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  1. Military

Family finally accepts death of Navy corpsman shot down in Vietnam

Eileen Brady's brother, Navy Corpsman Mark Dennis, was aboard a helicopter shot down in Vietnam in 1966. But not until recently, when the military affirmed it a fourth time, has she come to accept that remains identified as Dennis are really him. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Mar. 31, 2017

LARGO — For years, Eileen Brady kept the remains in a box in her closet, each bone protected individually in bubblewrap.

Brady, now 80, carried the bones with her when she moved to Largo from Colorado in the late 1990s,. They were a mystery wrapped in plastic that she had handed over to the military two years ago for testing.

Now, they are headed back to Tampa Bay.

In July 1966, the military determined the bones are the remains of her younger brother Mark V. Dennis, 19, a Navy hospital corpsman who was aboard a helicopter when it was shot down in Vietnam. He was the first casualty of the war from his hometown south of Dayton, Ohio.

But four years later, Brady got a phone call from another brother that forever changed her understanding of what happened.

"Pick up a copy of Newsweek magazine," brother Jerry Dennis told her, without saying why.

So she did.

After a few minutes of flipping through the pages, she saw the reason.

"There was a picture of an unidentified prisoner of war," she said. "It couldn't have looked more like Mark if it was Mark."

That picture set off a long, painful and expensive search for answers about what really happened to Dennis, the youngest of four children. Fueled by hope that his brother was still alive, Jerry Dennis spent the rest of his life — thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars — trying to prove his brother was not dead but a prisoner of war or missing in action.

It was a search that would result in an exhumation of the remains, divisions in his family, and a strain on his marriage.

One high-ranking Navy medical official who wrote a report about the investigation into the remains called it "a troublesome case."

It was even featured in a 1990 episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries.

On Tuesday, the remains return to Tampa Bay, eight months after the military concluded for a fourth time they are Mark V. Dennis.

There will be a dignified transfer ceremony at Tampa International Airport followed two days later by a grave-side service with full military honors at Garden Sanctuary Cemetery in Seminole. A ceremony will be held concurrently in Dennis' hometown.

Eileen Brady accepts the latest findings, but she isn't necessarily convinced.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath when asked if she truly believed this is her brother.

Her reply: "That's private."

•••

Mark V. Dennis was born Sept. 21, 1946, in Miamisburg, Ohio. He was given his middle initial because he was the last of five children, one of whom was stillborn, his sister said.

His father, Charles Dennis, "had an unusual sense of humor, so he used the Roman numeral," Brady explained.

Their mother, Vera Dennis, became ill after giving birth to Mark, so Brady had to step in.

"I was 10," she recalled. "He was like my first kid. I taught him how to walk."

Brady said her brother was a bit of a rascal. She had to retrieve him when he climbed up into the rafters of their barn, or when he shimmied up a tree.

But he was also "the best of all of us," she said. "He was the smartest and nicest of all the children."

A lineman on the Miamisburg High School football team, Dennis graduated in 1964.

It was the last time Brady would see her brother.

Soon after graduation, Dennis enlisted in the Navy and trained to be a medic, according to his military records. While in uniform, he met and dated a young woman from his high school, Linda Williams, who graduated a year ahead of him.

"He was a very gentle, very caring guy," said Williams, 70.

At first, Dennis was stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Wasp, according to his records. But then he asked for a transfer, Williams said.

"He wanted to go over to Vietnam and help out," she said.

The two would go out whenever he returned to Miamisburg, and eventually, they planned to marry. But that was never to be.

•••

On July 15, 1966, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Mark V. Dennis was assigned as a medic and acting chaplain to a Marine unit fighting in Quang Tri Province during a battle called Operation Hastings.

He and a dozen others boarded a C-47 Chinook helicopter. It was shot down by the enemy. Six days later, the military identified Dennis. On Aug. 9, 1966, he was buried at Hillgrove Cemetery in Miamisburg, according to Heather Pion of Gebhart-Schmidt-Parramore Funeral Home, which handled the services.

The remains were in such poor condition a closed-casket service was recommended, said his sister, Eileen Brady.

Their shock and grief endured through the years before igniting into a relentless search for answers after Jerry Dennis spotted the picture in Newsweek.

"Jerry fought until the day he died to prove that the remains were not Mark," said Carole Dennis, 77, of Largo, who is Jerry Dennis' widow.

A former arson investigator, Jerry Dennis was familiar with human remains and "had the body dug up," Carole Dennis said.

A review by Michael Charney, director of the Colorado State University forensic lab, determined that the remains did not belong to Mark Dennis.

The body was too short, Carole Dennis said. And it was Asian.

Jerry Dennis was constantly on the go, talking to witnesses and military personnel. One newspaper story from 1985 said he even visited Asia.

There were discrepancies in accounts, said Carole Dennis, with one witness suggesting that Mark Dennis might have survived the crash and wound up a prisoner.

"We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the government," Carole Dennis said.

Over the years, the case garnered media attention. But despite the hoopla, it was a mystery that never was, according to the military.

Last August, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency released a report confirming that the remains were Mark Dennis. The confirmation was made by DNA testing, said Army Staff Sgt. Kristen Duus, an agency spokeswoman.

Duus said the agency offered its lab at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska after the family once again requested testing. She said, though, that Dennis was never considered a POW or MIA.

The results from Offutt marked the fourth time the military came to the same conclusion. The first time was shortly after Dennis was killed. Then there were tests in 1988 and 1990.

•••

The remains of Mark V. Dennis will arrive in Tampa at 2 p.m. Tuesday to a hero's welcome.

He will be accompanied to Tampa by Navy personnel. After the dignified transfer ceremony, the group will head to the Serenity Funeral Home, which is providing services free of charge. The hearse will be escorted by the Patriot Guard, a motorcycle club made up largely of Vietnam veterans created to protect military funerals from the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Congressman Charlie Crist will recognize Dennis with a notation in the Congressional Record.

The ceremony, 10 a.m. Thursday, will include full military honors and likely a number of veterans groups.

But it won't put the matter of Dennis' death to rest for his family.

Jerry Dennis died in 2002 at 73, never to see the circle close on his lifelong search. And it's been years since his sister and widow have spoken. Carole Dennis didn't even know about the return of the remains until a reporter contacted her.

For Eileen Brady, the arrival of her brother's remains marks grudging acceptance of an end to the mystery and a chance to find peace after more than four decades of wondering.

"I have to accept it," said Brady, acknowledging that the military's test results are more convincing than the results from the Colorado forensics expert. "I no longer have to worry about my kid and nieces and nephews having to deal with this. That is my closure."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com. Follow @haltman.

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