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Body of Australian Vietnam War soldier returns home

CANBERRA (Reuters) - The remains of an Australian soldier killed during the Vietnam War were returned home to a ceremonial welcome on Wednesday, 36 years after his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire.

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Lance Corporal John Gillespie, a 24-year-old army medic, died on April 17, 1971, when his helicopter crashed and caught ablaze after coming under fire during a medical evacuation in the Minh Dam Mountains of southern Phuoc Tuy province.

“From one soldier to another, I say to Lance Corporal John Gillespie, welcome home mate,” said Major-General Richard Wilson of the Australian Defence Force as Gillespie’s body was brought home in a flag-draped coffin.

Gillespie’s widow, Carmel Hendrie, and daughter, Fiona Pike, who was aged 2 when her father was killed, were among family members to see the body taken from a military aircraft at an air force base south of Melbourne.

“We’re just so happy that he’s home on home soil, and that we can go and say hello,” Hendrie said.

“Fiona said something very poignant to me the other day: ‘Mum, I’ve got something to touch’, which before she’s never, ever, ever had.”

Gillespie’s legs were pinned under the helicopter. After a search failed to find the body the next day, it was assumed to have been consumed by fire.

But an Australian veterans search team found the crash site in 2004 and the body was discovered last month.

“The helicopter burned beyond recognition, so to find him was extremely fortunate,” Ron Coxon, president of Australia’s Vietnam Veterans’ Association, told local television.

Australia, a close U.S. ally, first sent soldiers to Vietnam in 1962 and by the time the last troops left in 1973, more than 50,000 Australian soldiers, air force and navy personnel had served there. A total of 520 died in the war, while almost 2,400 were wounded.

The remains of another three Australian soldiers are yet to be recovered from Vietnam battlefields.

Gillespie was to be buried in a private non-military service in Melbourne.

Editing by Jerry Norton