TAMPA — Standing on the tarmac at Tampa International Airport, sisters Eileen Brady and Anne Moline held one another and watched as a flag-draped coffin rolled off Southwest Airlines Flight 4458 from Chicago.
The coffin contained the remains of their brother, Mark V. Dennis, a 19-year-old Navy hospital corpsman during the Vietnam War in 1966 when he died in a helicopter attack. As it was rolled into a hearse, the coffin was flanked by saluting members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club made up largely of Vietnam veterans.
Moline, 74, of Arvada, Colo., and Brady, 80, of Largo, hadn't seen their youngest brother alive in more than five decades.
"It's a little rough," Moline said. "But I'm holding up.
"This is amazing," said Brady. "It's almost like the first time."
The family has been through this before.
The remains were flown to Tampa eight months after the military concluded for a fourth time that they belonged to Dennis.
The first time was in July 1966, just days after Dennis was shot down, making him the first casualty of the war from his small town near Dayton, Ohio. He was flown home to Ohio and buried.
At first, his family settled into the rhythms of sadness and grief. But four years later, everything changed when Dennis' older brother, Jerry Dennis, saw a picture of an unidentified prisoner of war in Newsweek magazine. The picture set off a search for answers about what really happened to Dennis, the youngest of four children.
It was a search that would result in an exhumation of the remains, divisions in his family and hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs.
For years, the remains, each bone wrapped separately in bubble wrap, were kept in a closet at the home of Eileen Brady. She carried them with her to Largo when she moved from Colorado in the late 1990s.
Last August, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency released a report confirming that the remains were Mark Dennis.
And now, more than 50 years after he was killed, Dennis returned to a hero's welcome.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist will recognize Dennis with a notation in the Congressional Record.
At 10 a.m. Thursday, there will be a graveside service with full military honors at Garden Sanctuary Cemetery in Seminole. A ceremony will be held concurrently in Dennis' hometown of Miamisburg.
After the dignified transfer ceremony, the group headed out to Serenity Funeral Home, which is providing services free. The Patriot Guard Riders escorted the hearse.
Moline acknowledged this will be the final journey for her brother. No more searching for answers. No more questions.
"This is the end," she said.
Added her sister Brady, "It is."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.