No one had seen Sgt. 1st Class Donald Shue since he was on a mission in Laos during the Vietnam War in November 1969, so his sister was skeptical when Army officials called a few months ago to say his remains had been found.
"I said, 'No you didn't. I don't believe it. It's been 42 years. You don't have any proof of that,'" his sister Betty Jones told The Associated Press. Then they revealed the clue that identified Shue: a Zippo lighter with his name inscribed on it.
Army officials visited her home and showed her the lighter. When she saw it, she broke down and cried.
"That was the most joyful thing I ever looked at. I knew it was Donnie," she said.
Now, four decades later, the North Carolina soldier is coming home. Thousands are expected to pay their respects this weekend in Concord, where Shue was born, and nearby Kannapolis, where he was raised. Jones, 74, of Kannapolis, called the burial a homecoming.
"We've been praying and praying and praying for this day," Jones said. "This will finally give us some closure."
Shue will be honored by family, friends, veterans groups and politicians. Two Apache helicopters from the state National Guard will accompany a procession Saturday from Charlotte to a funeral home in Kannapolis. Along the way, it will stop in Concord and Kannapolis for ceremonies.
On Sunday, veteran groups plan to honor Shue and his family again, lining the streets near the funeral home for a procession to the cemetery in Kannapolis, where a military marker with his name sits over an empty grave.
At least 1,000 members of Rolling Thunder and the Patriot Guard Riders, veterans' motorcycle groups, are expected to participate.
Some veterans faced a much different reception upon returning from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, amid massive peace protests against the unpopular war.
By late 1969, when Shue was reported missing, tens of thousands of U.S. troops had been killed. Full-scale U.S. involvement began when the first fighting units arrived in the country in 1965.
Jones recalled when her brother, the youngest of six children, enlisted. He dropped out of high school and wanted to join to fight in the war. Shue was under 18, so her father had to give his permission.
"He didn't want him to go. But my daddy knew Donnie wanted to do something for his country," Jones said.
She said her brother was a "bright boy. He was always smiling."
Monty Clark said he met Shue in 1966, and the two were part of the "Bushmasters" _ a group that raced motorcycles around town. Shue had even designed the group's logo _ a snake wrapped around the word "Bushmasters." That's when Shue decided he wanted to join the military, and the two were supposed to enlist together. But Clark wound up staying in school, while Shue left school and joined up.
The pals kept in touch constantly, until Clark got one final letter. Shue wrote that he had made the Green Berets and was headed overseas for a secret mission. Shue promised to tell him all about it when he came back to the U.S. But he never did.
"I always wondered what happened to Donnie," Clark said. "We knew in our hearts that something terrible had happened."
When Shue is laid to rest, the motorcycle group will get back together and wear T-shirts with the logo Shue designed in the 1960s, Clark said.
Shue was last seen alive in Laos in November 1969. He was with two other Special Forces soldiers and was wounded. At the time, Special Forces ran secret missions inside Laos and Cambodia, gathering intelligence on the North Vietnamese who were sneaking into South Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh trail.
A few days after Shue went missing, two Green Berets visited her home. The family was devastated, but none more so than their father. He died two years later.
"I think he died of a broken heart," Jones said. "He just loved that boy."
In 1979, the Army classified Shue as killed in action.
"We held out hope that he was alive even though we knew. We just wanted him brought home," she said.
In 1975, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam and conquered the nation. When bitter relations between the United States and Vietnam began to thaw in the 1990s, teams of Army forensic experts headed into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam looking for the remains of U.S. soldiers. There are more than 2,600 soldiers still missing from the war.
It was a Laotian farmer who found Shue's remains _ which the investigators confirmed after uncovering the Zippo lighter.
Jones and her two sisters had held out hope that he may have been in a secret prison camp, though she's happy his long journey is over.
"He's back home," she said. "Back home where he belongs."