Twenty-two years ago, Air Force Academy cadet Amy Santmyer, now Lt. Col. Amy Young, decided she would wear an MIA bracelet honoring Lt. Col. Charles Walling, an F-4C Phantom pilot who was shot down Aug. 8, 1966, during a close air support mission in the Dong Nai province northeast of Saigon, Vietnam.
“MIA bracelets were developed in the 1960s as a way to ensure that fallen service members who are still missing were not forgotten,” Young said. “I thought it was a very fitting tribute for any particular individual that no matter what else goes on, by wearing an MIA bracelet you ensure that at least one person will remember that individual who’s missing, and keep the faith and not give up hope that they’re going to come home.”
Young has been one of those people for Walling, who left behind a pregnant wife and a 2-year-old son after volunteering as a replacement pilot with hopes of returning home in time for the birth of his second son. His body was not found, which left unanswered questions and a lifetime without proper closure for his loved ones.
But in a remarkable turn of events, Young – now with the 80th Operations Group at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas – will lead a four-ship Missing Man flyover June 15 honoring the fellow airman whose name she has worn and remembered for more than two decades.
As the chief of the scheduling division and a T-6 instructor pilot, Young oversees the 80th Flying Training Wing’s flight orientation program, coordinating support and approval for aerial events and flyovers.
Young said periodically the Air Force watch cell at the Pentagon sends out requests for volunteers to support upcoming funerals and memorial services.
“On the day this particular request came in, I just happened to be at my computer and the one to open the email,” she said. “As I was scrolling through the attachment, I immediately recognized the name: Lt. Col. Charles Walling.
“I was absolutely shocked to see his name,” Young said. “As soon as I processed that he had been recovered, I immediately started making phone calls to confirm that they had actually found him and brought him home.”
She immediately initiated the approval process for the flyover, routing it through her chain of command. Within 24 hours the flyover was approved. The 80th Flying Training Wing’s leadership’s decision was quick and easy: “Absolutely. Let’s put him to rest properly.”
It was a surreal moment for Young. She had always intended to return the bracelet to the family, but not in her wildest dreams did she think she would have the opportunity to help lay him to rest.
“Never would I have imagined to have been fortunate enough to be in a position to be able to do something like this for the family, to help lay him to rest the right way and in an honorable way and to show some tangible thanks from a grateful nation,” Young said.
Walling’s funeral will have full military honors and a four-ship missing man flyover of T-6 Texans led by Young. But Young also wanted to offer the Walling family her MIA bracelet so they could lay it to rest with him if they wanted to. So, she contacted the family.
The Walling family was thrilled to hear from Young, for they share a special bond. Now Young will be traveling not only for the flyover, but will attend the visitation and the wake with his family as well.
As a combat pilot herself, Young has always found great comfort in the fact that even if something unspeakable were to happen, without a doubt she knew that her country would come looking for her.
“One of the greatest commitments our country has made that people may not be aware of is that we will not leave a fallen soldier, sailor, airman or Marine behind, and this story is a testament to that fact,” Young said. “That after 46 years we finally brought this particular airman home, to his family. And the entire time that the family was waiting, they were not waiting alone.”
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s entire mission is to search for, recover, and identify missing service members from past conflicts so that their families can lay them to rest.
“I can’t imagine sitting in that awful reality for 46 years of knowing that your loved one is gone but you can’t put them to rest, so you don’t have any closure,” Young said. “But we are finally able to give this family some closure because of the efforts of JPAC.”
When asked how she felt about Walling finally being brought home and the opportunity to participate in his homecoming, Young’s answer was simple.
“I’m absolutely thrilled for the family. To be able to give them closure is tremendous and I feel honored to be a part of that,” Young said. “We can honor his service and sacrifice but also the service and the sacrifice that his family has made for the past 46 years.”
Young has learned a lot from this whole experience and wanted to leave a message of hope for those families who are still waiting on loved ones to return.
“I think my biggest take away from this whole experience is that people and families that are still waiting and don’t have that closure yet – they should remember and know that they are not alone,” she said. “There are men and women working tirelessly to bring them home, and people wearing bracelets keeping the faith with them every day.”