Exactly 45 years after an Air Force pilot disappeared over Laos, his family finally had their chance to say their goodbyes in a repatriation ceremony at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., Dec. 13.
Following the ceremony, Col. Francis J. McGouldrick Jr.’s family accompanied his flag-draped coffin to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.
“A wise man once said that if you go into the marketplace, you will find a potter hitting his clay pots with a stick to show how strong and solid they are,” Chaplain (Col.) David M. Fitz-Patrick said to McGouldrick’s daughters Michele (“Mitch”), Melisa, Megan and Marri and other family members and friends. “But the potter, of course, hit only the strongest pots; he never hit the delicate or flawed ones. So, too, we believe God sends tests for strength, integrity, service and excellence to people he knows are capable of handling them. Because God does that, others are able to learn their own strengths. I believe your dad did that.
“In his short life, he showed his own strength, courage, love for life, for family and for country,” the chaplain said. “But he has also shown each of you, whose lives he touched either directly or indirectly, and your own possibilities. He has shown you how to find your strength.”
On Dec. 13, 1968, McGouldrick served as a navigator on a B-57E Canberra on a night strike mission when the aircraft collided with a C-123 Provider over Savannakhet Province. McGouldrick was never seen again and was listed as missing in action. In July 1978, a military review board amended McGouldrick’s official status to presumed killed in action, according to a DOD POW/Missing Personnel Office news release.
Between 1993 and 2004, several attempts to locate the crash site proved unsuccessful, but on April 8, 2007, a joint team located a possible crash site near the village of Keng Keuk. From October 2011 to May 2012, joint U.S. and Laos teams recovered human remains and aircraft wreckage consistent with a B-57E.
Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command scientists and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, such as mitochondrial DNA, which matched McGouldrick’s great nephew and niece, to identify McGouldrick, according to the release.
Before the family received the answers they’d been searching for since they first learned McGouldrick was declared missing, his wife Jacqueline and two siblings died. However, his children and grandchildren were able to finally see him return and receive the burial with full military honors he was due.
McGouldrick’s ceremony was the first of its kind at the Air Force Memorial. However, Barbara Taylor, the Air Force Memorial’s managing director, expects there to be more, with another veteran’s family already expressing interest in having their service on the site overlooking Washington.
“This was the first time a funeral has been held at the Air Force Memorial, to my knowledge,” Taylor said. “But we were very honored Colonel McGouldrick’s family chose the memorial to have the service for their dad, granddad and great-granddad here in this beautiful setting.”
There remain more than 1,600 American service members still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, according to DOD figures.
“The United States stands well ahead of all of the world’s nations by signaling to all that every possible effort will be made to ensure those who serve our country come home, alive or dead,” said Ann Mills-Griffiths, the National League of POW/MIA Families chairman. “Some may see today as sad, and definitely it’s a day of emotion and a day of remembrance for all of you young ladies who are grown women now and your families and friends of Colonel McGouldrick. But from where I stand, it is truly a day of celebration, the result of difficult and dedicated efforts over many years by some who are in this group here today. At long last, the uncertainty surrounding this fine American, son, brother, husband, father, pilot, teacher, instructor and friend has ended.
“Even though each circumstance is very different, the uncertainty is constant and never ending until today,” she said. “No matter how realistic you try to be, no matter how brave the face you try to show publicly, only answers bring the finality, the sense of knowing, that some refer to as closure.”