She was contacted out of the blue by a woman named Tammy in Seattle. Tammy owns a cabinet company, has a radio show about home improvements, and employs Vietnam veterans. Tammy’s own son is a disabled vet. “Sue, my name is Tammy. I heard about Doug’s remains coming back to Tacoma, and I would like to make his casket. I’ll then send the casket to Hawaii so that Doug’s remains can be brought home.”
How do you live a full and faithful life when your brother is missing in action for forty-four years? How do you persevere in searching for him for most of your adult life? And how do you welcome him home when the long journey is finally over?
From the time he was a little boy, Douglas David Ferguson loved flying. Born in 1945 in Tacoma, Washington, Doug spent countless hours putting together model airplanes, and as he grew older, the planes got bigger. Doug often went to a local airport near Fircrest, where he could fly for a penny a pound, a service intended to encourage children, youth and adults to develop an interest in flying.
Doug never outgrew his interest in airplanes and received an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy, where he became a member of the 16th Squadron. Graduating in 1967, Doug entered flight training, choosing to fly the F-111 as a pilot. When the F-111was grounded, Doug was reassigned to the F-D4 Phantom II and stationed in Thailand with the 555th Tactical Air Squadron.
Doug married Linda in 1968, before he went overseas in the summer of 1969. After just five months, Doug’s plane was shot down over Laos on December 30, 1969, and he was listed as Missing in Action. Just nine days before Doug went down, he and his pilot received the Silver Star for taking on fire to distract the enemy so that two pilots could be rescued. Captain Douglas David Ferguson always wanted to contribute his skills and courage at the highest level that he possibly could. He always wanted to be at his best.
Dreams are sometimes scrambled and difficult to interpret, but Sue Scott had a dream at the exact time her brother Doug’s plane went down. She dreamed that Doug was in an accident in the southwest part of the United States. It was so very real, but when she woke Sue told herself that everything was okay. After all, Doug was in Southeast Asia. That very day, Sue received the news from Doug’s wife, Linda.
Six weeks later, Sue just knew that she would find a letter in the mailbox. Sure enough, there was the letter confirming Doug as missing in action with a photo of what military officials thought were parachutes hanging in a tree. Right then Sue made a commitment to do whatever it took to find Doug and bring him home.
How do you carry on, not knowing whether your brother is alive or dead? Twenty months older than Doug and having a young family herself, Sue had difficulty coping. She would not give herself permission to have fun and enjoy life, convinced she would be dishonoring Doug’s sacrifice. Sue realized that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and sought help. Eventually, the fog lifted.
Meanwhile, Sue was instrumental in forming the POW Committee of Michigan and accepted numerous speaking engagements to communicate the plight of MIA’s and POW’s. She also became involved with the National League of POW-MIA families of Southeast Asia, served as the chairperson for many years, and still sits on the board. According to the website, “The League’s sole purpose is to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War.” There are still 1,642 personnel listed by the Department of Defense as missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
How do you keep up hope or experience any sense of closure as the emotional roller coaster of years and decades goes by with no news? What does it feel like to wear a POW-MIA bracelet for forty-four years? It is mandated by Congress that two family members of POW-MIA families are flown into Washington D.C. every year for a briefing and update with their casualty officer. For years Doug’s status was in a holding pattern. Then, in 1994, officials first located the crash site. In 1997 pieces of equipment were found. Ten years later Sue made a trip to Southeast Asia. She was within fifteen minutes of the site, but no one could reach it because of the danger of being shot down in Laos.
It was not until April of 2013 that human remains were discovered, including six teeth. Doug’s dogtags were also found, still taped together, along with a piece of handkerchief with an American flag on it. Mitochondrial DNA testing identified Doug’s remains, and he was officially accounted for on February 14, 2014. Doug was finally coming home. Sue said, “That little flame of hope, it maybe gets smaller, but it never goes out. When you finally get an answer, it’s bittersweet.”
How do you plan a memorial service for a loved one who has been missing for over forty-four years? With respect, care, and full military honors. Tammy made the casket in Seattle with wood from New England and hardware from Virginia. A funeral director from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware was assigned to work with Sue.
On Thursday, May 1, a formal welcome home for Doug at the Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle included a water cannon salute, crossed ladders with a huge America flag on an overpass on Interstate 5, and firefighters and military personnel saluting Air Force Captain Douglas Ferguson’s funeral procession. A memorial service was held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, including a twenty-one gun salute, taps, and a flyover.
The commander of one of the squadrons spoke at the service. Wearing a MIA bracelet, he said this was the first time he had the opportunity to welcome a MIA home. Friends and family sang “God Bless America,” the tradition whenever a POW comes home. Sue says that she has learned many things over these last forty-four years of waiting.
- She learned the importance of persistence, gaining new skills and doing things she never imagined over the years. Sue vowed never to give up the search for Doug.
- Sue has great respect and admiration for the military, for the sensitive way in which they kept up the search and honored her brother for his service. She also acknowledged that many other Vietnam vets did not receive the same recognition for their service when they came home.
- Sue was amazed at the generosity of spirit of so many people in offering to facilitate Doug’s homecoming, many of whom never knew Doug. She said, “One of the greatest gifts we can give to others is to allow them to help us.”
- Sue was deeply gratified to connect again with Doug’s wife as well as with friends from her childhood and men from Doug’s squadron.
- Most profound, Sue learned to let go of control and be open to God’s abundance. She said, “If I had tried to control every piece of this honoring of Doug, we might have missed the incredible outpouring of love, support and respect that Doug so deserved.”
- Finally, Sue said, “I learned to trust God’s plan. It was like Doug was ready to be home. He was every bit a part of the service as if he were there in the flesh.”
During Doug’s memorial service, a poem called High Flight was read. Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American serving with Royal Canadian Air Force, composed it in
August or September 1941 and sent it to his parents. On December 11, 1941, his Spitfire collided with another plane over England, and the nineteen-year old crashed to his death. Magee was born in China the son of missionary parents.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds
and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of;
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.
On December 30, 1969, Captain Doug Ferguson put out his hand and touched the face of God in his death. On May 1, 2014, Doug’s family and friends put out their hands and touched the face of God as they let him fly. On this Memorial Day weekend, may we, too, touch the face of God by remembering and giving thanks.