By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol, U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
/ Published May 20, 2008
FORT DIX, N.J. --
For as long as he's been in the military, Maj. Phil Heseltine wore a very special bracelet.
After 18 years though, the original patina of the aluminum bracelet began to wear off.
Additionally, when he flew combat missions in the KC-135R Stratotanker for Operations Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, he had to take the bracelet off. He says "that's why the crack developed on the front."
No matter what happened over 18 years of constant wear, one thing always stayed clearly visible on the POW/MIA bracelet -- the name of "Maj. Robert F. Woods."
"I purchased the bracelet in 1990 during a POW/MIA event at my Air Force ROTC detachment," Major Heseltine said. "Since I was going to school in Utah, I wanted one from a local veteran."
Major Heseltine, a self-proclaimed "life-long Air Force brat," was commissioned in 1993 from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Besides flying as a pilot of a KC-135R, he's been an administrative officer, section commander, protocol officer, assistant operations officer and student, to his current duty as executive officer to the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center commander on Fort Dix, N.J. In all that time, he's had the bracelet. That is until April 9 when he gave the bracelet a new home with the family of Major Woods.
"When I first heard the news that he was found, it was through a phone call I received from my college friend, Mike Hawkins, a former Air Force major and fellow Air Force ROTC cadet," Major Heseltine said. "He told me he read about the positive identification of Major Woods' remains by the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii."
The first press release Major Heseltine's friend drew information from came out on Nov. 30, 2007, from the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. In the release they noted Major Woods and his flying mate, Capt. Johnnie C. Cornelius of Maricopa County, Ariz., were identified by JPAC.
Additionally, the release said that on June 26, 1968, Major Woods and Captain Cornelius were flying a visual reconnaissance mission over Quang Binh Province, Vietnam, when their O2-A Skymaster aircraft crashed in a remote mountainous area the crew of another aircraft in flight saw no parachutes and reported hearing no emergency beeper signals.
Between 1988 and 2004, JPAC coordinated numerous visits to the crash site and recovered remains, personal effects and additional artifacts, the release shows. The key information came in 2006 when a joint team interviewed two former North Vietnamese soldiers who recalled the crash.
"The soldiers said that Woods and Cornelius were buried near the crash site," the release states. "In 2007, another joint team excavated the burial site identified by the Vietnamese soldiers. The team recovered additional human remains."
Now with news of the major's return, Major Heseltine wanted to find a way to contact the family.
"I had my friend Mike contact a reporter in Salt Lake City to tell family I had his bracelet and would like to get it to them," Major Heseltine said. The reporter called me, and after getting the approval of the family, connected me with Mrs. Lana Taylor - Major Woods' oldest daughter."
Within days, Major Heseltine and Mrs. Taylor were in contact with each other.
"I called and soon got through to Phil and then it was e-mails after that," Mrs. Taylor said.
The two set a date and time to meet - April 9 at 10 a.m. at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. As the time passed until the meeting at Arlington, Major Heseltine learned more about Major Woods and the similarities they shared. He learned how Major Woods had been a tanker pilot like him, had served in numerous combat missions like him, and was a devoted family man.
"The similarities in our aviation backgrounds are very striking," Major Heseltine said. "Not only are we both pilots, we are both air refueling pilots. There is also a bit of kinship in that when he was shot down he was a major, not much older than I am now. It makes you think of what this would do to my family if I were to become MIA. How traumatic would it be to not know whether a parent is alive, in captivity, or had been killed?"
Participating in the funeral for Major Woods and giving the bracelet to the family was something Major Heseltine thought about constantly in the days leading up to April 9.
"This was a very personal event for me and I wanted to ensure my role in the events were not overstated," Major Heseltine said. "Most importantly I wanted to make sure I would not be an intrusion to this Woods family memorial. It was important to me that the event was handled in a respectful manner."
As the day came, Major Heseltine took the time to be prepared. He went to the Washington D.C. area a day before the funeral and made sure he had everything just right. Then on April 9, just minutes before 10 a.m., he and his wife Jenny and daughters Alexa and Livie made their way to Meeting Room C in the administration building of Arlington National Cemetery. There they waited for the Woods family to arrive.
"I'll admit I was nervous," Major Heseltine said. "But once they arrived and I met them I saw what wonderful people they all were."
The funeral started at 11 a.m. so the first hour was for family and friends of Major Woods to come together and remember his life and history. Major Heseltine was the first to do a presentation to the family with his bracelet. The original intent was to give it to Mrs. Taylor, but she said to present it to her brother Chuck, the only son and the youngest of Major Woods' children. Chuck was only 8 years old when his father disappeared.
"I'll tell you -- that presentation is not one we are going to forget very soon," Mrs. Taylor said. "Of course I asked him to present it to my brother, but then no one knew that my brother was going to present the bracelet to his son Mackenzie. I know why though - it's because he's the only one carrying on the Woods name now. That all was very emotional."
Chuck Woods added, "It was a nice gesture for him to present it to the family."
As Mackenzie took the bracelet from his father, they shared a tear-filled hug. Mackenzie's surprise soon turned to an appreciation and soon he was learning more about the bracelet from Major Heseltine. Watching all of this take place found its way to a special place in Mrs. Taylor's heart.
"What kind, kind compassionate people they are," Mrs. Taylor said. "I'm just ... overwhelmed. I mean he could have just sent the bracelet. He didn't have to do anything. He didn't even have to recognize the fact or let us know he had the bracelet, but he did right away. And e-mailing me and keeping in touch with me -- he didn't have to do that."
Following the presentation, Major Heseltine participated in the funeral and saw the tribute the Air Force paid to Major Woods nearly 40 years after he disappeared.
"It was a very surreal event," Major Heseltine said. "I barely remember all the Air Force Honor Guard members and the firing detail. As much as the family wanted me there I still couldn't help feeling like an intruder. While watching the events, I tried to imagine the frustration and sense of loss they must have felt during the past 40 years. I hope the memorial and internment will provide them the needed closure which has impacted at least four generations."
Major Heseltine hopes to remain in touch with the family whether through e-mail, phone calls or other means.
"I gave Mrs. Taylor all my information," Major Heseltine said. "I would like to stay in contact with them, but that is entirely up to them. I feel like they embraced me and my family into theirs and I hope they do want to stay connected."
Additionally, Major Heseltine said, he plans on getting a new bracelet because POW/MIA men and women are people "we should never forget."
"We have to remember because there are 1,800-plus service members who are still unaccounted for from Vietnam," Major Heseltine said. "Never leaving our people behind is one of the traits that make us, as Americans, different from the rest of the world."
And Major Heseltine is no ordinary American if you ask Mrs. Taylor. She is very appreciative of his willingness to honor a family.
"The fact that he was willing to put on his dress uniform and come down - and then to bring his family -- I'm just overwhelmed," Mrs. Taylor said.