More than 40 years after he was declared missing in action, Gary Pate will be laid to rest this week at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
But it will be the remnants of an archaeological site in Laos and not Pate’s body that will be interred. Pate and the rest of his crew aboard the C-130 Hercules are believed to have crashed at the site in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Pate’s mother, South Hall woman Joan Praet, and her family said they appreciate the U.S. Air Force’s efforts in the matter.
But they haven’t found closure, emotionally or otherwise.
“I think the Air Force has done all it can do to put a finality on this for them, but ... this is not final at all for me. It’s not for me by a long shot,” said David Pate, Gary Pate’s youngest brother. “They never found any evidence of his body.”
Other family members, meeting at Praet’s home last week to discuss the trip for the ceremony, nodded their heads in agreement.
“Closure is just a word that people say,” Praet said. “It’s hard to explain to people why it isn’t.”
“I think it’s sort of like a wound that heals and leaves a scar,” said Pate’s other brother, Kenny. “I don’t know if the story will ever end. ... It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Gary Pate, born in June 1946 to Joan and Loyd Pate, enlisted in the Air Force in 1965 and ended up based in Okinawa. He served as a load master aboard the C-130, which served as a “flare ship” that lit up the skies over the Ho Chi Minh trail, a main supply route for North Vietnamese forces.
Pate went on a mission May 22, 1968, and never returned to base.
Praet learned about his missing status from two young airmen who knocked on her door on a Wednesday night.
“There was a fire on the ground but too much enemy action to get close enough to tell whether or not there was a plane down,” she said, recalling their description of the incident.
She recalled her initial reaction.
“I was in total denial. I told them they had the wrong house,” Praet said.
Pate’s status changed in 1975 to killed in action based on a “thorough review of the circumstances.” By then, Praet had long suspected her son’s C-130 Hercules had crashed in some enemy-ridden jungle.
In the meantime, though, she had visited Washington to look at records and take part in meetings “to tell us what to expect in the event our prisoners came home.”
Praet endured other difficult times. Her first husband died in 1970. She remarried John Praet in 1981, and he died in 1988.
In 2002, she learned of Air Force plans to excavate crash sites from the Vietnam War era.
Praet heard from the Air Force on May 26, 2009, that an excavation at the crash site revealed several personal items of the C-130 crew, including her son’s dog tags.
The family attended an Oct. 3 memorial service in Fayette County — where the siblings grew up — and waited for word on a military ceremony at Arlington.
They also received a letter that day from Gov. Sonny Perdue.
“We are thankful for his life and sacrifice,” Perdue wrote. “Please know that you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers.”
The Air Force ceremony will take place Thursday morning and will feature a flyover, an honor guard and a processional performed by the Air Force Band.
Praet will be presented with a U.S. flag and a wooden flag case.
According to a letter to Praet from the Air Force, “group remains (of the crew) will be prepared and placed in a military specification, 18-gauge steel casket.”
Also, “a new Air Force dress blue uniform will be prepared and placed in the casket” and a colonel “will serve as the escort to accompany the casket to (the cemetery).”
The military is paying for the family’s travel and hotel expenses, as well as providing a daily allowance.
“It is nice to know that our tax dollars are going to something that I think is worthwhile,” David Pate said. “Of course, it has touched me personally.”