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Homeward Bound:
The Repatriation of Lewis Clark Walton, Sr.

BY MICHELLE BAUGH

Rows of mourners sat with eyes staring down at their hands folded, fighting tears at St. Anthony’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. On May 5, 2007, more than three hundred mourners gathered to honor Special Forces SSG Lewis Clark Walton, Sr., who had returned home after his remains were located and identified December 2006 in Quang Nam Province.

Clark Walton was a “soldier’s soldier,” in the words of his friend Joe Hannon, who served with him at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts. Hannon, a Vietnam veteran who served with the Special Forces, says he formed a bond with Walton and tried to talk him out of going to Vietnam. “I had already been to Vietnam when I met him. I told him to stay the hell away from there—it’s no good.”

Against his friend’s advice, Walton dropped everything and went. He was assigned to Support Headquarters Company, 5th Special Forces Group. They were assigned to Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG), an unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia.

On May 3, 1971, SSG Walton was a member of a six-man reconnaissance team dropped some nine miles east of the Laos border, fourteen miles south of the southern edge of the A Shau Valley. Their mission: to penetrate that enemy veil of secrecy and report on their activities.

On May 4, their Forward Air Controller tried to make a scheduled radio check with the team, but was unable to make contact or a visual sighting.

On May 5, two pilots reported seeing mirror and panel signals fifty meters west of the LZ. These signals were monitored for about fifteen minutes, and then they stopped. Recovery helicopters were launched that day but could not be inserted because of weather. An SAR team arrived May 14 but left the same day without finding any trace of the missing patrol. Walton and his team members were listed as missing in action on May 10, 1971.

For the family of the 37-year-old Green Beret, however, the nightmare had just begun. Clark’s wife Virginia knew that patriotism ran deep in her husband’s blood. After serving a tour in Korea, he was anxious for Vietnam.

“It meant a lot to him,” Virginia Walton said. “He had a great sense of pride in it. He loved being a trooper.” She said that her lifelines were her children, Jacke (six years old when her father was listed as MIA) and Lew Jr. (three years), and her faith. “I wasn’t alone,” she said. “If I hadn’t had the kids, it would have been much worse.”

Virginia Walton made certain that her children grew up in a home filled with love for their father. Jacke Walton-Williams said: “I don’t know if I could have done what my mother did. She’s a survivor.” She and her brother always were reminded that whatever their sacrifices were, their father was going through bigger trials.

Jacke remembers her father’s good-bye: “I’ll be back. Be a good girl, make me proud, respect your mom and love her dearly.” She speaks of how fortunate she is to have those memories, unlike her brother, Lewis Clark Walton, Jr., whose recollections are blurry at best and more likely the product of photographs and home movies. “I remember some of his uniform paraphalia being around, his jump boots,” Lew Walton said. “Jacke and I would take turns wearing them.”

As the boy grew up, a need grew to fill in the blanks of his father’s career. Lew Walton discovered that his father and namesake wasn’t just any soldier, and that the Special Forces were “the elite of the elite.” The term “missing in action” confused him: “When you’re missing, people look for you.”

He credits his mother for tackling her role of MIA wife and mother with grace. “My mom did a wonderful job handling it all, trying to explain it to two young kids,” he said. “I think that’s where my sister and I get a lot of our strength from—going through the experiences we saw our mom going through.”

Difficult times were inevitable for Jacke and Lew Walton. Jacke recalls Operation Homecoming in April 1973. Shortly after the announcement, the gleeful seven-year-old packed for California. When her mother tried to explain that her father’s name was not on the list of returning POWs, Jacke became agitated and decided he was planning a surprise. “You don’t understand,” she told them. “Dad’s coming home.” But when Saigon fell two years later, she despaired. “I don’t think I truly had a concept about missing until that moment,” she said.

For Lew Jr., resignation came quietly as a teenager. “It was a Tuesday night, I was laying in bed thinking about a bunch of things: ‘It’s been a long time and we’ve spent so long waiting for him to come home, it’s time to face facts. Maybe he got captured and died in a prison camp.’ I don’t think it really struck me until the next morning that I looked at things differently.” He wanted to find answers “rather than wasting so much energy hoping he’d come home.”

After high school, Lew Walton joined the Army. “I always wanted to live up to the standard that he would want if he could look down,” he said. Lew serves as a military police officer. He completed one tour in Bosnia and two tours in Iraq. During his second tour, he received information about the identification of his father’s remains. He put his emotions on hold when he heard the news.

“I was in theater [Iraq] at the time. It’s not a place where I could escape mentally and collect my thoughts. It may sound cold, but I just had to put it to the side and say, ‘I’ll deal with it when I get home.’”

In December 2006, the Walton family was told that Lewis Clark Walton’s remains had indeed been identified and would be returned in May 2007, 36 years after he went missing. Lew and Jacke’s trip to the SDIT Fathers Day reunion in 2005 had begun the chain of events. Bill Duker, of VVA’s Veterans Initiative Task Force, met the Walton siblings and called Dickie Hites, who was working at JPAC.

“The VI had a list of cases,” Duker said, “and the Walton case happened to be one we were pursuing.” Duker discovered that the location was a JPAC excavation site. Clark Walton’s remains were located and identified. In addition, one item was recovered that left no doubt that the remains were indeed his: a St. Christopher medal with his jump wings soldered to the back. Jacke Walton believes that if her father, a devout Catholic, were to leave a sign for his family, it would be that medal.

The family decided that as a soldier and as SSG Walton’s only son, Lew Jr. should accompany his father home. First he met with the archeologist responsible for excavation. “She was wonderful and actually nervous. I felt so bad because she was shaking,” he said. After the initial meeting with the archeologist and the head of JPAC, Lew Walton viewed his father’s remains. He was able to spend time alone, and he spoke for the first time in 36 years to the father he barely remembered.

“I spoke my peace,” he said.

During the eulogy at St. Anthony’s, Jacke Walton thanked the men who had served alongside her father and welcomed them home. Then she read a letter she had written to her father 36 years ago.

“Once I read my letter to him, that was my goodbye,” she said. With those words, written by a little girl and read by a woman, Jacke Walton laid her father to rest.

 

 

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