Gary Yoder has lived in Sisters Country for close to 30 years. He’s co-owner of Black Butte Realty Group and a retired Flight Engineer in the U.S. Air Force. He spent 20 years as a flight crew member on a C-141B cargo transport jet. He was stationed at Travis Air Force base in California. When he retired he had over 7,300 hours flying time.

Yoder flew all around the world and served during the Iraq War and as a flight crew member with a NASA research jet. He has a myriad of memories from his time in service, but one assignment stands out as both unforgettable and meaningful.

Not one to spend much time looking back, Yoder was surprised to receive a phone call from Mark Miller, a retired sentry from the select and highly respected fraternity of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Unbeknownst to Yoder and members of a flight crew he flew with for just a few days, Miller had been searching for him for five years.

Miller explained to Yoder that he was heading up the Historical Aircraft Project and wanted to invite the USAF air crew who transported the Vietnam Unknown Soldier to Washington D.C. The flight crew would be honored during the National Commemoration of the Centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

After years of searching, Miller finally found a listing of the crew at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. With most of the mission’s documents destroyed, Miller was ecstatic to find that a crew from Travis Air Force Base had flown the Unknown Soldier to his final resting place. It was just two weeks before the Centennial celebration when Miller located all remaining crew members and invited them to come and join the Tomb Guards.

The crew was made up of members from the four C-141 squadrons at Travis Air Force Base. Yoder was selected as one of two crew members from his squadron, the 708th Military Airlift Squadron. He was chosen because he was the most highly qualified loadmaster in his squadron. “Because we were from different squadrons, most of us met for the first time for the mission. After the mission, we didn’t see each other for thirty-seven years,” said Yoder.

Yoder and the crew flew with the casket containing the Unknown Soldier from Vietnam, from Travis AFB to Andrews AFB in Washington D.C.

“It was stressed that this was extremely high visibility, and an important mission. We had to do our job the absolute best we could do… something we tried to do on every mission. The mission was covered by national media and we had to be exact in timing in departure and landing and had to look sharp and be sharp without drawing any attention to ourselves,” said Yoder.

Yoder and his wife, Katy, flew to Washington D.C. and commemorated Veteran’s Day along with the crew members, Tomb Guards, and their families. They spent their time learning more about the Tomb Guards and the sacred role they play in honoring those soldiers whose loved ones were never able to bring them home for burial. As they walked in Arlington Cemetery many headstones simply read, “Unknown.” Only one Unknown Soldier was chosen to lay in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and represent unknowns from World War I, World War II, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The Tomb Guard website explains that in three instances since 1921, the remains of unknown servicemen have been interred to the west of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in individual crypts, with the remains of the Vietnam Unknown Soldier removed after modern science identified the serviceman. This crypt remains empty, but a marker was placed honoring all those still missing in action (MIA/POW), which underscores the larger purpose of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Learning that the soldier Yoder had transported had been identified and returned to his family was a surprise. Now, knowing his name made the experience even more meaningful and personal. The crew members went to the Vietnam War Memorial and found the name of the Unknown Soldier they’d carried to Arlington: USAF 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, who was shot down in 1972.

Being with his crew members, Charles Thomas III, Naomi Bourgeois-Jolly, Pat Hassett, Joe Kaiser, and Fred Fildstrat, long-lost memories began to emerge from their time together so many years before. Unable to attend was Phil Webb, pilot and former commander of the 708th squadron. Also missing were two deceased members, Steven Reyes and Michael Hedrick. The six who were there were grateful and surprised by the respect and appreciation shown to them for their role in honoring the Unknown Soldier they transported.

“It was a tremendous honor to be a part of the centennial celebration and be invited by the Tomb Guards. At the time, we knew it was an important mission but until now I didn’t realize how important it was to the Tomb Guards. They had a ceremony for us and we were invited to join the Society of Tomb Guards. Tomb Guards, both current and retired, wanted to shake our hand and ask us questions about our mission. To have these dedicated soldiers thank us for our service is very special. After a presentation by Mark Miller describing our mission, we laid flowers at the Tomb and were given a tour of the Tomb Guard quarters and chapel,” said Yoder. “We were given a commemorative Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial medallion as well.”

The Veteran’s Day trip to Arlington brought back a lot of memories for Yoder.

“Having retired from the Air Force over 25 years ago, and not living near an Air Force base, I’m very removed from that culture and community,” he said. “To be reunited and acquainted with those men and women who are as dedicated to their jobs as Tomb Guards and getting to spend time with them was an honor. We all felt grateful to be back together and a part of such an important mission. Though we’d been apart for so long it didn’t take long for us to feel that bond again.”

Yoder is going to join the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“Given today’s political climate it was reassuring to be a part of people truly dedicated to the oath they took when they joined the military, which in part is to protect and defend the Constitution,” Yoder said. “They were the epitome of strength, dedication, and heartfelt service. Off duty, they showed how emotionally connected they are to their role as Tomb Guards both retired and currently in service. Getting to know them was truly an honor for Katy and me.”