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Korea

Zena Husman looks over pictures and newspaper clippings of her uncle, DeMaret Marston Kirtley, at her home in Sheridan. Kirtley fought in the Korean War and was killed during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. 

When DeMaret Kirtley was last home in July 1950, he posed for a photo.

His starched Army uniform hanging from his thin frame, Marston -- as his friends and family called him -- stood next to his father, the two men staring straight ahead, quintessential Wyoming ranchers. When Marston posed with his mother, he was closer, as warm with her as he was reserved with his dad. In another photograph, he leaned back against the fence of his parents' porch, his hands in his pockets. He was 20. 

More than four months earlier, in late February, with a meal ticket in his pocket and his enlistment papers signed, Marston boarded a train from Denver to Fort Riley, Kansas, for basic training. He got sick with the measles, recovered, and told his parents he'd be home in July. He visited for a few weeks.

Then he left Kaycee, arriving in Washington by train. He visited an aquarium, saw what he estimated were all the creatures of the sea, and sent some money home. The Korean War had just begun.

He boarded a troop ship -- giant things, he wrote home, floating in foul-smelling water -- and left for Japan before the month was up.

He never returned to Wyoming, to that ranch in the Antelope Basin where he tended sheep and roamed on his homemade skis. He would disappear, in late November or early December 1950, near a little-known reservoir in North Korea that would become synonymous with one of the U.S. Army's greatest tragedies. As order disintegrated around him and Chinese troops overwhelmed his unit, Marston would vanish into the wind and snow.

It has been nearly 69 years since he left Kaycee, since he leaned against his parents' porch for a photo, hands in his pockets.

Now, Marston is one month from coming home.

Battle of Chosin Reservior

Sgt. Robert H. Forsyth, U.S. Signal Corps photographer from Atlanta, Ga., is carried to a Jeep after being wounded while on an official photo mission with a patrol of the U.S. Third Infantry Division on Dec. 24, 1950.

Even now, it is unclear how he died. The chaos of the battle that killed him has shrouded many details in fog. He was buried by Chinese troops in an anonymous grave near where he likely died, his leg shattered. When the war ended and the North Koreans and Americans agreed to exchange their dead, Marston was disinterred and transported to Japan. He wasn't identified and was reburied in a national cemetery in Hawaii.

He was disinterred again in 2017, as part of an effort by the military to identify more Korean War dead. His brother and fellow Korea veteran, Locke, had provided a DNA sample to the Department of Defense years earlier, holding out hope that his little brother would be found. When Locke died in 2008, he was buried in the Kaycee cemetery, alongside his family and a marker for Marston.

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That marker's long wait is nearly over. Last May, Locke's daughters -- and Marston's oldest surviving relatives -- got the call. At last, Marston had been found.

"My dad was always hopeful," Zena Husman, Marston's oldest niece, said last week.

Korea

A headstone for DeMaret Marston Kirtley, pictured Dec. 11 in the Kaycee Cemetery. Kirtley died during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and his remains will be returning to his home state of Wyoming next month.

Marston will come home now, and Zena has been busy planning. Not everything is definite yet, but it's likely that Marston will be transported to Billings on June 27, where Zena and her sister, Karmen Kirtley, will meet him. Together with full military honors and an escort of Patriot Guard Riders -- a motorcycle group that accompanies military families -- the sisters will take Marston back to Wyoming.

Zena has a shadowbox, with Marston's photos, his medals and a letter from President Dwight Eisenhower. She's also created a slideshow of old photos of Marston, before he was a vanished soldier, when he was just a Buffalo High School graduate in a cap and gown, a ranch hand earning $25 a week.

"It’s – you know, it’s basically to honor not only Marston but the family as well. The people that were left behind," Zena said. "We're doing it for my dad and my grandmother. They were the ones who had a lot of pain all those years, not knowing what happened to him." 

Korea

DeMaret Marston Kirtley of Kaycee fought in the Korean War and was killed during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. His remains were identified in 2018.

On June 29, the family will lay Marston to rest. Zena said the family would like to bury Marston where his marker has been waiting for decades, next to his siblings and parents. But his casket may be too large, in which case he'll be buried alongside other veterans. The cemetery is no stranger to those who served. One grave marker identifies a man who fought in Cuba, in the Spanish-American War. 

Both Zena and Karmen said they'd been inundated with support since Marston's story became public. They've received calls and emails from veterans groups, from locals, from strangers. The sisters have opened the doors to the weekend's events to them all.

"It’s for them, too. The veterans really want to honor their own," Zena said, "and I want to be able to honor that, too." 

"I just feel all this gratitude to the people who are helping our family and who are following Marston all along the way," Karmen said, "and gratitude to those people who will take their time to come celebrate Marston’s return."

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