Family, Friends Celebrate Aggie’s Life After Remains Recovered In Vietnam
An Aggie who was killed during the Vietnam War was officially welcomed home last week in a celebration that drew hundreds of family and friends, Texas A&M classmates, fellow veterans and supporters from around the country.
U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Ronald Forrester ‘69 was 25 when his plane crashed during a combat mission in North Vietnam in December 1972. Forrester, who was serving as the navigator, and the plane’s pilot, Capt. Jim Chipman, were listed as missing in action.
This past December, 51 years after their plane went down, the military announced the remains of both men had been accounted for after DNA testing of teeth and bone fragments recovered during excavations of the crash site.
On Saturday, in a crowded church outside of Austin, the senior boots Forrester wore as a cadet stood in front of the lectern as his loved ones recalled how his determination and a call to service led him from Odessa to Texas A&M University’s Corps of Cadets before being commissioned as an officer into the Marine Corps.
Saturday’s service had a distinct Aggie flavor, with a bit of whooping mixed in with the tears and laughter drawn from recollections of Forrester’s life. The celebration included a Texas A&M color guard, a reading of The Last Corps Trip and the singing of the Aggie War Hymn. Members of the Ross Volunteers conducted a rifle volley, a pair of cadet buglers performed Echo Taps, and The Association of Former Students presented a Texas A&M flag to Forrester’s daughter, Karoni Forrester ’96, who was 2 years old when her father died.
Texas A&M University President Mark A. Welsh III and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ’72 were in attendance.
Karoni Forrester, who has dedicated much of her life to advocating for prisoners of war and those missing in action, said her family’s story offers hope for families grappling with the uncertainty surrounding their missing loved ones.
“We stand with you until it’s your family’s turn,” she said. “It’s going to be your turn.”
Forrester acknowledged the many veterans service organizations, government agencies, MIA advocates and supporters who helped in the search for her father. She said the relationships formed over the years brought comfort and lifelong bonds.
“We didn’t walk this path alone. If it weren’t for the love and support of our family and friends, our sad days would have been a lot sadder,” she said.
Forrester said she was especially grateful to the excavation team members who uncovered the pair’s remains, motivating themselves through the intense Vietnam heat by repeating their names.
“On behalf of everyone in this room, thank you for finding my dad,” she said.
The Ripple Effects Of A Life Well-Lived
Several people who didn’t know Forrester personally spoke of the impact he had on them.
Craig Forrester ‘94 said his uncle has been his hero his whole life.
“Though I have no memories of him that are my own, the man that he was, shared with me through the memories of others, had a tremendous impact on the man that I’ve become and the man that I continue to strive to be,” he said.
Forrester followed his uncle’s path to Texas A&M, the Corps of Cadets and the Marine Corps. He said his time at Texas A&M was life-changing and gave him a connection to the uncle he never met.
Forrester, who wore his uncle’s boots during his senior year at A&M, said that bond with his uncle helped him make it through the Corps.
“When I got there, I had no choice but to succeed. There was no way that I was going to tarnish his memory, his legacy, by not seeing it through,” he said. “When times were the toughest, I just reminded myself that my Uncle Ronnie had already been through all of this. I was Ron Forrester’s nephew. I’d muster up the grit to see it through as well.”
That bond continued throughout his time in the Marine Corps, including multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I always had the assurance that my Uncle Ronnie had already blazed a trail for me,” he said. “I am privileged to be Ron Forrester’s nephew, and I am honored that his legacy lives on through me.”
Karoni Forrester’s daughter, Lilian Gonzales, said she learned about her grandfather from the stories of others and the letters he wrote home. She said she has attended POW-MIA family meetings and advocacy events since she was a baby and doesn’t remember not being immersed in the efforts to bring him home.
“I can honestly say that though I never met him, I wouldn’t be who I am without him,” Gonzales said, noting an abundance of love and support from the people surrounding her because of Forrester’s absence.
“My grandpa and his story matter,” Gonzales said. “He is not forgotten.”
Darrell Boethel ’69, didn’t know Forrester personally, but said after the service that he felt it was important for him to travel from his home in Houston to attend.
“I think I speak for all of us,” Boethel said, referring to about a dozen Class of ’69 members at the service. “There’s no way we’d miss it.”
Boethel, who was also a member of the Corps of Cadets during his time at A&M, said the packed church reminded him what it means to be part of the Aggie family.
“One of the greatest gifts I’ve had was to go to A&M,” he said. “This has really resurrected that for me.”
Continuing The Mission
John Pitre ’24, a member of Squadron 21 in Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets, met Karoni Forrester prior to her father’s remains being identified.
Squadron 21 has adopted prisoner-of-war and missing-in-action advocacy as a cause for the unit and invited Forrester to campus to share her father’s story. Members of the unit wear bracelets in recognition of U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Victor Hugo Thompson III ’64, who was killed in Vietnam when his plane crashed during a combat mission in 1967. His remains were recovered in 1973 and identified in 1974.
Pitre said Saturday’s celebration with the Forrester family was especially meaningful.
“It’s an honor to be able to represent the A&M side of his life as part of the Aggie family,” he said. “To see the story come full circle and get some closure for the family is special.”
Gonzales said the family is blessed to have answers after all these years, but the identification of her grandfather’s remains isn’t the end of the story.
With 1,577 U.S. service members still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, there is more to do, she said.
“Remember Ronald Wayne Forrester. Remember his story and all that he gave. Remember he was missing. Remember he was found. Remember there are 1,577 families just like ours who are still waiting for their answers,” she said. “Continue the mission to bring them all home.”
Forrester’s remains will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery later this year. Remains recovered from the crash site that couldn’t be identified as belonging to either Forrester or Chipman will be buried together at the cemetery with a tombstone bearing both of their names.