By Griffin Swartzell | 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — In 1967 a 12-year-old boy received a telegram notifying him that an aircraft carrying his father, Maj. Mark Stephensen, had failed to return after a mission in North Vietnam.
That boy was Mark Stephensen II, vice-chairman for the National League of POW/MIA families and guest speaker during the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Remembrance ceremony Sept. 19 at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
Stephensen describes his response at the time as disbelief.
“In 1967, the war was gearing up significantly,” he explains. “There had been other losses, other pilots that had been shot down, who’d been stationed there at Mountain Home [Air Force Base, Idaho] and were in dad’s squadron. If a blue staff car with a white roof showed up outside of your house, you knew, it was not gonna be a good day.”
The Air Force took care of Stephensen and his family, he said, offering comfort and support in their time of need, and promoting the missing major to colonel. In 1970, Stephensen’s mother joined the then-new NLPF and acted as the state coordinator for Idaho. Years later, in 1984, Stephensen would take over for her.
The NLPF works to support the fullest possible accounting of unreturned veterans, the term Stephensen says is preferred for describing service members who are missing in action. Their original charter deals specifically with unreturned veterans from the Vietnam War, but they support accounting and repatriation of remains in all conflicts for all U.S. personnel.
“Our organization was instrumental in getting a defined organization [the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency] for that, to go above casualty offices and mortuary affairs into a unit that is specifically designated for recovery of missing personnel,” he says.
To this day, he and his organization are in near-daily contact with the DPAA to support their efforts.
“It’s not so much the league’s accomplishment, but as a result of this effort to work with our government, 1,057 missing in action have been returned since the end of the war,” says Stephensen. “And my father is one of those.”
In 1988, 21 years after his father went missing, Stephensen finally got closure. His father’s remains were repatriated to the U.S., and just like in 1967, his first response was disbelief.
“I think I said something completely silly, like I think you gotta be kidding me, knowing full well there was a higher probability of accountability because it was a multiple-crew aircraft and one member of the crew [Capt. Gary Siglar, then a 2nd Lt. and the crashed aircraft’s navigator] had been recovered,” he says. “I had been on the board of directors for years at that time, so I know exactly what had to occur for that to happen.”
As of Sept. 13, 2019, the DPAA reports that 1,587 Americans remain missing from the Vietnam War. But Stephensen is hopeful, saying that National POW/MIA Recognition Day and POW/MIA Remembrance Week are reminders to never forget the nation’s unreturned veterans and to never lose faith.
As for Stephensen, he still remembers his father as a humorous, humble man who joined the Air Force to be a cook and wound up a pilot instead.
“He made us laugh all the time,” Stephensen says. “He was a hero, but he’d come home, and he was a regular dad. He took care of all of us.”