Gunfighter missing in action identified

  • Published
  • By Airman Samantha S. Crane
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs office
On March 7, 1972, Capt. Stephen A. Rusch went on a mission during the Vietnam War.

More than three and a half decades later, he returned home.

Captain Rusch, a native of Lambertville, N.J., served as an F-4E Phantom weapons system officer during the Vietnam War. Assigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing's 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, Captain Rusch was the co-pilot to 1st Lt. Carter A. Howell during their last mission in 1972.

While flying over Laos, the two Gunfighters came under heavy ground fire as they began their second run over enemy targets and went down. No parachutes were seen and no emergency beepers were heard to indicate the crew was safe.

Attempts to establish radio contact were unsuccessful and a search brought back nothing. As the opportunity existed for the two to safely eject, they were not declared dead, but instead listed as missing in action.

Led by the Joint Prisoners of War and Missing in Action Accounting Command, the U.S. and Lao People's Democratic Republic began an investigation in 1995. The crash site, identified by a Laotian citizen, was surveyed by the team.

In 2001, a Laotian citizen, working through a U.S. acquaintance, gave U.S. officials a bone fragment and a photocopy of military identification tags. While the tags belonged to Captain Rusch, the bone fragment did not.

The team excavated the crash site two times throughout 2002 and 2003, recovering human remains and non-biological evidence including U.S. coins and life support equipment. Forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence were used during the identification process.

On Nov. 27, the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced that Captain Rusch's remains were identified. The captain's two daughters, Col. Sharon R. Bannister, 6th Dental Squadron commander at Macdill Air Force Base, Fla., and Rebecca Rusch brought their father home where he was received as a hero.

"My dad was always my hero," said Colonel Bannister, "but the outreach I've received from so many he's touched makes me realize he's not just my hero, but everyone's."

Captain Rusch was buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C., Nov. 30.

"He loved flying and felt strongly about his service to his country," she said. "I've never felt so proud of my dad. I feel extremely proud to be part of a country that takes such care in bringing home our heroes that die defending our freedom."

For additional information on the Defense Department's mission to account for missing Americans, visit the DPMO Web site at or call (703) 699-1169.