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Vietnam vet finally may rest in peace

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jack Rittichier took the long way home from the Vietnam War.

Unlike most of his comrades from that war, the Barberton native is coming home to a hero's welcome.

Unfortunately, he's not alive to witness it. Yet, his family is at peace that the journey is finally over.

Jennifer Rittichier Holmer -- Lt. Rittichier's niece -- shared the bittersweet news: "It has been 35 years since my uncle was killed in Vietnam."

"His body was never recovered," the Suffield Township woman said.

It wasn't for the lack of trying.

"Several attempts were made," she noted. "Only recently were investigators able to go back."

With the notification that Lt. Rittichier's remains (his date of loss was June 9, 1968) had finally been located, came a welcome gesture: burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lt. Rittichier's remains were matched in part by using the DNA of brother Dave Rittichier.

Lt. Rittichier was one of three Barberton brothers, Jack, Dave and Henry. Their parents, Carl and Ruby Rittichier, died in an automobile accident in 1978.

Dave Rittichier, who now resides in Erwin, Tenn., said he was always confident a government search mission "would one day result in finding my brother's remains. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. But they finally found him."

"As children we lived at Portage Lakes, and we would swim all summer long and push inner tubes," said Dave Rittichier, 68.

Lt. Rittichier was intensely involved in athletics in his youth. He played football at Coventry High School and Kent State University, where he was team captain. He also was involved in Air Force ROTC.

He was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force in August 1957 and was discharged as a captain in 1963 to accept a commission as a lieutenant (junior grade) in the Coast Guard.

The young pilot earned accolades for his search and rescue missions, most notably for his role as a co-pilot of a helicopter that flew 150 miles from Detroit during a horrible ice storm to pluck eight seamen from the grounded West German motor vessel NORDEER just before it broke up on Lake Erie.

Two weeks after arriving in Vietnam, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing four Army helicopter crew members in hostile fire.

That was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Lt. Rittichier's heroics.

His last would be June 9, 1968. The Barberton native and pilot was shot down with three other soldiers while attempting to rescue a downed Marine on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The family in all of its sadness has tried to keep Lt. Rittichier's memory alive.

"My brother Henry -- who is nine years younger and lives in Houston, Texas -- has four children," Dave Rittichier said. "He named one after Jack and one after me."

Lt. Rittichier had been married 11 years when he died. The couple had no children.

Further testimony to Lt. Rittichier's indelible impact -- he was the Coast Guard's first combat casualty and its last MIA -- is a Web site created by Stacey Jones in his memory: www.faraway-soclose.org

The 26-year-old Texarkana, Ark., woman first got involved with the POW/MIA cause in 1998 when she was surfing the Internet and found a Web page paying tribute to an MIA soldier someone had adopted.

Jones -- whose only other connection to the military is her grandfather, who served in the Army in World War II -- has adopted seven Vietnam MIAs, one from every military branch and a female civilian surgeon.

Lt. Rittichier was among Jones' MIA adoptees. "I cried, and I laughed when I heard the news that his remains had been found," said Jones, who will attend his burial.

Jennifer Holmer said as many family members as possible will attend the Oct. 6 burial.

Dave Rittichier is uncertain if his brother's widow, Carol Rittichier Wypick of Fountain Valley, Calif., will be able to attend the Arlington National Cemetery ceremony service. She in the middle of a huge battle of her own, cancer.

That's why the family is requesting in lieu of flowers that donations in Lt. Rittichier's name be made to the American Cancer Society.

What better way for him to rest in peace?

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com

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