Lowell Pirkle – Specialist 6, United States Army Central Intelligence Officer

After wait of 31 years, family bids vet goodbye. His remains identified only this year, Lowell Pirkle, who was killed in the Vietnam War, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and honored as a hero.

An hour after burying her husband, Debbie Pirkle stood inside a darkened room at Arlington National Cemetery thinking about the trips they once made to these hallowed grounds to visit the Tomb of the Unknown.

“You cannot walk through this cemetery and not feel a connection,” she said Monday, in a moment of solitude after greeting dozens who paid their respects to her husband, Lowell.

Mrs. Pirkle, who owns a travel agency in Clearwater, had considered burying her husband at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park in Clearwater after his remains were officially identified this year. But she and her family said Pirkle, a recipient of two Purple Hearts who died while serving in a secret CIA division during the Vietnam War, deserved more.

“I wanted Lowell to be in a place where he would always be honored and taken care of,” she said.

After reminding U.S. military officials of his Purple Hearts, the Pirkles got their wish: 31 years to the day his helicopter was shot down in Laos, Pirkle was laid to rest Monday at Arlington.

“He will be honored as a hero, like he really was,” Mrs. Pirkle said.

On August 3, 1967, Pirkle, 36, was in a helicopter loading wounded Laotian soldiers at a remote location when the aircraft was hit by a rifle shell. The pilot and co-pilot escaped. Pirkle and a Laotian soldier did not.

The crash site was discovered in 1995 and Pirkle’s remains were identified by the U.S. Army January 9.

Several Laotian soldiers gathered at Arlington to pay their respects to Pirkle, as did members of Air America, the military unit in which he served. The 30-minute service inside Fort Myer Chapel — a large, brick building with a white concrete steeple — was based on the themes of faith and God’s mercy.

Closure, something the Pirkles have grappled with for three decades, would be difficult, Chaplain Gil Richardson said.

“Today marks 31 years since his (helicopter) was shot and he was presumed dead,” Richardson said. “Thirty-one years of waiting for Deborah and Robin (his daughter) and Scott (his son). There’s no such thing as closure when you lose someone you love.”

After the service, Pirkle’s flag-draped coffin was taken past the graves of war heroes, astronauts and presidents to Section 34 for burial.

Mourners sat at the grave in the sunshine, where they recited the Lord’s Prayer, watched honor guard officers fire a 21-gun salute and listened to an officer play taps.

After the ceremony, Debbie, Scott and Robin hugged before departing to a reception, the end of the family’s long and painful chapter.

“I didn’t realize how emotional this would be,” said Scott, who was 3 when his father died and followed in his footsteps, becoming an aircraft mechanic.

“It went so fast,” said Robin, holding back tears. She was 8 when her father died. “I wish I was still out there sitting next to him.”

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