Browns Valley airman, SDSU grad finally laid to rest

Of all that was said on a special Saturday in a small Minnesota community, these words from Matthew rang out with the most clarity: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

For the citizens of Browns Valley, Minnesota, and the family of Captain Darrell Spinler, comfort was a long time coming.

Spinler, a 1960 graduate of SDSU, earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force through ROTC.  His career led him to the skies over Laos in the Vietnam War where a bombing run along the Xekong River ended with his plane crashed and his body believed lost to the river. Spinler was listed as missing in action since 1967. Previous attempts to recover his remains after the war failed, but new information led searchers to a place on the riverbank where they found bone fragments, wreckage, and personal items. Dental records were used to make a positive identification.

After years of waiting and wondering, the Spinler family got to say good-bye to their brother and father. Browns Valley got to bid farewell to a friend.

A town of 600 just across the border from South Dakota, Browns Valley likely doubled in size on June 18 for Spinler’s memorial service and burial with full military honors.

“It’s finally over,” says Bill Randall, who played on the Browns Valley High School basketball team with Spinler and who, with three other teammates, served as a pallbearer. “We finally get some closure. It’s good for the family. It’s good for the town to finally get it laid to rest.”

A man of many roles: leader, pilot, husband, father

Of course most people know each other in a small town, but Spinler had the kind of fame those towns reserve for sports heroes. His ability on the basketball court earned the lanky 6-5 forward a scholarship at SDSU. Like many high school standouts, Spinler traded local stardom for being a stalwart on his college team, lettering all three years he was eligible and averaging more than six points and five rebounds per game for the Jackrabbits.

Spinler shined in other areas, too. He was a leader in Air Force ROTC serving as cadet colonel, the highest rank for an undergraduate. In his senior year he earned both the Governor’s Trophy and the President’s Trophy as the outstanding Air Force cadet.

He did all this while courting and marrying his wife, Darlene. David, their first  of two sons, was born while Spinler attended SDSU.

Southeast Asia was continually roiling with some sort of conflict, but the United States was years away from its heaviest involvement when Spinler graduated in 1960. Yet there he was, getting his commission and reporting for duty. For those who knew him, there was no mystery to his career path.

“He always wanted to fly,” says Bill Collins, Spinler’s brother-in-law. “He was good at just about everything he did.”

Spinler earned his wings in 1961 and spent part of his military service as a pilot who shuttled ranking officers from one base to another. According to Randall, it was an assignment that Spinler was eager to change.

“He said he was tired of flying bigwigs around,” says Randall, who talked to Spinler prior to his deployment. “He told me, ‘I want to do what I was trained to do.’”

Prior to leaving for Vietnam in 1966, Spinler trained in the A1E Skyraider. The Skyraider was a workhorse in Vietnam, where the propeller-driven aircraft was used as a multipurpose attack bomber and utility aircraft.

On June 21, 1967, eight months into his deployment, Spinler flew the lead aircraft in a flight of two on a strike mission over a North Vietnamese munitions dump on the eastern rim of the Plateau des Blovens in Laos. On a bombing run over the target, Spinler flew in low, dropped his ordnance and the ensuing blast from the munitions dump brought down his plane.

It would be more than forty years before he would come home.

Small town makes big plans for memorial

A funeral fills any of the Browns Valley churches to capacity. It was easy to see that welcoming Spinler home would take a special effort.

More than 160 extra chairs were set up in the gathering space at the United Methodist Presbyterian Church and the service was broadcast to an overflow crowd at the middle school and to the nursing home.

At its core, every funeral is part reunion and this was a reunion on a grander scale. At times that morning prior to the service, the noise in the church reached a steady roar with old friends exchanging greetings, recognizing each other in spite of the changes the years had put them through.

Standing silently at attention throughout the morning were honor guards from area veterans’ organizations, taking turns standing post near a fallen comrade.

In her homily at the memorial service, the Reverend Anna Williamson noted that with the news of Spinler’s recovery, local folks would share memories of him as a youngster on his bike, as a player on the basketball court, or as a good friend. She likened those memories to snapshots.

“People live between the snapshots,” Williamson says, noting that Spinler had been “lost to the snapshots, but not to God.”

Someone had the foresight to line up three buses to shuttle the Spinler family and the assorted honor guards to the cemetery. On the way to Valley View Cemetery, every post and pole seemed to display an American flag. Some were held by brackets that were obviously new, still sporting a straight-from-the-hardware-store shine.

At almost every intersection there were clusters of citizens waiting along the road to pay their respects, taking time out of the forenoon on one of the first decent Saturdays of the summer to wait for a local hero to pass by.

A day for closure, but also hope

Like the gathering at the church, the scene at the cemetery was an odd mix of Sunday suits and motorcycle leathers, crisp Air Force uniforms and well-worn blue jeans. The crowd mingled for more than half an hour, waiting for a flyover that would signal the beginning of the service. Their patience was rewarded when a C-130 Hercules rumbled in low over the cemetery.

The honor guard from the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota supplied the military honors, placing the casket at the gravesite and presenting flags to the family in a ritual as time-honored as it was painstakingly precise.

During the graveside service, Major Ron Sugg, an Air Force chaplain, spoke for the family, offering their gratitude for a turnout and a tribute that left them honored and humbled.

“They are proud of this moment,” Sugg says. “They are so taken aback.”

“Closure” was a word spoken often that day. And in his message, Sugg noted that the day would help the Spinler family, the Browns Valley community, and his armed forces family heal.

But there was more on Sugg’s mind.

Prior to the service, he worked the crowd, asking why people had come to the graveside service. Some showed him the bracelets they wore for loved ones who are still missing.

“Two people showed me bands and said, ‘We’re still waiting.’”

Sugg told the crowd that Spinler’s recovery so many years after his death gives others with loved ones missing in action something that makes the long years of waiting more bearable. It gives them hope.

“There is hope,” Sugg says, his voice growing in intensity. “Hope that you’ll get your loved ones back.”

Department of Defense records show that on the day Spinler was buried, there were still 1,689 military personnel missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

That means 1,689 families still waiting for a day like this. A day that marked the return of a hometown boy whose exploits on the basketball court could bring the town to its feet and whose final return home brought Browns Valley together one more time to remember, laugh, and mourn.


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