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A morning to remember: Honor Flight makes unexpected stop at Arlington National Cemetery

By Steve Ranson

On an unusually warm November morning shortly before lunch at Arlington National Cemetery, a tour bus with Honor Flight Nevada travelers maneuvered around the narrow, windy streets that hugged the row of headstones.

Each row of white headstones extends for yards along the neatly manicured lawns across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

In the distance, the haunting sounds of Taps pierce the still air, noting another warrior has died and is being interred among fellow veterans.

On almost every Honor Flight Nevada visit to Arlington, Yerington resident and volunteer Steven Ward disembarks from the bus to visit his son, Eric, a Marine who died in Afghanistan more than a decade ago. But this trip earlier this month was different. The bus stopped at a second location, allowing for a couple and several fellow travelers to slowly climb down the stairs at Section 34. This stop marked the first time in 28 years Mary Kilgore of Spanish Springs had visited her former husband’s final resting place.

Mary and her husband Brian walked between the headstones to reach Warrant Officer John Frink’s grave that’s shared by two other Army crewmen who died in Vietnam on April 2, 1972. Tears began to well in Mary’s eyes as a half-century of memories began to return when the 26-year-old Frink’s UH-1H Huey helicopter plunged to the ground on a rescue mission after being shot down by the North Vietnamese in an area north of Dong Ha in Quang Tri Province. Also onboard were 1st Lt. Byron K. Kulland and Spec. 5 Ronald P. Paschall.

The Army had originally listed the crew as missing in action.

Teenage sweethearts

Mary and John were high-school sweethearts in New Mexico. Mary’s parents had divorced, but she was sent to Albuquerque to stay with her aunt. Soon, her daily routine included playing the piano six to eight hours a day. Mary explained her cousin knew Frink, who worked at a pharmacy, and the teenage couple began to date in their junior and senior years.

On June 6, 1970, Frink proposed.

“I said yes, but our parents were upset,” she recalled.

Mary said their parents told them they had to complete a year of college before they married.

“John started college and hated it,” Mary said. “He wanted to get out plus the draft. His number was in the 200s, and we knew he was going to go.”

John Frink. Image: Department of Defense

Frink enlisted instead of waiting for the draft, knowing he would be sent to Vietnam. They married on April 24, 1971, and spent several days on a honeymoon. Frink returned to Texas to complete his basic instruction for flying.

“When I finished that first year of college, I joined him. We went to Fort Rucker (Alabama) where he did the rest of his training. He had 30 days of leave, and we went to Disney World after it opened (Oct. 1, 1971),” she recalled.

In less than five months, Frink received his orders to report to Vietnam and left for the war-torn country on Feb. 17, 1972. Mary said she couldn’t go to the airport to send her husband off.

“He didn’t want a scene,” she said. “We said goodbye at the apartment and off he went. John went to Vietnam, and I got a few letters, and a few recordings. Somehow, he never got time to set up an allotment to get me money so I was without any income during that period.”

A shocking revelation

Mary’s life changed in less than two months. On a day she can’t forget, she stocked up on supplies at the store, but she saw a newspaper reporting on a helicopter crash in Vietnam. A gut feeling overcame her. She had a hunch one of the dead Huey soldiers was her husband. Coincidentally, she later received a call telling her several soldiers would be coming to see her, but she thought it was in response to a letter Frink had written to the Army.

“The night before, I saw what happened,” she remembered. “I had a dream.”

In reality, two soldiers visited Mary and told her about the crash. 

“I fell to the ground,” Mary remembers. “And then I screamed.”

Months shy of her 20th birthday, Mary became a widow although the Department of Defense originally listed the crew as missing in action. Mary encountered a rough patch trying to cope with Frink’s death. At one point she didn’t want to live anymore … she held a handful of valium, ready to pop all of them in her mouth. 

A girlfriend intervened and told Mary to stop and to move forward.

Mary knew she had to move on as painful as Frink’s death was.

“I applied to the University of New Mexico College of Nursing and was accepted,” she said. “That saved my life.”

Mary earned her diploma and went to New York City to receive additional training. Eventually, she wanted to become a military nurse. She first applied to the U.S. Air Force, but she didn’t meet the height and weight standards. Both her parents served in the Air Force, and she had a father-in-law who was a Navy pilot during World War II. The Navy, though, accepted her.

“I said OK. I wanted to go into the Navy,” she said. 

Mary, who became an officer, eventually trained at both Pensacola, Florida, and Newport, Rhode Island, where the Navy had major installations. It was at the officers’ club after a seminar where Mary was celebrating her birthday when a friend introduced her to Brian Kilgore, a Navy pilot.

“Brian and I met, and we were just friends,” she said. “We found out we had a lot in common. A year or so later, we started dating, and he proposed to me.”

Still no word, though, on John Frink, whose status had him now listed as killed in action but still MIA.

A UH-1H Iroquois similar to the one Frink went down in. Image: Russavia / Flickr CC2.0
A UH-1H Iroquois helicopter similar to the one Frink went down in. Image: Russavia / Flickr CC2.0

Frink’s remains found

Moving forward to 1994, Mary was working at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, the same facility where she worked as a candy striper in the late 1960s. As she walked through the doorway, she glanced at the newspapers.

“There was John’s picture. His remains were found,” she said. “I started reading the story at the newspaper stand, and I went to my boss. I told him I need to get out of here. I can’t deal with it. I don’t know what’s going on. Why did I find out through the newspaper?”

Mary soon discovered that since she had remarried, she wasn’t entitled to receive any information on Frink. She and Frink’s parents were estranged, so that cut off any communication stream, and they didn’t tell her.

“On the front page was the ceremony,” Brian Kilgore said. “A Civil War-era woman was a stand-in widow.”

Mary sued the government and won so that any spouse, whether they remarried or not, would be notified of any information on a missing or killed loved one. The DOD eventually flew only Mary to Arlington National Cemetery where she visited Frink’s grave while Brian remained home in Nevada.

Twenty-five years later, Mary yearned for another opportunity to visit Arlington, but she learned earlier this year of an Honor Flight Nevada for some Gold Star parents for early November.

“When Honor Flight had an opportunity for Gold Star families, I took up the offer,” she said, noting Frink’s anniversary of his death occurred a little more than a half century ago.

Prior to leaving on the Honor Flight from Reno on Nov. 3, Mary and Brian visited the Nevada Veterans Memorial Plaza in Sparks, which was having its dedication at the end of the week.  Mary had been involved with the efforts to build the plaza, but she had reservations about not attending the ceremony. 

“The ribbon cutting was very important to me,” Mary said.

That apprehension turned to joy in less than 48 hours, yet many moving parts to the Kilgore’s visit occurred — as a soldier would say. In stepped their son.

Don’t tell mom

Capt. Jason Kilgore, a former Nevada National Army guardsman who once drilled with the 609th Combat Engineer Company in Fallon, eventually joined the ROTC program at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he received his degree. 

“I always wanted to serve. I loved every second in the 609th,” Jason said. “I thought I would stay enlisted. I was a private first class and had a few soldiers below me.”

Prior to enlisting and also enrolling at the university, Kilgore attended both Spanish Springs and Reed high schools, where he played football and wrestled. 

After graduating from UNR, he accepted a commission and became an active-duty second lieutenant, eventually being assigned to Ft. Drum, New York, a six-hour drive from Washington, D.C.

Operation Don’t Tell Mom, though, was underway.

“I got a call from a 775 (Reno prefix) number,” Jason Kilgore said. “I always ignore it as spam. For some reason, I need to answer this call. I get terrible, terrible service at Fort Drum. I got the call.” 

‘Am I speaking with Jason Kilgore?’

‘Yes, speaking,’ the captain replied.

Dawn Forbus, a board member with Honor Flight Nevada, asked Jason if he would be willing to write a letter to his parents. As the conversation extended from under a minute to minutes, Forbus and Jason devised a plan for him to travel to the nation’s capital and surprise his parents at Frink’s gravesite.

“She asked me if I could come in uniform,” said the younger Kilgore, commander of the Signal, Intelligence, and Sustainment Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division.

The plot hatched with a tale of sickness. Jason told his parents he couldn’t come to Washington, D.C. because of he was ill.

“I laid it on so thick, there was no possible way I could come,” he moaned. 

Mary agreed and told her son not to meet them.

Meanwhile, Jason received permission to take leave from his commander, Lt. Col. Pete Young. Within 5 minutes, Young signed the leave request, and a week later, the young captain was Washington, D.C.-bound with his wife, Christine, and their three children.

Beyond mail call

With each passing day, the plan slowly developed. Forbus said Jason agreed to write a letter for mail call, but he had no hesitation in driving to Arlington. He wanted this to be a secret. Finding the location and the right scenario took time. Forbus said the bus driver, Keith Foster, knew where to stop.

“We were not going to Arlington and not see him,” Forbus insisted. “She (Mary) never bothered me or questioned. She was gracious going along with the program. But as it got closer and talking to Jason, he knew where we were going.”

The bus pulled up at section 34, and Forbus asked the Kilgores, who were wearing dark blue Honor Flight Nevada T-shirts to indicate Gold Star, to leave the bus with her. They reached Frink’s headstone with a newspaper reporter and television cameraman tagging along.

Standing in front of the headstone with her husband at her side, Mary tilted her head slightly downward as did Brian.

Meanwhile, less than a hundred feet away on a small grassy knoll, Jason, Christine and the three boys watched. Jason then saw an opportunity to slowly approach Frink’s headstone. 

“I came in front of her from the high ground,” Jason said.

Army Capt. Brian Kilgore, who formerly drilled with the 609th Combat Engineer Company in Fallon, surprises his mother, Mary, at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 5, 2022.  For the first time in 25 years, Mary was visiting her first husband’s grave. WO1 John Frink was shot down in Vietnam in 1972.
Steve Ranson / LVN
Army Capt. Jason Kilgore, who formerly drilled with the 609th Combat Engineer Company in Fallon, surprises his mother, Mary, at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 5, 2022. For the first time in 25 years, Mary was visiting her first husband’s grave. WO1 John Frink was shot down in Vietnam in 1972. Steve Ranson / LVN

Mary didn’t see her son approaching. She was in deep thought internalizing the moment.

Then Jason inched toward the headstone and stopped directly in front of his mother.

“I see this person come up to me in an officer’s uniform. I look at his face. That’s my son. That’s Jason,” Mary remembered.

Mary screamed “Jason, Jason” and started crying.

In the meantime, Forbus returned to the bus and explained Honor Flight Nevada’s version of a classic Hallmark movie ending.

“It just became a sweet thing,” Forbus said, her voice choking a little.

She told the rest of the Honor Flight passengers what occurred at the Frink headstone.

“And of course the whole bus was crying,” Forbus added. 

Meanwhile, at the headstone, Brian thought the officer was an re-enactor until he looked up and saw Christine following with the three boys in tow.

Brian and Mary were stunned.

“He pulled it off,” Mary said. “They wanted to fix something that happened 50 years ago and wanted to do this for me … that was actually mind blowing.”

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