Near midnight on a small airport tarmac in Bismarck, North Dakota, family and tribal drums greeted the return of U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class Melvin Little Bear, a Korean War veteran who had been missing in action 71 years, since Feb. 13, 1951. The Minnesota National Guard had the honor of supporting his dignified transfer Sept. 26, 2022.
“Minnesota’s military funeral honors team is known nationally for setting the standard for the rest of the country to follow,” said Christopher Van Hofwegen, the former military funeral honors coordinator for Minnesota. “The team goes above and beyond to make sure the families of our fallen are taken care of, as was the case for PFC Little Bear.”
When word first came to the Minnesota military funeral honors team about Little Bear’s dignified transfer, the request was only for planeside honors – the ceremonial removal of a casket from an airplane by seven members of the MFH team. However, when members of the team learned that the family of Little Bear would have to travel over 15 hours round trip from their homes in South Dakota to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, they coordinated with the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade’s support battalions to arrange air transport to North Dakota for the fallen Soldier.
“It is an honor for our crews to support any mission that returns service members to their families,” said U.S. Army Col. Greg Fix, the state aviation officer for the Minnesota National Guard. “We wanted to make the transition of Pvt. 1st Class Little Bear’s return from Korea back to his home in South Dakota as smooth as possible, and we look forward to more missions like this to honor these service members from past wars and conflicts.”
In addition to arranging for expedited transport via military flight, the Minnesota MFH team also coordinated with the Minnesota National Guard’s Native American Heritage council to provide a Soldier of shared heritage to escort Little Bear.
Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Stiffarm, a culinary management noncommissioned officer with the 34th Division Artillery, volunteered to escort Little Bear. Her family has ties to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, homeland to the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) Tribes.
“It was incredible bringing Pvt. 1st Class Little Bear home,” said Stiffarm. “As I move forward in my military career, I will not stop telling his story. His sacrifices deserve to be told and honored. Without a doubt, this is the greatest achievement I will ever have in the military.”
Stiffarm was the first to greet the family on the tarmac, and she presented them with a gift of tobacco to alleviate anxiety from the ceremony.
“As I went to shake each of their hands … they were beyond grateful,” said Stiffarm. “[The dignified transfer] meant more than any of us will ever understand. They were excited to have Little Bear home but also grieving the pain he endured while a POW.”
The Minnesota MFH team’s dedication demonstrates how important they consider their work.
“The actions of the [Military Funeral Honors] team is what each and every veteran and their families deserves for putting their lives on hold for the rest of us,” said Van Hofwegen. “In my opinion, providing funeral honors for fallen service members is the most important mission of the Department of Defense.”
Since its inception in 2006, the Minnesota MFH team has conducted more than 55,000 funerals for veterans of all branches throughout Minnesota. The 16 full-time staff members have conducted 2,914 funerals and seven planeside honors in fiscal 2022 – an average year, Van Hofwegen reports.
“The team is very dedicated,” said Van Hofwegen. “They will go wherever and whenever to provide honors to the family of our fallen.”
The emphasis on taking care of people made this mission a top priority.
“It was important to take this extra care because Native American veterans have always gone above and beyond for our nation,” said U.S. Army Col. Eduardo A. Suárez, director of communications for the Minnesota National Guard. “We are proud and grateful for the diversity of our force and the contributions our Native American service members make every day.”
November is Native American Heritage month and the month designated to honor military families and veterans. Little Bear’s story illustrates the importance of honoring the service, sacrifice and culture of fallen veterans.