MOSCOW, Idaho – With emotion breaking through his strident voice, Mark Stephensen recalled Friday how he found out his father was missing in action in North Vietnam.
“On the other side of the world, we were getting ready to go to church,” Stephensen said during National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremonies at the University of Idaho. “I was downstairs in the kitchen and watched a blue staff car with a white top pull up in front of our quarters.”
When one of the commanders at Mountain Home Air Force Base got out, Stephensen figured he was just delivering a radio message from his father, the elder Mark Stephensen. But then the base chaplain and the chief flight nurse emerged.
“Uh oh, that’s not good,” Stephensen remembered thinking.
The news was devastating. Stephensen’s father, a pilot with the U.S. Air Force 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, had been shot down along with his navigator, Gary Sigler, near Hanoi as they tried to avoid a surface-to-air missile.
Sigler survived only to be captured two days later. He spent almost seven years as a prisoner of war before his release in 1973. But Stephensen would have to wait until 1988 to find out that his father was dead, when his remains were repatriated by the Vietnamese government.
“Despite the confirmation of Dad’s death, I knew that thousands of families would never get an answer,” Stephensen said.
As a longtime board member of the National League of POW/MIA Families, Stephensen has dedicated his life to ensuring that as many military families as possible do get those answers.
“As warriors, it grieves you that these brothers have not come home,” he said to the members of the UI and Washington State University ROTC programs who marched in honor of those still missing. “Please remember that we will never break faith. To die in combat is not the worst that can happen. To be forgotten is the worst.”
Friday’s ceremony began a weekend of military appreciation activities at the university that would be capped by ceremonies at Saturday’s Vandal football game.