MORRISVILLE (WRAL) — The remains of Staff Sgt. Donald Stewart arrived home in North Carolina on Monday, more than 50 years after he was killed in Vietnam.
A Delta plane was welcomed by a water cannon salute at about 11:30 a.m. at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Stewart’s coffin was draped in red, white and blue as veterans stood in the rain to salute him.
Stewart’s widow, Wandra Raynor, said she felt like a half century of clouds had been lifted.
“Thank you so much for being here for us,” she said as she gave hugs to the motorcycle honor guard.
In December 1965, Donald Stewart’s plane crashed in enemy territory. He and three Americans were killed, along with 80 Vietnamese troops fighting with them. Bones were recovered years later and interred at Arlington National Cemetery, but Stewart was never identified.
“We were both Vietnam vets, and I guess I was the lucky one that got out,” said Jim Thomas. “I wished he would have. I’m very sorry.”
Stewart did not get an opportunity to meet his daughter, who was born three months after he left for the war.
In 2007, both Raynor and her daughter, Dona, traveled to Vietnam to see the site themselves. A few years later, they learned about a researcher who had some remains collected from the crash. He asked for a DNA sample, and there was a match.
“When I first started doing this, everybody thought leave it alone, leave it alone,” Raynor said. “I never dreamed it would be like this, but just to take his bones in your hand and press it to your heart – it was worth the 50 years.”
Bones from his ankle made the DNA match, but that was all Dona and Wandra Raynor needed.
“He never got to hold his daughter, but she got to hold him, and it was wonderful,” Wandra Raynor said.
Dona Raynor described the experience as surreal.
“It’s not really how you want to meet your dad for the first time – to hold his bones – but I was grateful for the opportunity,” she said.
A funeral service for Stewart will be held on Wednesday in Harnett County. He will be the focal point for the county’s Veterans Day celebration.