Friday, October 25, 2013

Headed For Heaven In Full Afterburner

Like many former servicemen, I have my own mental picture of the different branches of the military. The Army, for instance, is big, lumbering, and sometimes inefficient, but necessary - kind of like an offensive lineman. The Marines are mean and nasty - linebackers. The Navy is quick, agile, and hard hitting - an excellent free safety. But the Air Force ... ah, the Air Force.. the Air Force reminds me of the pampered quarterback.

While the Army tramps around in the muck and sleeps on the ground, the Air Force stays hundreds or even thousands of miles away, taking hot showers and sleeping on soft beds in air conditioned comfort. The Navy spends lots of time floating around in steel boxes. The Marines combine the worst of the Army and the Navy - tramping around in the muck and spending large chunks of time in those steel boxes. The Air Force, on the other hand, enjoys fine dining (relatively speaking), officers clubs, PXs, and all the comforts of home.

That's painting with a broad brush, of course - stereotyping, if you will. However, I'm willing to bet that most veterans have similar mental pictures. But every once in a while something comes along that makes me rethink my position. That happened yesterday when I read about Air Force Brigadier General Robinson “Robbie” Risner.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner, a former San Antonio resident and senior-ranking American POW for five of the seven years he was held in Hanoi, has died following a stroke. He was 88.
General Risner was part of an exceptional group of men who fought in three wars - WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnem war.
Risner flew a P-38 Lightning in World War II and became an ace after shooting down eight MiG-15 fighters in Korea. He was famous among tactical aircraft pilots for using the nose of his F-86 to physically push his wingman's disabled fighter away from enemy lines.
Can you imagine the courage and skill it took to do that? It would be like driving your car down the highway at several hundred MPH and trying to nudge the car next to you through a curve - except that an airplane moves in three dimensions, not just two, and nobody is shooting at you.
He flew more than 108 combat missions in the Korean War, shot down eight MiGs, and became the 20th jet ace of that war. 

During the Vietnam War, Risner was an F-105 squadron commander. On March 16, 1965, he was shot down, but made it to the Tonkin Gulf before bailing out and was rescued. A month later, Time magazine featured him on their cover.  On Sept. 16, he was shot down again, and this time, was captured. To make things worse, his captors had the Time article, and made him their "prized prisoner,” which meant more abuse.  Risner served as a leader in the Hoa Lo Prison -- first as senior-ranking officer and then vice commander of the 4th Allied POW Wing. Some called him "the most influential and effective POW there."

Risner and other high-ranking prisoners saw the Hoa Lo as a new battlefield. The Vietnamese sought to break their captives, torturing Risner and others by binding their wrists and elbows closely behind their back, then raising their arms over their head, a rope running through a hook. Days might pass before a prisoner's arms popped out of their sockets.

“He had been in solitary for over a year, and then they put him in a cell that was totally blacked out, ... and he was in that cell for 10 months..."

One day in 1971, Risner and several colleagues organized a church service, a forbidden act, which led to more punishment. As their captors led Risner away, Col. “Bud” Day and the more than 40 other POWs in the room began singing “The Star Spangled Banner” to show their support. Hearing the defiant singing, Risner walked away with his back straight, head held high, full of pride.

When asked later how he felt at that moment, Risner said “I felt like I was 9 feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.”  That moment and his words are reflected by a statue, exactly 9 feet high, that now stands at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  Bud Day spoke at the unveiling of the statue, saying, “We knew he was in fact 9 feet tall. This is a life-size statue.”

He was awarded two Air Force Crosses for heroism in Vietnam, the first for leading the attack on the “Dragon’s Jaw,” a bridge that was one of the toughest targets in North Vietnam and withstood 871 attacks. The second was given for his leadership in the POW camp and courage under torture.

After more than seven years in captivity – more than three of which were in solitary confinement -- Risner was released. He was briefly hospitalized and reported he was ready for duty "after three good meals and a good night’s rest." He spent his remaining years in uniform commanding the 832nd Air Division, and serving as the vice commander of the AF Tactical Fighter Weapons Center, where he also commanded Red Flag. He retired in 1976.

Like many heroes, Risner spent a great amount of his remaining years sharing his story with our Airmen. At an event in the 1990s, he met a Russian MiG-15 ace who’d flown during the same time Risner had been in Korea.  The Russian pilot asked if they’d ever faced each other in combat.  Risner responded: "No way; you wouldn’t be here."

His military decorations and awards include the Air Force Cross with one oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with one oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star Medal with V device and one oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Purple Heart with three oak leaf clusters, Presidential Unit Citation Emblem, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon with two combat V devices and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon.
There is much more to General Risner's life and Air Force career than what I've posted here. Do yourself a favor and find out more about this remarkable man. (Sources here, here, and here.)

Robbie Risner was a credit to the Air Force, and to the United States of America. We are the better for his having walked among us, and are diminished by his passing. Well done, General Risner.

Rest in Peace.

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