Local News

Harnett County veteran's remains coming home

Posted August 21, 2015 3:56 p.m. EDT
Updated November 11, 2015 6:08 p.m. EST

— A Harnett County veteran is coming home this Veterans Day after more than 50 years.

Staff Sgt. Donald Stewart, of Coats, was serving in the Vietnam War when he was killed in action in a plane crash on Dec. 11, 1965, in Phú Yên, Vietnam. He left behind a wife, Wandra Raynor, and an unborn daughter, Donna, who have been working to bring his remains home.

“"She [Donna Raynor] never got to see her dad, and I thought, 'Well, we're going to do that. We’re going to go on a mission,'" Wandra Raynor said.

Stewart will be the focal point of this year’s Harnett County Veterans Day program on Nov. 11 at Veterans Memorial Park in Lillington. It will be followed by a memorial ceremony for Stewart and the burial of his remains, which have been held in Hawaii since they were recovered from Vietnam.

Following the plane crash that killed Stewart, four crew members and 81 Vietnamese troops who were fighting with the Americans, all remains that could be found from the crash were collected.

Decades later, Raynor was told her husband’s remains had been identified and had been buried in Arlington. She went to the memorial service but "never felt good about it."

"There was just something that kept bugging me, and I don't know what," she said.

Stewart’s daughter and his brother provided DNA samples and recently, some remains that were found after the fact were identified as Stewart’s.

“The story of Staff Sgt. Stewart and what his family went through to bring his remains back home is amazing and I hope that in the future, the families of all veterans whose remains are still missing will see them returned home," said Veterans Council President Amy Noel.

Noel said the remains will be flown by the U.S. Air Force from Hawaii to Dover, Del., and then to Raleigh where members of several area veterans motorcycle groups will escort the remains back to Harnett County to be buried.

She said this year’s event will also be special because of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War.

“It’s especially important that we recognize our veterans of the Vietnam War because of what they went through when they first came home,” she said. “Our soldiers who served in other wars were applauded when they came home and these veterans deserve the same recognition.”

The Veterans Day Ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. at Veterans Memorial Park beside the Harnett County Courthouse in Lillington. The ceremony will feature guest speakers as well as the unveiling of the county’s Vietnam War Memorial, which includes Stewart’s name. His daughter will be presented with the medals her father earned during his service.

A traveling version of the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., will also be on display before and during the ceremony. The ceremony will conclude with the laying of a wreath while Taps is played. Once the ceremony ends, refreshments will be served in the Harnett County Commons Area.

The Veterans Day Parade will begin at 1 p.m. in Downtown Lillington with the line-up beginning at noon. The parade will start on 10th Street and end on West Lofton Street.

Stewart’s family will serve as the grand marshals for this year’s parade, along with any Vietnam veterans who would like to participate.

After the parade, the public is invited to reconvene for a memorial ceremony for Stewart, followed by the burial of his remains. He will be buried by the U.S. Air Force with full military honors.

Noel said she would love for this year’s Veterans Day program to be the largest since Harnett County began commemorating the occasion in 2002.

“I want everyone in Harnett County to know and appreciate what these veterans have done and continue to do for them,” she said.

For parade applications, go to www.harnett.org/veterans/. Any Vietnam Veteran who would like to ride in the parade should contact Noel at anoel@harnett.org.