President Calvin Coolidge wrote, “The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.”
Like all of the 58,307 names carved into the wall, the name left behind a story, a family, and more than a few tears.
On April 29, 1967, Air Force Major Mark Stephensen, 37, lifted his RF-4C Phantom fighter off the Udorn RTAB, Thailand, runway on his way to complete a reconnaissance mission over Hanoi, North Vietnam. Because of his calm, yet strong, demeanor, they called him “The Quite Tiger.” Flying with him that day was backseater 1st Lt. Gary Sigler.
It was their last flight. Years later, Air Force officials learned that the Phantom had been downed by surface-to-air missiles. Lt. Sigler managed to eject from the crippled fighter with Major Stephensen still at the controls. The young lieutenant was captured and spent the next seven years as a prisoner of war.
Major (later promoted to Colonel) Stephensen was listed as missing in action until his remains were recovered more than two decades later.
I interviewed the colonel’s wife and their children over two days at a July 1988 meeting of the League of POW/MIA Families in Washington, D.C. It was just weeks after the Vietnamese identified and made arrangements to return his remains to the States.
“It wasn’t until the Air Force confirmed the ID that the reality of losing Dad finally settled in,” his son told me.
For two days, we talked about the memories of their husband and father and the horrible years of not knowing his fate. There was no bitterness; just a longing for the years they missed being together as a family.
Mrs. Stephensen asked me to attend her husband’s long-delayed military burial in Riverton, Utah, and I agreed. The family quietly held hands during the ceremony and didn’t flinch when the bugler missed a note on Taps. There were some tears, but they were tears of pride.
The Quiet Tiger had returned home.
Finally at rest.
Finally at home.
I love you.
I miss you. So do we all.
You’re back where
From the Eulogy given by Kyler Stephensen, daughter of Colonel Mark Stephensen
Memorial Day is Monday, May 29. It’s a time to remember Colonel Stephensen and all of America’s fallen war heroes.