The Girl on the Tarmac

April 23, 1994|By HAL PIPER

As I was paging through the paper the other day, the name ''Piper'' leaped off the page at me. Naturally I took a closer look to see what my fellow Pipers were up to.

A photo of a young woman in dress military uniform accompanied the article, and there were some quotes from her father, and I suddenly realized that I knew these people -- or had met them once.

In January 1981, I covered the release of the 53 Americans held hostage by Iran for 444 days. The hostages were flown first to Algeria and then to Frankfurt, Germany, where a crowd gathered on the airport to await them.

During the long, boring wait for the plane's arrival, I started talking to a nearby family. A bubbly girl of about 12 was bouncing around on the tarmac, trying to keep warm in the chllly January dawn, sparkling with energy. They weren't a hostage's family, she said; they were at the airport because her dad was flying the plane from Algeria. She wondered if I would put her in the newspaper story I was going to write. Sure, I said; what's your name?

''Laura Piper.''

''No kidding? P-i-p-e-r? My name's Piper, too.'' I showed her my business card to prove it.

Eventually, the plane arrived to wild cheers, waving flags and fluttering yellow ribbons. The hostages got off, and some of the Air Force flying crew came toward the spectators, including Laura's dad, a trim, dapper major in a cowboy hat.

''Dad, his name's Piper, too,'' Laura pealed out.

''Is that so?'' said Major Piper, not particularly impressed.

I introduced myself and asked about the flight from Algeria, and jotted down his quote that it had been pretty uneventful. We agreed that we probably weren't related, or if so, too far back for anyone to remember. His people were from Texas and mine from Chicago.

I copied down Laura's address and promised to send her a copy of my story if she was in it. She was in it, and I'm pretty sure I did

remember to send her a copy; at least I hope so.

Last week she was in the newspaper again. Second Lt. Laura A. Piper, 25 years old, was one of the 26 people killed when U.S. fighter pilots mistakenly shot down two helicopters carrying a United Nations relief mission over northern Iraq.

She died doing what she wanted to do, her family said. Laura was born at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. She returned there to witness her parents' renewal of their wedding vows. One day when she was 10, Laura's mother told reporters, she read in a newspaper that the academy was to begin admitting women. ''That's where I'm going,'' the mother recalled Laura saying: ''Not 'I'll try,' or 'I'd like to,' but 'I'm going.' ''

To improve her chances, Laura dropped out of band in junior high school, so that she could devote more time to studies and to athletics: She was a shot-putter and rugby player. And as a high school student in Fairfax County, Virginia, she was elected as the student representative to the school board, where she lobbied for the board to support a drive to raise money for the homeless.

Laura wanted to be a pilot, like her father, and at the time of her death she was scheduled to begin pilot training.

Newspaper accounts portray the Piper family as bearing their grief stoically. ''They tell you when you start [at the academy] that there's always a price,'' said Laura's 23-year-old brother, Danny C. Piper, who will graduate from the academy next month. ''They tell you to look around at your classmates, and that some of them will die in the line of duty, or on the job, in service to their country.''

The stories say that in addition to service to country, Laura loved seeing the world. The family refrigerator in San Antonio is festooned with postcards she sent to her 10-year-old brother. She cruised the Nile last summer. And the Washington Post account mentioned one of Laura's exciting childhood experiences -- waiting for the plane on which her father was bringing the American hostages to Germany.

''It was freezing cold that morning, and we had to get up real early,'' recalled Laura's brother Danny. ''It was amazing to see so many people out there in the cold, in the dark, waving flags.'' When the plane landed, the roar of the crowd was ''louder than any football game I've been to. That influenced her a lot.''

Today, 2d Lt. Laura A. Piper is to return one last time to the Air Force Academy, for burial.

D8 Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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