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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Final Flight of Major Tom

It was the second week of December 1965 and 28-year-old Carol Reitmann stood in the middle of the Christmas tree lot, gazing at a leaning forest of noble firs.
Her five-month-old daughter squirmed in her arms while her other three children; six, five and three circled around her.
Tears streamed down Carol’s face, alarming an attendant who jumped in to offer some help.
“Don’t cry lady, I’ll help you find a tree.”

If only picking a Christmas tree was the cause of her heartache, she thought, thinking back a week to when she locked herself in the car after seeing the Wing Commander, his wife, the base doctor and the Catholic Chaplain striding through the parking lot.

“No, no, don’t come over here,” she said, thinking that if they couldn’t get to her, they couldn’t tell her anything. They tried the doors, pounded on the windows, but Carol ignored them. The first drops of an ocean’s worth of tears formed in her eyes, eyes that looked back in disbelief as the rearview mirror shook while someone yanked again on the car door handle.
Finally, she pulled the lock open. Gently, someone asked her to move over and she was driven home without another word spoken.

“He’s dead, isn’t he,” Carol said, already knowing the truth, but not the details.
“We’re not sure, but it doesn’t look good.”

Nothing would look good to Carol Reitmann for a long time.

Air Force Capt. Thomas E. Reitmann
Her husband, then-U.S. Air Force Capt. Thomas E. Reitmann was flying a strike mission as the number three aircraft in a flight of four F-105D Thunderchiefs as part of Operation Rolling Thunder over the skies of North Vietnam.

Reitmann’s target was a railroad bridge located about forty-five nautical miles northeast of Hanoi. As the aircrew approached the target area, they encountered extremely heavy and accurate anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). While attempting to acquire his target and release his ordnance, Reitmann received a direct AAA hit and crashed in Lang Son Province.

Other pilots in the flight observed no parachute, and no signals or emergency beepers were heard. Due to the intense enemy fire in the area, a search-and-rescue team was unable to survey the site and a two-day electronic search found no sign of the aircraft or Reitmann.

Initially lost in grief, Carol had little energy to waste on pity parties for one, so she regrouped and focused on the needs of her two boys and two girls. In 1971, she met a young man by the name of Bill Sumner who along with his roommates and their girlfriends “took me in like a little sister.”

When Tom (who was promoted to major while listed as missing in action) was officially declared killed in action seven and a half years after his fighter jet crashed, the friendship between Bill, who was now single, evolved into “better friends” until one day he asked Carol if she would marry him.

“What? Marry you?” Carol asked.

“Yes,” replied a now-worried Bill.

“Of course I will,” said a smiling Carol, who still appreciates how Bill took on the role of Dad to four young children.

“He lived through all the angst of their teenage years – in the ‘70s, no less,” she said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he’s still with me.”

As the years passed and the children grew into adulthood, Carol and Bill settled into a comfortable life of work and travelling (together, they’ve visited dozens of countries) and the couple, who were foster parents for a number of years, still volunteer in the local community and sponsor five small children in several poor countries.

Although Tom was never forgotten, Carol never expected that after more than forty-five years, she and her family would ever have the chance to say goodbye via a traditional funeral.

That is, until she got a phone call in May 2011 from Allen Cronin, who was calling from Dover, Delaware.
Cronin told her that thanks to the tireless work of the men and women working at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is, in a twist of fate, based only minutes from where Carol and Bill live in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tom’s remains had been found in 2009 and had been positively identified using mitochondrial DNA samples provided years earlier by Tom’s brother, Ed.

“A Vietnamese farmer, working in his cornfield, found some bones and he could have easily thrown them away – but he didn’t. I will be forever grateful to this man and his family, and hope one day that Bill and I can visit over there to thank him personally,” Carol said.
Cronin, who works for the U.S. Air Force Mortuary Affairs, spent months coordinating every detail of the transfer of remains including a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Adorned with an American flag, Tom’s remains were placed in a casket alongside a full, pressed major’s uniform.

His final journey entailed several flights and changes of aircraft. On each occasion, Carol, Bill and other family members were escorted off and on the plane by crew members and watched as numerous Delta ground crew personnel, many of them military veterans, handled the casket with the utmost respect.

During the transition, family members were given a final opportunity to privately view the remains. Karen, the youngest daughter, was only six weeks old when Tom left for Vietnam, so she obviously doesn’t remember him, said her mother.
But now, at last, Karen was able to physically reach out and touch her biological father.
“She took a piece of shin bone and pressed it close to her heart,” said Carol. “Her husband then took a picture. That, for me, is one of the most poignant memories of a journey filled with many, many touching moments.”

Maj. Thomas Edward Reitmann, 34, was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 8, 2011. Former pilots and colleagues, now in their late seventies and eighties, sat next to three generations of Reitmanns and Sumners – including Bill, who had wondered if he should even attend?
“I told him not to be silly, said Carol, “and then the kids told him ‘Dad, if you don’t go, neither will we.’”

Today, Carol is a firecracker of a 75-year-old who “finally stopped coloring my hair as I suppose I should start to look my age.” She's writing a book about the people who’ve helped shape her life, and enjoys sharing her love of reading with her 12-year-old grandson.
“I’m grateful to have had seven great years with Tom, and I’m very happy that Bill has stood by my side through all our adventures,” she said, looking away and back in time for a moment. “God blessed me with two wonderful husbands, which makes me one lucky woman.”
Carol Sumner



Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

What an amazing story. Yes, she needs to write it.

Bonnee Crawford said...

I'd hate to think what pain must have been felt when she was told what had happened. It would have been devastating. A beautiful story right there of people's love and loss and recovery. Definitely a life worth writing about <3

Dani said...

I would bless my shelves with that book.

I shouldn't have read this while at work. Thank goodness I always have tissues at the ready.

Thanks for sharing this. It really is a great tale of love, loyalty and hope.

Karen Lange said...

Wow, what an amazing story! I admire Carol's strength and courage. Thanks so much for sharing it; it brought tears to my eyes.

Thanks also for stopping by my blog and following. It's great to meet a fellow member of Alex's Army!

Have a good week,

loverofwords said...

A great story. Thank you! My dad, who was born in Russia and escaped during the Russian Revolution, told me that one of the things that so impressed him about America, is how they honored their dead soldiers, with such respect and love. This project shows this so well.

Elise Fallson said...

What a mix of emotions in one single post. Thanks for sharing this.

Scarlett said...

Carol's story is a true testament of the strength and courage so many muster in times of war. I cannot imagine, in my own comfortable world, raising my children under these circumstances. Her story really is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Thank you, Mark, for sharing! So glad I popped in today to see what you are up to. Now I see.


David P. King said...

That is such a great story. Tragic as to what happened, but closer is such an important part of loss. This cuts close to home, Mark. Thanks for posting this. :)

Elizabeth Seckman said...

God bless you Carol! Thanks for sharing, Mark. You're a true patriot.

Johanna Garth said...

Such a beautiful story. I would love to read this memoir.

cleemckenzie said...

Beautifully written story and a wonderful way to honor a soldier.

Nancy Thompson said...

What a beautifully touching story! Her story should make for an amazing book! Thanks for sharing.

Julie Flanders said...

This gave me chills and a lump in my throat. What a touching story. And I agree that Carol's story would make a wonderful book!

Brinda said...

I can imagine that this book would inspire many others. It's a great story and tribute.

Jen Conroy said...

Aw- that's lovely. Such a beautiful story & important to be told. :). Thanks for sharing! Thanks also for your time saving points in my blog! They work a treat! ;)

Melissa said...

Wow, what a touching story!
Glad she's writing it. :)

Carrie Butler said...

What a truly moving story.

I'll echo what everyone else has already said: This will make a wonderful book. Thank you for sharing this story!

Lara Schiffbauer said...

Lovely story, Mark. Thanks for sharing it with us!

Kirsten said...

Thanks so much for sharing this.
I will be thinking about Carol's story all day now. Her story is indeed one that will inspire us. I hope to hear more about this in the future!

mshatch said...

I can't imagine how difficult it would be to not know what had happened to your loved one. I'm glad Carol was finally able to have closure.

Mary Aalgaard said...

Oh, this story brings tears to my eyes for so many reasons. The grief of losing someone to the war, a husband when your kids are little, and finding new love, someone who wants to help you and your children and love you. What a great man Bill must be.

michelle said...

What a wonderful ending to a wonderful story!
At least she finally had closure...

Gina Gao said...

This is such a touching story! I can not imagine how hard this was.


Lea said...

Very touching. My husband is with the USAF so this story really had me. So sorry for her to lose her first husband but I'm glad she found the second who took care of her and the kids. And finally a formal funeral was held to honor Major Tom.

Ciara said...

The thought of knowing after all those years is amazing. There were so many missing in action. My family was lucky to have my dad come home. He didn't come back entirely himself, but at least he came home. Thank you for sharing your story. I have chills.

~Sia McKye~ said...

What a beautiful story to share with us Mark! It's the best kind--tears and joys. War is ugly and leaves so many scars on the landscape of the the earth and our hearts. I appreciate Carol's story of both the heartbreak of losing a husband and her heartfelt joy of living a good life beyond that tragedy. Tom was gone, but certainly not forgotten.

I like her closing words here, "God blessed me with two wonderful husbands, which makes me one lucky woman." Amen.


Samantha May said...

What an amazing story. Mark, I'm so glad you shared this! I am also very glad that Tom's remains were found and that he was finally given a proper burial.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mark - that is amazing .. to think that the farmer could so easily have just brushed over the field and ignored those precious bones.

Just a fabulous story - brought tears to my eyes ... that things can come right ... and I'm so pleased Carol and her family had a Service and time with Tom at last ..

Cheers Hilary

M Pax said...

That was a powerful story to read. I look forward to reading what Carol writes.

Leigh Covington said...

It's impossible to read this without getting emotional. What an amazing woman and two amazing men! I'm so thankful they were able to find his remains and have that sort of closure. Also thankful for the sacrifice made by Tom, Carol and family. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

It really just makes my heart melt. It is a story that should be shared because I'm sure there are many out there who can relate.

Nicole said...

This is so powerful! What a blessing the men and women of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command were. They brought about this poignant ending to a truly remarkable story.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Wow. I popped over to your blog after reading your first page on Dianne's site. Figured I'd look around while I was here, and I must say, this post really got to me. My husband was a grunt in Vietnam, so I have some understanding of what Carol must have endured. She's blessed to have another good man in her life, and she's blessed to finally get closure. Thank you so much for sharing her story.

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