Eilers service

Dean Eilers, left, and Belva Schamberger look over a display prior to a memorial service for Lt. Col. Dennis Lee Eilers on Saturday, June 30, 2012, in Tipton, Iowa. Eilers' plane was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War in 1965. (Kevin E. Schmidt/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Kevin E. Schmidt

TIPTON, Iowa — Forty-six-and-a-half years is a long time to wait for her husband to come home, Belva Schamberger said Saturday after the ceremonial burial of her husband, Lt. Col. Dennis Eilers.

“Denny” Eilers, as he was called, was shot down over Laos in 1965. He left behind his wife and two sons to serve his country in the U.S. Air Force and made the ultimate sacrifice.

That sacrifice was recognized Saturday in his hometown, and Schamberger said she felt “overwhelmed” by the outpouring of support.

“I’m thankful just to have it have an ending for him, for the community and for myself,” she said.

She’s especially thankful for the recovery team who found her husband’s remains in a rice paddy in Laos, nearly five decades after his AC-47 gunship was shot down and he and a crew of five others went missing in action.

In 1977, he was declared killed in action. Hope seemed lost, until Schamberger said she received the news in April that the U.S. Air Force had positively identified her husband’s remains.

The news brought closure.

“Our lives go on, but it still hurts,” said Schamberger, who has since remarried and lives in Cedar Rapids.

“We’ll never forget,” Eilers’ son, Curt Eilers, also of Cedar Rapids, said at Saturday’s funeral service at First United Church of Christ, holding up the POW/MIA flag. “They’ve made monumental efforts to being them back.”

As of June 6, more than 1,600 military personnel who fought during the Vietnam War still are unaccounted for, according to U.S. Department of Defense records.

“These are hard searches,” said Brett Eilers, who was 1 year old when his father disappeared. He learned about his father and Vietnam through the stories his relatives told.

“I wish this closure would have happened soon,” he said.

Denny Eilers’ parents have passed away.

Finally home

At the service, attended by more than 200 people, the family showed a photo slideshow of Eilers, capturing several moments of his short life, including photos of his marriage, playing pool, standing by a new car and as a baby sitting on a tractor.

The Rev. David Lorenzen, pastor of First United Church of Christ, said Denny had an “adventurous spirit” and lived each day to the fullest. He read excerpts of a report Eilers wrote as a student at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, criticizing the “get it while you can” attitude of fellow students at the time.

“He made every day count,” Lorenzen said. “He also believed that without faith there’s no purpose in life.”

Lorenzen mentioned handfuls of online tributes talking about Denny being home again.

“Something about home makes us feel safe,” he said. “Denny is finally home.”

Hero’s burial

A diamond necklace of headlights stretched over rolling hills as 45 to 50 Patriot Guard Riders on their motorcycles led the funeral procession to Lt. Col. Eilers’ gravesite.

With the Tipton water tower and its tiger paw in the background, the riders pulled off Cedar Valley Road onto a gravel lane beside the Masonic Cemetery, which is surrounded by corn fields on the outskirts of town. Each cycle carried an American flag, and for the next hour, the graveyard was painted bright red, white and blue.

It was in this cemetery where the family first put up a headstone in 1977 in Eilers’ memory.

Then the procession of mourners pulled in, their vehicles forming a line close to Eilers’ permanent resting spot, and they gathered around, huddled close. The Patriot Guard, clad in their signature leather and blue jeans, formed a box around the mourners, and an older rider carrying a green sack handed a water bottle to each rider standing at attention in the scorching heat.

Then media representatives from across Iowa swirled around them, ready with cameras and smartphones to capture the ceremonial moment when the remains of a fallen Iowan brought from faraway Laos were finally, after nearly 47 years, returned to the warmth of his native soil.

There was a moment of silence, except for chirping birds and an occasional car zipping past on Cedar Valley Road. The silence was pierced by a 21-gun salute, followed by the sounding of taps.

“What a tribute to Denny,” his widow said afterward.

The remains of the crew found by the recovery team will be buried later in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.