Son Brings Home Mia Father's Remains

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This Memorial Day was unlike any other for Tommy Holmes of Payson --t was the first to honor his father as a fallen soldier.

Holmes' father, Col. Lester Holmes of the U.S. Air Force, was missing in action from the Vietnam War for almost 37 years. His remains were brought home and buried on the 37th anniversary of the day he was shot down over North Vietnam.

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The coffin of Col. Lester Holmes is marched out of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base to a hearse by members of the Air Force Reserve's 36th Aerial Port Squadron, from McChord AFB, Wash. Senior Master Sgt. Roger Holmes, the son of Colonel Holmes, is the first sergeant for the squadron. Tommy Holmes of Payson, escorted the group.

"The funeral (May 22, 2004) was the first time I could say my father was dead," Holmes said. "And it was the last time I wore my (missing in action) bracelet."

The Payson man placed the bracelet, bearing his father's name, in the casket with the remains for burial in Nashua, Iowa. The skin on his right wrist has a pale shadow marking the place where he wore the bracelet over the years.

Holmes was 16 when his father was shot down over Vietnam. Col. Holmes had been in the service for 25 years and was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he was shot down.

According to the investigation, May 22, 1967, Col. Holmes was flying a forward air control mission when his aircraft was struck by enemy ground fire. Another forward air controller in the area saw the colonel's aircraft spiral toward the ground, but there were no emergency radio beacons picked up for the next several days and enemy activity in the area prevented a search-and-rescue operation.

Additional investigations in 1991 and 1997 turned up no evidence to help in the search for Col. Holmes. In July 1998 there was a full-scale excavation of a crash site first investigated in 1991. Aircraft debris and human remains were recovered, as were fragments of an eyeglass lens which was consistent with a prescription issued to Col. Holmes.

The remains were repatriated Sept. 8, 1999 and sent to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. The remains were positively identified Nov. 25, 2003.

"Until I went to Hawaii and toured the lab, I still had doubts that it was really my father," Holmes said. "We've had reports over the years, but nothing specific ... When I first heard, I wasn't getting the closure I'd hoped for ... There were so many false hopes ... I was very uncertain I was going to get the closure."

Talking about the false hopes, Holmes said at Christmas in 1968, the military brought photos to his mother and there were three different men she thought might have been Col. Holmes.

"After I went through the process and the lab and it was all explained. From that meeting I was satisfied they were his remains," Holmes said.

Holmes and his family took the time between November, when they were notified of the findings, until recovering the remains to plan the funeral service.

"I did the eulogy, so that took some time," he said.

More than 100 were at the service, including 21 members of the VFW who stood at attention for the whole ceremony.

"The casket came in on a horse-drawn carriage and there was a flyover," he said. "It was full military honors."

While Holmes removed the POW/MIA bracelet bearing his father's name, he plans to start wearing another with the name of one of the 1,859 POW/MIA Americans still unaccounted for.

"He was honored for his service by the Air Force with medals," Holmes said. "He was honored at the Vietnam Memorial on Panel 20E, Line 81.

"To truly honor him, the next time you see a Vietnam vet, stop and thank him for his service in a time when all gave some and some gave all," Holmes said. "And remember the fraternity of brothers he leaves behind, the 1,859 that continue to wait to be brought home and ensure they will never be forgotten."

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