Lt. Col. Lawrence G. Evert has finally come home.
It took 35 years and what his son calls a "remarkable blessing and miracle in our lives," but the body of the U.S. Air Force pilot shot down Nov. 8, 1967, over Vietnam and listed as missing in action returned July 3, 2002, to the very airport where he said goodbye to his pregnant wife and three children.
Dan and David Evert were 7 and 5, respectively, when they waved goodbye, along with 4-year-old Tamra, to their dad at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Ariz. Their mother was expecting little sister, Elizabeth. Now husbands and fathers themselves, the sons escorted their father's body home and stood on the tarmac as the casket was lowered from the cargo hold of a jetliner
The former branch president was buried with full military honors July 6 in Chandler, Ariz., surrounded by his wife, Wanda Evert Allen; two sons; two daughters; and 14 grandchildren.
Friends, including two who served with him in a branch presidency in Oklahoma some four decades ago, also attended the solemn yet peaceful service held at the Chandler Arizona West Stake center. Presiding over the service was stake President D. Lynn Jones. (Sister Allen, who married Dave Allen in 1982, is a member of the Del Rio 1st Ward, Chandler West stake.)
"People have tried to say how sorry they are," David Evert, a member of the Woodland 2nd Ward, Davis California Stake, said during a telephone interview. "It's not a sorrowful thing. The first 33 years [before the crash site was discovered] were sorrowful. It goes to show a great lesson that great things happen out of faith, and miracles still happen in our time. We are in a state of elation."
David Evert spoke in loving memory of his father and in loving respect for his mother; they married in 1958 in the Mesa Arizona Temple. Lawrence Evert's military career took them around the country, including to Enid, Okla., where he served as branch president. Finally, he bought them a home in Arizona, near his wife's family, and prepared for a four-month duty in Vietnam. The 29-year-old Air Force captain (he was promoted to lieutenant colonel while missing in action) departed in July 1967.
At the time, David Evert recalled, the terminal had a look-out balcony on top of the building. "We went up there. Danny and Tamra and I were standing at the fence when Dad walked out of the terminal building and up the stairs to the TWA [plane]. I remember a red and white TWA plane. He got up to the door and he waved to us. We waved back, and that's the last we saw him."
They didn't know what happened until June 2000, when search personnel of the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Field in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a Joint Task Force discovered the crash site and began identifying remains. Positive identification was not made until October 2001, but items found earlier, including LDS dog tags, pointed toward Capt. Evert. The story, thus, began to unfold for the Evert family.
On Nov. 8, 1967, Capt. Evert, who had already flown 41 missions, was packed to come home. He was a backup pilot that day, not scheduled to fly. But another pilot had mechanical problems, and so Capt. Evert took his F105 Thunderchief up for a bombing run. "He was in the fourth position and flying wing for his friend, Lt. Col. Scott," Dan Evert related. "As they descended down to the bombing site our dad's plane was hit. He called on the radio, 'I'm hit hard.' "
Nobody saw the crash, and, as it was deep in Vietnam, near Hanoi, no one ever knew just what happened. Capt. Evert became one of hundreds of Vietnam MIAs. Until now.
In October 2000, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton invited the Evert sons to accompany him to the crash site during the president's visit to Vietnam. Dan and David went to the site the day before the media event. There, they worked alongside Vietnamese villagers sifting mud and debris. "I had this peaceful feeling," David said. "I knew then it was Dad's site."
David Evert, who served his mission in Taiwan where he played with Laotian and Vietnamese children, called it a "healing process" working with and talking with the villagers the sons and daughters of those who were there the day his dad crashed near their village. "I hope also that they had some healing from all that had gone on [during the war]," he added. "They have missing family, too."
In 2001, Lt. Col. Evert's two daughters also flew to Vietnam to work at their father's crash site. Through it all, they've come to know their father all over again or, you might say, to finally get to know him. "He held his priesthood," David recalled. "He wore it as an armor. Our family knows that when he returned [from his missions] he would get on his knees and pray to his Heavenly Father. That is the type of a person he was. And that is the type of person I want my children to know he was, that he led by example."
David Evert added that along with two silver stars, his father had commendations from commanders who acknowledged not only his military discipline, but also his commitment to his faith.
David is also quick to credit his mother. "Our mother is the second hero for our family. Mom had to pick up the pieces and help her family make it through the struggles. She is also a great member of the Church. She is there and does it 150 percent."
She has done so since that day in 1967 when a blue military car pulled up in the front of the house in Chandler the same house she lives in today. That day she was told her husband wasn't coming home as planned.
He's home now. David Evert said when the jetliner taxied into Sky Harbor Airport July 3 of this year, the pilot, a Vietnam veteran, announced, "Welcome home, Lt. Col. Evert."
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