Veterans Day has bittersweet meaning for a Northeast kansas family this year. Their loved one, Marine Lance Corporal Kurt LaPlant, is finally coming home, 40 years after being shot down over Vietnam.
LaPlant grew up in Clay Center, Kansas, one of eight siblings. When the Milford Dam went in, the LaPlant family moved to Lenexa. A year later, Kurt enlisted in the Marines.
His mother, Marie, says Kurt came home on leave once after basic training for about a week, and it was the last time they saw him. Longtime friend Cathy Haney of Clay Center recalls Kurt walking out of her flower shop for the last time, saying, "See ya. Take care of yourself."
Eight months later, Kurt was killed in Vietnam.
"I spent my 28th birthday planning his memorial service," Cathy said.
On June 6th, 1968, Kurt was in a helicopter that came under enemy fire. It crashed, rolled down a hill and burst into flames. An evac chopper rescued eleven survivors, and recovered eight bodies before it became too dangerous. Four victims, including Kurt, were left among the wreckage. Two weeks later, they were declared dead. Still, without a body, Marie says, "you just know that he's not home yet."
With no remains recovered, Kurt was officially listed as missing in action. His name turned up on POW/MIA bracelets that were popular in the late 70s. Vietnam veteran Max Smith of Clay Center bought one in 1977 that happened to have Kurt LaPlant's name, never realizing their hometown connection. Max says he chose it simply because it was a Marine from Kansas.
For decades, Max wore that bracelet, and, for the LaPlant family, life went on. Then, in August 2007, Kurt's sister, Tina Coddington, and one of her brothers went to a briefing for families in Kansas City. She says it was a briefing for all families from all wars, and they went out of curiousity. What happened next shocked them.
"That's when they told us they had his dog tags and that remains had been recovered but not identified," Tina said.
Turns out, the military revisited the crash site in 1993, went back again in 2000 and 2005, and, in 2006 and 2007, did excavations that yielded the dog tags and remains. In September 2008, Kurt LaPlant was positively identified thru DNA.
Marie admits it's difficult to go through it a second time, but at least they have closure.
As word traveled on Clay Center's radio station, Max Smith realized this was the Marine he'd kept so close for three decades. He says he became emotional, realizing Kurt and his fellow Marines were finally coming home.
The LaPlant family has decided that home will be Arlington National Cemetery. Kurt and the others will be laid to rest together, just as they've been for forty years.
"It's an honor to have him there," Marie said. "He earned it."
The Laplant's are planning the services at Arlington for this spring.
Tina says Kurt's story illustrates that the military will never leave one of their own behind. She says she realizes it takes millions of dollars just to find one man, but, she says, it's important.