‘Be Good’: Remembering a father lost, Gold Star daughters embark on a path to healing
“If anything should happen to me, please don’t let me die to Sharon and Becky. Be Good, Steve.”
U.S. Air Force Captain Stephen A. Rusch wrote these words in his last letter home before his plane was shot down over Laos in 1972.
Rebecca was three years old when her father went missing. Her older sister, Sharon, was three days away from her sixth birthday. “The uncertainty was always there,” Sharon remembered. Growing up meant there were a lot of unanswered questions. What if dad had died on impact? What if he was captured and tortured? What if he got lost in the jungle – injured and alone? There were nights of many tears, living life with “a fading hope and an aching heart that never healed.”
“We suffered silently, privately alone,” Rebecca Rusch would later add, admitting that they never talked about their father’s loss. They instead lived life alongside grief. There was an emptiness they were unable to fill until they both endured on their personal path toward healing.
Missing In Action
On March 7, 1972, U.S. Air Force Captain Stephen A. Rusch was the weapons systems officer in an F-4E Phantom II aircraft where he was attacking enemy targets over southern Laos. The plane was the number two aircraft in a flight of two. When his aircraft was cleared to begin its second run over enemy targets, the flight leader of the number one aircraft lost sight of his plane. He then observed enemy ground fire followed by a large explosion. Days later, Stephen Rusch and the pilot, Carter A. Howell, would be declared missing.
In the years that followed, a joint team, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), investigated the incident.
Excavations continued throughout 2002 and 2003, and joint teams conducted two excavations of the crash site where they recovered human remains and supplementary evidence, including U.S. coins and life support equipment. DNA and dental comparisons were then used to help identify them.
A quest for healing
In 2007, these excavations gave closure to Sharon’s long unanswered questions. The last traces of her father—his dental remains—were found and identified. She recounts the emotional moment they were shown to her in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“I held his dental remains in my hand, and I was able to cry the first tears in 35 years for a dad I hadn’t had the opportunity to grow up with,” she said during VVMF’s Memorial Day Observance at The Wall.
After she let go of her father’s remains, she watched military personnel put a small bag with the teeth inside a wool blanket and place it in a casket underneath his uniform where his medals laid.
“As the top closed and the flag was draped on top, I knew my dad was really home,” she said, holding back waves of tears.
Sharon was honored to escort her father home from Hawaii to Arlington National Cemetery. He was buried on November 30, 2007 with full military honors.
Despite being six years old when her father went missing, Sharon has few memories of him. There is a photo of him holding her on a U.S. Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi where he is smiling endearingly at his little girl.
Sharon would choose a path in the U.S. military, similar to her father where she has spent 27 years in the U.S. Air Force. Sharon currently serves as the Deputy Assistant Director of Education and Training for the Defense Health Agency at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. She also serves as the Assistant Surgeon General for Dental Services.
While she did not join the military because of her father, the connections she’s made has led her to remain.
“Having spent the last 27 years in the military, I better understand what it means to serve your country, and what our young airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines are willing to sacrifice for the defense of our freedoms and democracy,” she said.
She says that serving in the U.S. Air Force has given her a new perspective on the man her dad was. She has gotten to meet people who served with him, met others who have lost loved ones, and families who have felt the same emptiness she felt growing up.
“I realized I was entering into a fellowship that was much bigger than myself,” she said. “I am carrying on a legacy he wasn’t able to finish himself.”
Years ago, Sharon began volunteering at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. She wanted to give back to those who suffered the same insurmountable loss she had. Volunteering helped her see the people behind the conflict, and also helped her see her dad as more than just her hero.
“He sacrificed his life for something so much bigger than himself,” she told VVMF. “Meeting veterans and families at The Wall helps bring those personal stories alive.”
She says spending time at The Wall is sacred, and quite possibly the most meaningful thing she’s ever done.
And while her father’s remains were repatriated, more than 1,500 service members remain missing. During her Memorial Day speech at The Wall, she made a plea to all in attendance.
“There are still many who have not returned – whose stories still need an end,” she affirmed. “Keep them and their families, and their friends in your thoughts and hearts. Never let them be forgotten.”
While Sharon felt closure when her dad’s remains were returned home, she accepts that it was a different journey for her sister.
“Rebecca was and always will be my best friend, though our journeys to ‘find our dad’ came at different times,” she admitted, “and in different ways.”
Since Rebecca was only three years old when her father went missing in action, she has no memories of him. “I had the same gaping hole in my life,” she told the crowd at the Memorial Day Observance at The Wall. “So I really struggled to mourn a man that I never knew.”
For much of her life, she didn’t embrace her dad’s service. She felt the sting of his absence and blamed the demon of war. Many people assumed she would find closure after her father’s dental remains were repatriated in 2007, but she said it was just the opposite.
“It was just the beginning,” she said. “I saw it as an opening, and a discovery.”
When they buried her father’s remains, she knew that while his journey was over, hers was just beginning. So she went searching the only way she knew how—with her bike.
Rebecca is an ultra-endurance mountain bike athlete who is continuously breaking boundaries and records in sports and expedition. In 2015, she underwent her most challenging journey yet. She biked 1,200 miles across the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through Vietnam and the jungles of Laos and Cambodia, to find the crash site of her father. Her journey, along with a Vietnamese mountain bike racer Huyen Nguyen, was documented in the documentary Blood Road.
“To go to the place where my dad’s plane was shot down, to connect with him in some way, it was an amazing journey,” Rebecca said. She met with villagers who remembered the day he went down. She visited the crash site where she found pieces of her dad’s plane. And it was there that she really felt his presence.
“When we had the Arlington ceremony when they brought home his two teeth, I didn’t feel that connection,” Rebecca said. “But to be there, in the soil, in the place, on my bike, in the jungle. It was there I felt a connection.”
After visiting her father’s crash site, wounds that had been long tucked away, reemerged and allowed her to begin her journey toward healing. Rebecca, who had once been unwilling to recognize the painful chapter of her dad’s life, now embraced it.
“I came back from that ride feeling close to him. I felt like I was getting to know my dad for the first time,” she added. “I felt like I was getting to know my sister and to know the military service and veterans. And finding out about the family I never knew I had. It took me into my forties to feel like I was starting to connect with my family in a really unique way.”
The magnetic pull that she felt led her to her father’s crash site later pulled her to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where she became a volunteer in 2018.
Today she joins her sister, Sharon, who assists visitors at The Wall. Rebecca, who lives in Idaho, only gets to volunteer in Washington, D.C. a few times a year. But when she does, she sees it as a time to bond with her sister and discover the stories of those who were lost. The Wall allows herself to see the humanity in war.
“It is connecting with a whole other family I didn’t know I was a part of,” she said. “At first when I came to The Wall, I was really sad. Now, when I come to The Wall, it’s more about the people who are there, who are celebrating their relationships. It’s this super important human connection with the living.”
Rebecca feels like her father is teaching her and showing her things through The Wall, through the veterans she meets, and through her sister.
“There is definitely still a presence that I’ve discovered since finding him,” she said.
Rebecca said her father signed all of his letters home from Vietnam with the same two words: “Be Good.” Nearly 50 years after his death, she has chosen to live her life by them.
“He inspired me to try harder, push farther, and above all to remind myself and others that we all have unique talents that can be harnessed for the greater good,” she wrote on her Be Good Foundation website, a non-profit organization she founded which creates opportunities for outdoor exploration, personal discovery and humanitarian service at local, national and global levels.
Her father’s two words, “Be Good,” have become her guiding principle. “Dad, I hear you loud and clear,” she said during her Memorial Day speech. “You did not die. You are alive in me and in my sister, Sharon.”
She ensures the names on The Wall are speaking to all of us as well, guiding us and teaching us.
“We are all connected by the names on The Wall. Those people have brought us all together as a way to mourn, and hug and celebrate and make new friendships and relationships. I feel a funeral or memorial isn’t always about the person who is gone, it’s about the people who are still here.”
Everyone’s journey and path to healing is different. For Sharon, it is 27 years in military service. For Rebecca, it was biking through the jungles of Southeast Asia. And for thousands of others, the journey brings them back to The Wall – where they come to face loss – where they come to meet people like Sharon and Rebecca.
Stephen Rusch’s legacy has led his daughters to this sacred place, where they are a part of the healing process of so many. In the powerful connections they forge with veterans and families, you can almost hear their father’s words ever so clearly: ‘Be Good.’