It took many years and many miles to get 1st Lt. Paul G. Magers home, but he was laid to rest at last on Friday, 39 years after he was killed in Vietnam.
Lana Bittner, who graduated with Magers from Central Catholic High School in 1963, was one of about 30 classmates who attended a funeral Mass at Holy Rosary Church in Billings on Friday, followed by a burial service at the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery north of Laurel. She said she was just glad the family finally had closure.
"It’s been such a long journey," she said.
At the insistence of the family, though, particularly of Magers’ mother, 92-year-old Cecilia Farris Magers, Friday was set aside for celebrating Mager’s life more than commemorating his death.
She set the tone by dressing in a flower-print jacket and a blue blouse and slacks. Standing in front of her son’s casket at the cemetery, she and another son, Fred Magers, danced a short jig while bagpiper John Pierson played "Wings."
Pierson said the traditional regimental song, played to honor military aviators, is usually performed at a more somber pace, but Cecilia asked for a sprightly tempo.
Curt Nickisch, a Bostonian who didn’t know Magers but came all the way here to present Cecilia with an MIA bracelet honoring her son, said he was glad he made the trip.
"The grieving’s all done," he said. "This is all about remembering."
Magers, an Army lieutenant who had been in Vietnam for just two weeks, was piloting an AH-1 Cobra, a helicopter gunship, when it was shot down and burst into flames in Quang Tri province on June 1, 1971. The crash was described as unsurvivable and Magers, then 25, was presumed dead. Chief Warrant Officer 2 Donald L. Wann, a 34-year-old Oklahoman, also went down with the helicopter.
Their remains were recovered in 2008 and 2009 and subsequently were positively identified through DNA testing. Magers’ remains were returned to Billings on Wednesday.
At the funeral service Friday, about 35 Patriot Guard Riders lined Custer Avenue in front of Holy Rosary Church, where some 200 friends and family members filled the sanctuary. A small display in the back of the church featured Magers’ service jacket and hat, his pilot’s jumpsuit, a collection of photos and Army medals and one of his neckties, a faded brown paisley number.
The Rev. Tony Ozimek saluted Magers’ courage and honor, and he said that by offering up prayers, "the God who lives with Paul can live with us."
As Magers’ casket was loaded into a hearse after the service, family members crowded around, some of them quietly crying, others squinting away tears.
About 170 kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders from St. Francis Primary School, all of them clutching little American flags, lined Fifth Street West to send the funeral procession on its way to Laurel.
At the veterans cemetery, set amid the dry, rolling hills above Laurel, an overcast sky cleared up shortly before the arrival of the procession. The sun shone brightly and a steady wind tugged at the dozens of flags lining the road to the gravesite.
Magers’ casket was still in the hearse when two helicopters from the Montana Army National Guard’s 189th Battalion, a Blackhawk and a Chinook, flew over, accompanied by civilian pilot Al Blain in a UH-1 Huey.
Pierson, the bagpiper, played "Flowers in the Forest" as an honor guard slowly walked with the casket from the hearse to the gravesite. Four flower arrangements stood near the grave, one of them bearing a banner that read "Welcome Home Brother."
Just as the honor guard removed an American flag from the casket and stood holding it for a few moments, the helicopters made another pass, slower this time and somewhat lower. Another honor guard fired off three rifle volleys and then a bugler played "Taps."
After the flag was ever so carefully folded, Brig. Gen. Stanley Putnam, commander of the Montana Army National Guard, presented it to Magers’ mother. Ozimek also removed a metal crucifix from the casket and gave it to her. Family members placed red roses on the casket before it was lowered into the grave.
Moments later, James Mariska, an Army veteran who serves on the board of the county’s veterans cemetery, motioned toward the grave and began to speak, his voice cracking.
"That wasn’t just his burial," Mariska said. "That was the burial for every vet who wasn’t welcomed home from Vietnam."