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Mission Complete: Wingman’s search helps bring Airmen home after 45 years

1st Lt. David Thomas Dinan III, F-105 Thunderchief pilot, poses in an undated photo. Dinan was killed March 17, 1969 as his aircraft was shot down by enemy fire. Thanks to the perseverance of his former roommate and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Dinan’s remains have been identified and returned to the United States after nearly 50 years in a Laos jungle. His funeral is set for April at Arlington Nation Cemetery.

1st Lt. David Thomas Dinan III, F-105 Thunderchief pilot, poses in an undated photo. Dinan was killed March 17, 1969 as his aircraft was shot down by enemy fire. Thanks to the perseverance of his former roommate and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Dinan’s remains have been identified and returned to the United States after nearly 50 years in a Laos jungle. His funeral is set for April at Arlington Nation Cemetery. (Courtesy Photo)

Retired Col. Edward Sykes poses with his guide Khamphet Keosiryahah on the colonel’s first visit to Laos in 2014 to search for the remains of his former roommate, 1st Lt. David Divan III, who died after his plane was shot down March 17, 1969. The remains were recovered thanks to Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Retired Col. Edward Sykes poses with his guide Khamphet Keosiryahah on the colonel’s first visit to Laos in 2014 to search for the remains of his former roommate, 1st Lt. David Divan III, who died after his plane was shot down March 17, 1969. The remains were recovered thanks to Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. --

“I will never leave an Airman behind.” The words are part of the Airmen’s creed; seven words form a contract sealed in combat; but for retired Col. Edward Sykes, it was a driving force in a 45-year search for his roommate, multiple trips back to Asia and a discovery that culminates next month with a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

First Lt. David Thomas Dinan III, 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron F-105 pilot, died on St. Patrick’s Day 1969, when his aircraft was shot down in Laos on a strike mission. A recovery was attempted, but due to hazardous conditions could not be completed.

Sykes, also an F-105 pilot, became the summary courts officer for Dinan, his roommate, when he died.

The memory stuck with Sykes through the decades that passed and continued to bother him well into his 70s.

Dinan, who completed F-105 training at McConnell Air Force Base in June 1968, is remembered on a stone on the base Memorial Walk.

“Dinan had gone through McConnell six months before I did,” Sykes said. “I got to Southeast Asia. He had been there six months already, and I had not been his roommate very long when he got shot down and killed.”

Like the more than 58,000 military members killed in Vietnam, Dinan’s name is also etched on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.

It was on a trip to the memorial in 2009 that Sykes made a decision that would steer him back to the jungles of Asia and bring closure to Dinan’s case. In a book at the memorial, the status of each American is listed. Dinan’s name had BNR next to it, meaning body not recovered.

“It has always been that way, but 40 years later, and I said this is just not right,” Sykes recalled.

Dinan parachuted out of his F-105 and waved to a forward air controller on his way down, Sykes said. However, it appears his parachute collapsed in the trees, causing him to fall down to the ground, where he died after rolling down a grassy knoll, stopping between a tree and a rock.

A pararescueman went in and found the body, but because of the enemy threat to the area, he and the helicopter crew withdrew before being able to free Dinan’s body.

“One of the reasons I really got involved in looking for his remains was I felt really bad they never recovered his body,” said Sykes.

The first thing Sykes did was track down the remaining family of his former roommate. Dinan’s two brothers were on board with the pilot’s new mission.

Sykes began working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for U.S. missing personnel to their families and the nation. According to the agencies website, 280 remains have been identified and repatriated from Laos, with 293 military members still missing. The website list more than 80,000 missing members from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The agency works in partnership with other nations to conduct Joint Field Activities, which are through investigations and excavations of possible MIA sites.

“I found out they did this field exercises out in the jungles of Laos, and I said I want to go,” Sykes recalled. “I just wanted to get over there and help. They said no. So I decided I was going to go myself.”

In 2012, Sykes first venture to Laos proved someone fruitful as he and his guide found a villager in Xan Noy who believed he knew of the site.

“I was almost 70 years old out there running around,” Sykes said. “I got where I could see the hill.”

However time ran out for the search. A second visit the following year proved unfruitful. Sykes sent photos and accounts of his journey back to the agency.

“The thing that really cracked the case in 2013 was we got a new case officer.”

The case officer, Niall Brannigan, and Sykes had the idea to track down the PJ who reported Divan killed. After a few weeks, the researcher found former Staff Sgt. Leland Sorensen, a pararescueman who earned a Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and six Air Medals during his 12-month stint in Thailand from 1968-69 with 127 combat missions, according to multiple media reports.

“I called him, and asked if he wanted to go back to Laos,” said Sykes. “I started campaigning to let Leland go. He wanted to go so bad he took 21 immunizations.”

In March 2014, Sorensen joined members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command investigative and recovery teams in Laos, with three days to find Dinan.

On the evening of the third day, a call from Laos came through to a small, 10-acre Kansas farm. It was Sorensen with the latest news for his new friend.

“They spent three days stomping in the jungle, and on the very last day, they found the site,” Sykes recalled from the phone conversation. “They saw something on the ground and reached down and picked it up. It was his ID card. Dave Dinan’s ID card had laid on the ground in Laos for 45 years.”

With time working against the team again, a recovery of the remains would have to be planned at a later date. The agency announced positive identification of the remains in August 2017. A funeral for Dinan is planned in April at Arlington National Cemetery, and there is one Airman who would not miss it for the world.

“It is pretty amazing,” said Sykes. “I still can’t believe we did it.  After that first visit, I said it was never gonna happen. It has been gnawing at me for nearly 50 years, and the fact that it has come to closure, I still pinch myself. I’ve done some really neat things in my life, I can’t think of anything I did that gave me this level of satisfaction. I sleep real well at night.”