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Solemn salute: Colorado Guard's last MIA laid to rest

Members of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard carry the casket of Maj. Perry Jefferson into the Old Chapel on Fort Myer, Va., April 3. Major Jefferson was returned 39 years after he went missing in action in Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith)

Members of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard carry the casket of Maj. Perry Jefferson into the Old Chapel on Fort Myer, Va., April 3. Major Jefferson was returned 39 years after he went missing in action in Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith)

ARLINGTON, Va. -- April 3 was a grey and dreary day when friends and family of Maj. Perry Jefferson gathered in Arlington Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., to lay to rest his remains, 39 years to the day after he went missing in Vietnam.

It was on April 3, 1969, that, then, Capt. Jefferson, an intelligence officer with the 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron, disappeared while working as an aerial observer on board an O-1G Bird Dog aircraft over Vietnam. It was only a week before, then, Captain Jefferson was scheduled to come home that he was officially listed as missing in action.

For many long years the major's family waited for word on what had happened to him. In the time he was missing he was promoted from captain to major. Finally, in October 2007, the news they had been waiting for came. His remains, and the remains of the pilot he was flying with, Army 1st Lt. Arthur Ecklund, had been found and verified.

More than 80 Coloradoans made the long trip to Washington, D.C., for his memorial service and burial April 3. The night before the service, friends, family and fellow members of the Colorado Air National Guard gathered at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial to lay wreaths for Major Jefferson and make etches of his name engraved in the wall.

With the return of his remains, the Colorado National Guard has brought home its only Vietnam MIA at last, said Brig. Gen. Trulan Eyre, 140th Wing commander.

"Nothing I can do in my career could be more meaningful," he said of being able to bring home the Colorado Guard's last missing service member, during a speech before the wreath lying.

Brig. Gen. Bill Hudson, the assistant Adjutant General for Air, thanked the major's family for his life and contribution to the Guard.

"I can't tell you how pleased I was to know that Perry was back in the United States again," General Hudson said.

There was hardly a dry eye when Ms. Joy Jefferson, the major's sister-in-law, thanked everyone for coming and for providing the family with closure.

The group mingled, discussing memories of Major Jefferson and of serving in the 120th.

"Something settled with Dad when he found the 120th," the major's step-daughter, Ms. Cindy Kuehl said. "It was like he found his niche."

Former Airman 1st Class Thomas Moermond didn't go to Vietnam with Major Jefferson, but remembered him fondly.

When it came time to socializing after hours, the major normally gravitated toward enlisted members. He always had good things to say about them, and they of him, said Moermond.

For Moermond, and many others who served during the Vietnam era, Major Jefferson's status as missing festered like an infected wound.

"I've been working on this for 30 years ... trying to find out anything," said Moermond. "At least it's over with now. We found him."

The major's step son, Mr. Rick Berry, spoke to the crowd, of nearly 100 people, who gathered to bid farewell to him, of what kind of father he had been to him and his sister, and of what kind of officer he was.

"He took pride in his contribution, the friendships he found and the camaraderie," he said of the major's life in the 120th.

"Dad, it's been a long time," said Mr. Berry, in a tribute to his stepfather. "But not so long that we've forgotten your service, sacrifice or love. Before you were America's hero, you were ours."

After the memorial service, the funeral procession marched solemnly to Major Jefferson's burial site, where a letter from President George W. Bush was read and F-16 Fighting Falcons, from Colorado's 120th Fighter Squadron, flew overhead, with the missing-man aircraft vanishing into the clouds. All while Vietnam veterans from Colorado's Patriot Guard rendered a solemn salute.

Over the years since the major was lost in Vietnam, the faces of the men and women of the COANG have changed, but their mission has not. They are still dedicated to protecting the people of Colorado and their American heritage, and Major Jefferson is part of that legacy.

Thirty-nine winters have passed since he disappeared. His name is no longer listed with the scores of others still missing in Vietnam. May 26 -- Memorial Day -- the cross next to his name on the Vietnam Wall will be etched to form a diamond, signifying his belated repatriation.

Major Perry Jefferson is finally home.
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