ROSE HILL, Kan. (KSNW) — The phrase “Leave No Man Behind” is synonymous with our military, and perhaps one of the best examples can be found through the incredible determination of Vietnam fighter pilot Ed Sykes.
Since he was a boy, Sykes knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. He joined the Air Force in 1968 and flew 118 combat missions during Vietnam.
However, despite his incredible accomplishments, Sykes says his greatest triumph would take place more than 40 years later. That’s when he decided he owed it to three of his close friends who had died in Vietnam to bring their remains home, the first of which was First Lieutenant David Thomas Dinan III.
“Dave had already jumped out of one airplane,” Sykes said. “He jumped out of the second one, he got hit on a mission and jumped out, and somehow when he came down in his parachute, his parachute collapsed.”
Dinan was shot down and killed over Laos on St. Patrick’s Day of 1969.
“The helicopters came in, found his body, and his body was wedged between a rock and a tree, and he, the pararescue guy, couldn’t pull him loose. Couldn’t recover his body,” Sykes said.
Dinan and Sykes had been roommates while stationed at Tahkli Air Base in Thailand. Shortly after Dinan’s death, Sykes was given the heartbreaking task of collecting Dinan’s belongings to send home to his family.
“One of the very first women ever stationed in Southeast Asia knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey Ed, could I have some of Dave’s effects?’ I said, ‘I can’t give you those.’ She said, ‘Well, would it make any difference if I told you we were going to be married on Saturday?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think I can.’ And she said, ‘Would it make any difference if I told you I’m pregnant?’ I said, ‘What would you like?'” Sykes said.
Dinan’s death preoccupied Sykes for years, but it wasn’t until a trip to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial 40 years after Dinan was killed that Sykes decided it was time.
“I checked on all of my friends who had been killed in Vietnam, and I found when I went through the roster of those people that had been killed that flew with me that three of them had never had their bodies returned to the U.S.,” Sykes said. “I was upset. And I decided at that time that I was gonna, here I am, 68 years old, I’m gonna go and recover those remains.”
With the blessing of Dinan’s family, Sykes took his first flight to Laos in 2012.
“We knew exactly where he was when he was shot down,” Sykes said. “I went to this village in Laos, and I wrote a report on what I had found. I sent it back to the people responsible for investigating these things, and I think more than anything else, I went on that journey just to let them know that there was some 60+ years old man out there running around the jungle doing their job.”
After Dinan’s second trip to Laos, the U.S. government offered to help, even locating the pararescue specialist who initially found but couldn’t recover Dinan’s body all those years ago.
“I called him up and said, ‘Would you be interested in going back to Laos and trying to locate the spot where you left Dave’s body?’ and he said, ‘Ed, I, that has bothered me all my life,'” Sykes said.
In 2016, the U.S. sent a team to find Dinan’s remains. After four trips to Laos working alongside two governments, Sykes got the call he’d been waiting for.
“I was elated,” Sykes said. “Dave’s two brothers called me and said after we had identified his remains and brought him back, they’d set up the date of burial at Arlington, then called me and said, ‘Hey, Ed, would you give the eulogy for Dave at the ceremony?'”
Dinan was finally laid to rest in his home country in December of 2018.
“It was something that I felt was so important because I had fulfilled this promise to my buddy to get him back home and bury him, and that promise is the oath that we make to our fighting men. It was the highlight of my life,” Sykes said.
Sykes is still searching for the remains of two other close friends killed during Vietnam. You can learn more about Sykes’ incredible journey here.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at email@example.com.