published Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Family sees Vietnam pilot’s return as a celebration

BOX/ELEMENTS:

MISSING IN ACTION

* 1,729: Number of Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam War

* 64: Number missing from Georgia and Tennessee (32 from each state)

Source: Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office

BOX/ELEMENTS:

AREA RESIDENTS MIA

* Marine Lance Cpl. James A. Benton, from Daisy, Tenn., missing since April 27, 1967

* Air Force Lt. Col. Donald F. Casey, from Chattanooga, missing since June 23, 1968

* Army Pfc. Joe Lynn DeLong, from McMinnville, Tenn., missing since May 18, 1967

* Army Capt. Larron D. Murphy, from Dalton, Ga., missing since April 23, 1970

* Army Cpl. Marvin F. Phillips, from Gruetli-Laager, Tenn., missing since Sept. 26, 1966

* Air Force Capt. William T. McPhail, from Chattanooga, missing since May 22, 1968

* Air Force Maj. Lawrence B. Tatum, from Chattanooga, missing since Sept. 10, 1966

Source: Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office

Sunglasses hid the tear-filled eyes of Renee Wells as she buried her father Tuesday.

But her face couldn’t conceal the emotion that surprised her after more than four decades waiting for his return. She winced and dropped her head as the trumpeter played taps. Her chin quivered when the chaplain called her father a hero.

“I didn’t think it would affect me as much as it did,” she said shortly before the funeral service began Tuesday morning in Chattanooga National Cemetery.

Seated near the casket that contained a few teeth and the empty uniform of a man she never had a chance to know, she clutched the folded American flag handed to her by a white-gloved soldier.

Ms. Wells was only 8 years old when her father, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancil, went missing in Vietnam, shot down by enemy fire in his Huey helicopter on Dec. 28, 1965, a month after he received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his flying in the Battle of Ia Drang.

Chief Warrant Officer Stancil had volunteered to fly into heavy fire to deliver ammunition and carry out wounded soldiers during the battle.

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Tim Barber Tennessee Army National Guardsman Sgt. Josh Williams folds the American Flag at the funeral of Vietnam Veteran U. S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancil on Tuesday at the Chattanooga National Cemetery.

The battle was popularized in the 1992 book “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young,” and in the film adaptation starring Mel Gibson.

A lifetime of loss sank in Tuesday as Ms. Wells and her uncle, Don Stancil, buried her father’s remains in the cemetery amid a throng of family friends and fellow veterans.

Still hugging the flag after the service ended, she thanked guests who’d come to honor her father.

One of the funeral attendees was Jo Anne Shirley of Dalton, Ga., vice chairman of the National League of POW/MIA Families’ board of directors. While Ms. Wells has her father back, Ms. Shirley still waits for information on her brother, Air Force Maj. Bobby M. Jones, who went missing in November 1972 when the F-4 jet he was in went down in Vietnam.

A year ago, she received her brother’s blood chit, a small identification card in his survival vest that carried a message in Vietnamese and the airman’s identifying number. It was found by a U.S. Department of Defense search team.

“Things like this give you hope,” she said, gesturing toward the gathered crowd at Chief Warrant Officer Stancil’s service.

Officials have told her that searches for her brother’s remains will resume next summer.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Ms. Shirley said.

missing father

As a child, Ms. Wells knew her father flew helicopters in the Army, and she knew that he was gone. Over the years, she feared that he might have been a prisoner of war or might have suffered after he disappeared.

Earlier this year, she learned that U.S. Department of Defense search teams had found evidence that linked his helicopter to a crash site.

At the time, Ms. Wells said, she didn’t know what to feel.

Don Stancil joined the National League of POW/MIA Families in 2000 and began searching for information about his brother’s disappearance and any chance of recovery. He was a senior in high school when his mother received a telegram saying that Kenneth was missing.

Every few years they would get an update — “Missing, presumed dead,” he said.

He saw today as fitting, a welcome home for his brother.

“It was just a relief,” he said. “It’s been a long, long time.”

Don Stancil now heads the Tennessee chapter of the league and plans to continue bringing attention to the cause of finding and identifying remains.

“I know there’s still men missing,” he said.

The turnout of veterans and friends in the community surprised him, given that his brother was 31 years old, an “old man” by Army standards at the time.

Many who stood holding flags or raising slow salutes walked through the same jungles that swallowed Chief Warrant Officer Stancil’s helicopter and crew.

Charles Hubbs, president of the Tennessee chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, said the chapter’s 30-member honor guard team serves at more than 200 funerals a year for veterans of all wars.

POW/MIA recovery is a big issue for the national organization, Mr. Hubbs said, and when remains are found all honors need to be given.

Groups should push “until every last soul’s accounted for,” he said.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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