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Helping bring Vietnam-era pilot home was an honor

Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

Published: 04:23PM May 15th, 2014

I began my career 15 years ago as a maintainer launching aircraft with wide eyes and supreme confidence. Aircraft coming and going was normal to me and had been since I was a child, when my father was in the Air Force. As I grew into the job, the importance of our work was constantly on the minds of everyone around me. It was our responsibility to do everything we could, the right way, to make sure the aircraft came back. I took the maintenance badge I wore very seriously.

A few weeks ago, I was notified I would be a military escort for a fallen Airmen returning from the Vietnam conflict. On Dec. 30, 1969, 1st Lt. Douglas David Ferguson, having received the Silver Star just prior to the incident that would take his life, was part of a formation of F-4s from the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron on an armed reconnaissance mission over Laos. Doug and his still unaccounted for aircraft commander, Capt. Fielding Featherston, made two successful passes as they strafed their target. On their last pass, the aircraft went down.

Their names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and on the lesser known, but still revered “Punchbowl” in Honolulu, more formally known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Ferguson was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain.

I traveled along with Danielle Van Orden, an Air Force funeral director assigned to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, who painstakingly works behind the scenes to bring closure to these families, through the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, where Ferguson’s remains were identified.

Arriving in Seattle, I met Sue Scott, Capt. Ferguson’s sister and longtime POW/MIA advocate and leader. Sue has helped countless families as they bring their loved ones home all the while wondering if she would see the day that her brother would do the same. That day, he would receive the welcome he so richly deserved. The Honor Guard from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, rendered impeccable honors, state and local police and firefighters came out in force for the processional, JBLM McChord Field Airmen executed a flawless funeral service on base and the Patriot Guard riders, Vietnam veterans themselves, escorted their fallen brother to his final resting place.

The wear of a bracelet with the name of a Prisoner of War or Missing in Action service member has long been a tradition in the military community. It’s a way of remembering and honoring those who haven’t returned to us yet. There was a small wooden box at Ferguson’s funeral where those who had worn his bracelet all these years were invited to leave them as a symbol that he’d finally come home.

I hadn’t worn his bracelet but wanted to honor him in my own way and though I am a personnel officer by now, I thought of the aircrews and maintainers on the flightline that day in 1969.

I asked Sue if it was alright for me to place my maintenance badge in the box as a symbol of our journey and she graciously agreed. As I removed it from my uniform, the words of my past echoed through my head, “it’s our job to make sure they get home.”

Well, Doug, it’s been an honor and privilege to have been your final wingman. You’re finally home.