Remains of Idaho pilot killed in Vietnam finally coming home

On a choppy ship voyage from Hawaii to the continental United States, Don Phelps tenderly carried his 4-year-old, very seasick son onto the deck and held him on the ship railing. Together, they looked out over the water.

"My dad took care of me and held me," Ron Phelps, now 53, said, swirling memories of his father like ice in a glass. "I'll never forget him just pulling me in."

Ron, his mother, Dee, and his three younger siblings have held on to memories like those for almost 44 years.

Don Phelps' helicopter disappeared over the mountains of southern Vietnam in 1965. For decades the family waited and hoped while the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and family advocacy groups searched and lobbied the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to continue searching and to allow better access to crash sites.

Now the family has something more solid.

Don's remains were found and identified earlier this year. The pilot's casket lands on Idaho soil Tuesday - the third missing-in-action serviceman to be brought back to the state since the Vietnam War. He'll be buried Thursday.

But the families of nine other Idahoans who served in Vietnam are still waiting for the day they can trade their hope for closure.

"It's something you think about nearly every day. You live in hope," said Louis Sparks, 76, of Carey. His brother, Army Warrant Officer Jon M. Sparks, disappeared in March 1971 in a helicopter crash in Laos. His body has never been found.

Jon's wife remarried and moved on. Louis has waited decades for news about his brother, who was 17 years younger. In the years since Jon died, Louis' memories have dimmed. But he remembers his brother as a laid-back man who liked to build model cars.

In his last letter home, Jon said he was glad to be in Vietnam because of what they were doing for the people, Louis said.

Jon's parents took his death hard.

"When they declared him dead ... we thought, 'Maybe he will show up and maybe he won't,' " Louis said. "Who knows what they might have done with him. I don't travel and I don't have the money to go look, so I just wait and see."