight Eisenhower.
He married Victoria Christopher in 1954; she now resides in Denver. They are the parents of four children: Mark Lane, Lance Edward, Kristen Rae and Kyler Maren - the boys living in the Boise area and the girls living in Colorado. He is also survived by four grandchildren.
Col. Stephensen was in his second tour of the Vietnam War when he disappeared in 1967; he was declared dead by the government eight years later - but not until he had been twice promoted, eventually reaching the rank of full colonel. His decorations included the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and a special NATO recognition for his flying demonstrations.
In 1982, the Hill Air Force Base theater in Ogden was rededicated and renamed as the Stephensen Memorial Theater - in honor of him and an older brother, Mont, who was killed in action during World War II.
*** April 29, 1967 - a month shy of his 37th birthday. Col. Stephensen - then a major - was flying his 93rd reconnaissance mission. As the aircraft commander, Stephensen was joined by Lt. Gary Sigler, the navigator and electronic weapons operator in the RF-4C Air Force plane. Theirs was a pre-strike night-time mission - to take infrared photographs of the Hanoi-Haiphong bridge, a main railroad link between the two major North Vietnamese cities and a heavily defended, constantly bombed and frequently rebuilt U.S. target.
Inclement weather scratched their mission after a quick fly-over, so the two were headed back to their Thailand base as midnight approached. To avoid radar detection by enemy surface-to-air missile sites, they flew well under the cloud cover and low to the ground.
Darkness, a non-stop drizzle and their apparent detection by two SAM sites forced them to fly even lower. Sigler reported glancing up from radar surveillance to see an imminent collision with trees, with a desperate pull of the stick being a fruitless attempt to bring up the nose of the plane. The impact caused the instrument panel to burst into flames in Sigler's face - however, before ejecting from his fire-engulfed position, he noticed the pilot's cockpit seat being empty.
Sigler became consciousness about 6 a.m. the following morning and eluded his eventual captors for about 36 hours. Assuming his partner had gone down with the plane that night, he nevertheless faithfully quizzed his fellow prisoners of war for the next six years in hopes of any possible leads on the status or whereabouts of the major. Upon his release as a POW in 1973, Sigler gave a personal report to the Stephensen family.
*** Recovered by the Vietnamese, Col. Stephensen's remains were among those of some two dozen American servicemen released to U.S. custody last April. His were initially misidentified, with the wrong ID soon confirmed as incorrect.
Mark Stephensen II blames the indentification mix-up and the lack of a precise location of the remains - they were reported to be discovered some 60 miles northwest of Hanoi - as the result of the Vietnamese's poor rec-ord-keeping.
After a new possible identity was narrowed down to some seven or eight men, dental X-rays were used in late May to help tentatively identify the remains as Col. Stephensen's; the Air Force confirmed the tentative ID the following week.
Last Friday, Col. Stephensen's widow and two sons traveled to Washington, D.C., to review the identification file and agreed that the remains belonged to their fallen husband and father. The Armed Forces Identification Review Board then changed the status of Col. Mark L. Stephensen from "killed in action - body not recovered" to "killed in action - body recovered."
The remains now are enroute from Honolulu to Travis Air Force Base in northern California. After a quick trip to the Oakland Army Terminal for final preparations and a return back to Travis, the casket bearing the remains will be flown to Salt Lake City, with Col. Stephensen's second son, Lance, leading a small accompanying entourage of family members.
*** Any hopes that Col. Stephensen might still have been alive after 21 years will be put to rest with his remains during a funeral Friday afternoon in the Riverton City Cemetery. Graveside services will begin at 2 p.m., with Sigler to offer remarks on his former comrade.
The hometown funeral among family and friends and the full military rites by Hill Air Force Base personnel - it all comprises the formality and finality that Mark Stephensen II has anxiously awaited for his father. "That's the one thing I felt he was owed and the one thing I was working to see happen."
Also planned is a visitation from 7-9 p.m. Thursday at Goff Mortuary, 8090 S. State St., Midvale.
"I'll be relieved when he is put to rest," said Beverly Lunt, a sister of Col. Stephensen's living in Provo. "All these years we've just wondered and wondered and wondered."
However, Mark Stephensen II hasn't had to wonder about his father's dedication, his satisfaction of an Air Force career or his love for a young family. Knowing his father served in Vietnam "so I wouldn't have to go," he speaks of Col. Mark L. Stephensen in reverent tones.
"I had the privilege and the honor of having a bona fide hero in the house."
And, now, he has the privilege and the honor of having the bona fide family hero finally returned home to Riverton.