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Holding hope for a soldier’s return home

Iowa author comes home to talk about book ‘Last Known Alive’

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Esta Raasch stares down at her parents’ grave in Glidden as rain slides over the rim of her glasses and lands on the grass adjacent to the grave.

The cemetery is a place she frequently visits, but no matter how many times she stops by, she is struck with a familiar pang.

Someone is missing.

After 50 years, her brother, Vietnam War veteran Don Sparks, has never returned home.

Sparks, who was drafted into the Army in 1969, was injured during an attack in Vietnam and was taken to a Vietnam hospital and later captured as a prisoner of war.

For years, the Sparks family wondered about him. They held hope that one day, he would return home. One day, he would be back with his family.

Although Raasch’s parents are no longer alive, that hope has never extinguished.

“I constantly stay in touch with the director of the family league with MIAs and POWs of Southeast Asia,” Raasch said. “I’ve been involved in this ever since high school. I’ve flown to Atlanta, Georgia and Ohio to attend some of these meetings where I know they are going to be joined with the POW accounting agency and the family league. I usually get updates in these case studies. I have never stopped since this all started.”

Recently Arlyn Perkey, Sparks’ former college roommate, traveled back home to Iowa, where he met with the Sparks family and spoke with community members, the Glidden American Legion and others about his new book “Last Known Alive.” The story recounts his time spent as a solider serving in Vietnam and provides insights into Sparks’ time abroad, as well as information he was able to obtain from the U.S. Army and other soldiers who served in Sparks’ platoon about his whereabouts before and after he was taken prisoner.

For just a few months, Perkey too spent his days trudging through the lush forest in Vietnam. Because of his size, he was given the job of carrying a machine gun until he was shot and wounded. After spending time in the hospital, he was sent to recover in Aurora, Colorado, before heading back home to Iowa.

Following his service, he pushed memories of Vietnam and combat zones out of his mind. He wanted to look forward. He did not reflect on his days in the Army.

Until he found out about Don Sparks.

“I did not know what had happened to Don until 1983, when my wife at that time had gone down to the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall in Washington, D.C., and brought home some literature,” Perkey said. “I picked up this piece of literature, and it had a picture of Don (Sparks) on it. It was one of the most shocking and stunning things to me, because I just couldn’t hardly bring myself to believe that that was Don Sparks.”

Years later, that picture of his old college roommate was still on his mind during his visit home for his 50th high school anniversary. As he drove across vacant country roads in Pella — something struck him.

He knew he couldn’t disregard the past anymore. He needed to support those who were not as fortunate as he was after the war.

“I just wanted to do what I wanted to do,” Perkey said. “I never joined the American Legion. I didn’t do any of the things a lot of veterans do. I just felt that at this point in my life I need to give back.”

So he reached out to a few college friends and asked them to connect him with the Sparks family. That’s when he first talked to Raasch.

He thought, through his connections in the Army, that maybe he could be of some assistance to her family to locate Sparks’ body. But neither Perkey nor Raasch ever intended for their research or conference calls to take them this far.

“Initially, this was not the start of a book or anything,” Raasch said. “It was just to touch base with the family and go from there. As we were going through this, I was going, ‘I didn’t know this. I didn’t know that.’ ”

During Perkey’s visit in September, both he and Raasch met with State Rep. Brian Best of Glidden to promote the book and emphasize its importance — not only for the Sparks family, but the community.

“I hope this is an important step forward,” Perkey said. “What I hope this book can accomplish is better communication between the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) and the United States Department of the Army and family.”

Best, who purchased eight copies of the book to donate to area libraries, said he does not have the power to do much more for the Sparks family but will urge public officials and others to look into what can be done to help the family and, hopefully, bring Sparks’ body home.

“It’s something that goes above and beyond being a politician,” Best said. “Reading the book, just the amount of respect I have for Don (Sparks) and Arlyn (Perkey) and for anybody at that time. It was a draft. Don went in and Arlyn went in, and they didn’t complain.”

Raasch also contacted State Sen. Mark Segebart of Vail as well as U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley about the book.

Recently, Raasch has been speaking with other officials to gather more information about areas to which Sparks may have traveled after he was wounded and captured. As long as there is a glimmer of hope or a chance to find her brother — Raasch will keep fighting.

As Raasch stands in front her parents’ grave at Merle Hay Memorial Cemetery, she glances over at the untrodden grass next to where they were buried. The untouched grass should not be vacant, she thinks. It should be filled — and perhaps one day, it will.

“He loved his family,” Raasch said. “I think it would mean a whole lot to him to be with his family. There is always a glimmer of hope that he could walk out.

“I think it’s more realistic that his remains come back.”

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