After 21 years of separation underscored by worry and uncertainty, Lance Stephensen finally got to say: "Welcome home, Dad."
Lance met his father, Col. Mark L. Stephensen, this week in California, but the reunion was bittersweet."It was the toughest thing I've ever done in my life," said Lance, as he, family members and friends buried Col. Stephensen's remains Friday afternoon in Riverton City Cemetery.
The graveside services, conducted in the same neighborhood where Col. Stephensen was born and reared, came more than two decades after he disappeared during a Vietnam War reconnaissance flight in 1967, with his status and whereabouts unknown until just a few weeks ago.
Combining the solemnity of full military rites with the sacredness of religious services among friends, the burial ceremonies were belated but a welcome relief to a family that had wondered and worried for 21 years.
"The finality of this is very important to us all," said Lance. "It leaves nothing to guesswork. It has been our answer."
Col. Stephensen (then a major) was returning to his Thailand base shortly before midnight on April 27, 1967, after poor weather forced the cancellation of his 93rd reconnaissance mission.
The 36-year-old aircraft commander of the RF-4C Phantom jet and two-tour veteran was flying low to the ground to stay under the night's low cloud cover and avoid radar detection by several surface-to-air missile sites. Lt. Gary Sigler, the navigator and electronic weapons operator, reported that the Phantom was being detected on SAM radar, then glanced up to see an imminent collision with trees.
After a fruitless effort to pull the nose up and the subsequent initial impact, Sigler noticed instrument panels had burst into flames. Before ejecting, Sigler glanced over and noticed Col. Stephensen still in his cockpit seat.
Sigler became conscious some six hours later and eluded his captors for 36 hours before being taken as a prisoner-of-war. Before being released six years later, Sigler made repeated unsuccessful inquires of fellow prisoners about Col. Stephensen.
Sigler spoke during Friday's services, and his remarks were among the most moving of the service. After offering his tribute, Sigler consoled Col. Stephensen's widow, Vicki, in a lengthy embrace at the foot of the casket and grave.
Also on hand was the Hill Air Force Base honor guard, providing pallbearers, a color guard, a 21-gun salute and a lone bugler who later sounded out the concluding "Taps" just before the U.S. flag was taken from off the casket, folded and given to family members.
As the pall bearers carried the casket from the hearse to the open grave at the opening of the services, four F-16s soared northward toward Riverton and came into view as they passed the Point of the Mountain. Directly over of the cemetery, the foursome executed the missing-man formation, with the third pilot pulling his jet into a steep climb and then a westward bank away from the other three in an aerial tribute to a fallen pilot and peer.
Col. Stephensen's youngest daughter, Kyler, who was 4 years old in 1967, shared a poem, which noted her father having disappeared in a war where democracy and hypocrisy were buzzwords.
"I love you, I miss yo, so do we all, she concluded. "Thank God you're back where you belong."
Sigler spoke on behalf of his former flying companion nicknamed "Quiet Tiger," saying no position is more noble than that of a citizen-soldier _ individuals who forsake their own needs and safety on behalf of the rights and well-being of others.
Maj. Richard E. Besteder, Hill Air Force Base chaplain, noted not only Col. Stephensen's own sacrifice, but the sacrifice made a by family with a husband-father. "He has brought honor to his family, he has brought honor to his community, and he has brought honor to his nation _ and we will not forget."
The final tribute to the fallen hero was an emotional event. The muffled sobs and sighs were audible, and friends and relatives dabbed frequently at tear-filled eyes. Even one of the seven rifle-toting members of the firing squad appeared so overcome that she stepped back several times and slumped to one knee before relinquishing her position in line in favor of an alternate.
POW-MIA bracelets _ the metal or aluminum wristbands bearing the names of U.S. servicemen taken prisoner or missing in action during the Vietnam War _ were worn by some of the several hundred attending the services. Many of the bands bore Col. Stephensen's name and date of disappearance.
Master Sgt. John Burger, who is stationed at Hill Air Force Base, and his wife, Patricia, had brought their bracelet to Riverton. Having kept a bracelet honoring Col. Stephensen since 1972, but never knowing the man or his family, they heard his name mentioned earlier this week on a television newscast.
"I said, John, that's our bracelet," Patricia said. "I guess I've been the optimist _ I've always wanted to give it to him (Col. Stephensen) personally."
Friday's services marked a conclusion of sorts for a hectic week for Lance, who only a week earlier was in Washington, D.C., with his mother and his older brother, Mark Lane Stephensen II, to conclude the identification process of his father's remains.
The remains had been returned by the Vietnamese government with the remains of two dozen other U.S. servicemen missing during the Vietnam War. However, Col. Stephensen's remains were initially identified as belonging to someone else. The error was corrected, with a late May comparison of dental X-rays leading to the tentative ID and subsequent confirmation by the family.
Facing his father for the first time in since he was 10 years old, Lance offered his greeting. "I did talk to the casket," he said, still choking back tears several days after the incident. "I said, `Welcome home, Dad."
Family members have requested that memorial donations in honor of Col. Stephensen be made to the Vietnam Era Veterans Memorial Committee, which is planning to construct a memorial honoring the 300-plus Utahns who were killed, taken prisoner or deemed missing during the Vietnam War. Donantions may be made at any First Security Bank branch or mailed to P.O. Box 18366, Salt Lake City, 84118.