Captain honored to escort fallen Vietnam hero home

By Capt. Jason Christie | Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations | May 8, 2014

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DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — 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 they 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 later 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, to the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, where Ferguson's remains were identified. In Hawaii we met his nephew, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Bryan Scott and his cousin, veteran flight attendant, Sally Savard. The four of us were inseparable as we brought Capt. Ferguson back to Tacoma to be laid to rest. Our reactions ranged from lots of tears to lots of laughs and we eventually came up with the acronym WWDD or "What would Doug do?" to guide us on our long and emotional journey.

Along the way, we met countless people who went above and beyond the call of duty in bringing the captain home. From the technicians at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam's Force Support Squadron, to the pilots on our flights who honored him by explaining to each group of passengers who the hero was on board that day, to the ground crews at each airport we stopped at who helped me take care of him and got us to where we needed to be, to the passengers who would flash a smile or whisper a thank you; everyone was gracious, kind and amazing. In the terminal of the airport in Salt Lake City, Utah, an older gentleman with a World War II veteran hat on saw me in service dress and stopped me to ask, with tears in his eyes, if I was bringing someone home. I replied, "Yes, sir. After almost 45 years, Doug is coming home," and then told his story while the gentleman cried.

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, Team McChord 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 Captain 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.