By Ron Arias
November 28, 1994 12:00 PM

LAST WEEK, IN A FULL-HONORS, 21-gun-salute ceremony, the remains of Air Force Capt. Mark G. Danielson were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington. For his survivors—and those of 11 others declared killed in action—the burial has been a long time coming. Twenty-two years have passed since Danielson, then 29, and 14 other crewmen on his AC-130A gunship were blasted from the sky by a surface-to-air missile over South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley. Three survived the crash, but Danielson and 11 others were declared missing in action, their bodies lost amid the wreckage in the jungle. Then last year, U.S. and Vietnamese crash-site investigators recovered their scant remains—in Danielson’s case, two teeth that matched his dental records.

Danielson’s wife, Cheryl, now 47 and remarried, attended the graveside ceremony with the couple’s two grown children, Lisa, 25, and Mark Jr., 22. “For me, putting those remains in the ground at Arlington means completion and a certain kind of peace,” she says. Not so for her former mother-in-law. Eighty-year-old Ruth Danielson stayed home in Colorado, as will Captain Danielson’s sisters Lea Dickinson and Judy Willey. In their hearts, the long-lost airman is even now still missing. “Two teeth isn’t his body—big difference,” Willey, 47, has said. “When you hear ‘remains,’ you’re thinking a skull and arms and legs. You’re not picturing two teeth in a box.”

Chances are that when the war ended 19 years ago, few imagined that such debates would still be going on. Yet even now, a full generation after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, many of the families of the more than 2,200 pilots and soldiers still listed as unaccounted for continue to weigh the comparative likelihood of death and survival. And within some of those families such as the Danielsons, there may never be agreement on the fate of their loved ones.

At her spacious, ranch-style home in Colorado Springs, Ruth Danielson surrounds herself with photographs and reminders of her son. In the front courtyard, within sight of snowcapped Pikes Peak, a white POW flag flutters beneath the Stars and Stripes. Frail and attached to an oxygen tank after two heart attacks this year, Ruth shuffles to the kitchen table to join her daughter Lea, 53. Both women wear MIA bracelets, one silver, the other copper.

As a boy growing up in Rangely, Colo., Mark Danielson always wanted to fly, says his mother. With her blue eyes sparkling as she recalls those days, Ruth whirls her arms like an airplane propeller—just the way her son used to do. “He wanted to go to war,” she says, “like his daddy,” Rod, an Army intelligence officer in World War II, who died of a stroke six years ago. But Mark’s impaired depth perception at night kept him, a husky six-footer, from becoming a pilot. Instead, he trained in Sacramento to be an electronics warfare officer, responsible for jamming enemy missile tracking. In 1966, after graduating from the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in journalism, he married a pretty 19-year-old named Cheryl Williams, and three years later their daughter Lisa was born.

Then in mid-1971, Danielson left for duty at an airbase in northeast Thailand. “The very last thing I said to him,” his younger sister Judy tearfully remembers, “was, ‘Be careful.’ And he said, ‘You can’t hurt steel’ He said that to me all the time because he thought he was tough.” Ruth says her son promised her he was going to come back, even calling her by phone the day before his plane was shot down. When the Air Force notified her that he was missing in action, she refused to believe he might have been killed. Judy remembers her mother’s phone call to her that afternoon as “kind of stoic, like, ‘This has happened, and I’m sure they are going to find him and we’ll get him back.’ That’s what we went on for years.”

They kept that faith despite evidence to the contrary. When the missile destroyed Danielson’s plane, three survivors who were blown free parachuted down and were rescued. One, Staff Sgt. William Patterson of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., says, “There wasn’t much chance for anyone else to survive the explosion and get out. I had my chute when I was blown out, but centrifugal force pinned the others in their seats because the fuselage was spinning as it went down.”

For 22 years, Ruth, Lea and Judy attended MIA-POW meetings and marched with placards through Washington. They also wrote letters to politicians, asking for a stronger postwar stance with Vietnam on the MIA issue. Their activism led to ambivalent relations with Mark’s widow, Cheryl, who never believed he survived the missile attack. “Mom said to Cheryl from the beginning,” says Lea, ” ‘Whatever you have to do, we will support you. I am going to be a mother all my life.’ So when Cheryl got remarried, Mom encouraged us to be happy for her.”

Certainly Cheryl Danielson was entitled to whatever consolation she could find. When an Air Force chaplain and a sergeant told her that Danielson’s plane had gone down, she was living in Aurora, Colo., caring for the almost 3-year-old Lisa and pregnant with Mark Jr. ” ‘I’ve been had,’ ” she recalls thinking. ” ‘I have a baby, I’m four months pregnant, I have no skills, no job, and now maybe no husband.’ After they left, I cried,” she says. “For a lot of nights I cried.”

Now, six years into her third marriage—her second ended in divorce—and after a successful career in real estate, Cheryl Williams runs a 13-acre quarter-horse breeding ranch near Middleburg, Va. For a year after she was notified of the crash, she volunteered for the Red Cross, took real estate classes and did publicity for an MIA-POW advocate group. Then in 1973, the Air Force reported Danielson was presumed killed. His mother thought it was “a lie,” while Cheryl “accepted the news and moved on.”

Her children, though, had difficulty reconciling themselves to their father’s uncertain fate. “My mom says I used to have a picture of my father that was a little larger than wallet-size,” says Lisa Corboy, now 25 and working in real estate in Loveland, Colo. “She said when I was 3, she told me he was never coming back. I flew into a rage and ripped up his picture.”

Corboy also recalls her mother making sure that both she and her brother saw their grandparents often, even though the family strongly disagreed over Mark’s fate. Lisa was caught in the middle between her mother and grandmother. “I always felt I was walking on eggshells,” Lisa remembers. “Whenever the family got together, there were misunderstandings—after all, we’re human—but we worked at it. We tried to respect each other’s beliefs. It was easier for my mom to move on. With two kids to raise, she had to. But she felt that my grandmother and aunts wanted her to carry the flame for all these years.” Though Corboy accepts that her father is dead, she is careful around her grandmother Ruth. “She can have her belief,” Lisa says simply. “If it’s going to keep her alive for another five years, fine. I’m selfish and I want her here.”

While his sister tried to maintain family peace, Mark Jr. often seemed at war with himself. Hearing stories about a wonderful father he never knew, “it was like I was obligated to fit into his shoes,” he says. Instead, he rebelled. Danielson describes his “troubled kid years” as an endless run of disciplinary hassles in school, drugs and odd jobs in various cities, culminating in a 20-month stint in the brig for going AWOL from the Coast Guard after “misappropriating” a buddy’s car.

“I hope all that’s behind me,” says Danielson, now a landscaper near his mother’s ranch in Virginia. “I’d really like to do things right—no more blaming not having a pop.”

Cheryl feels her son’s predicament was made more painful because he grew up being told by one side of the family that his father was alive and would be coming home and by her that he was gone forever. “Mark acted out a lot—attention getters like melting crayons in Lisa’s contact lens holder, or stealing,” she says. “I did what I could with him, but he was a handful.”

The debate over Captain Danielson’s fate would have been “a tough one for any family,” says Cheryl. “We haven’t gotten over it.” For her, though, there may be some solace in the farewell at Arlington. “This whole MIA-POW thing has been a mess for this country,” she said. “The war was bad to begin with. It’s disrupted so many things, so many lives. Big Mark went to Vietnam to do what he wanted to do. I’ll always be proud of him and what he stood for. I think the burial at Arlington is his just due. It’s an honor he deserved.”