Stand on your own two feet

Chief Master Sgt. Troy Ballard

Chief Master Sgt. Troy Ballard

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- In the coming weeks, supervisors of all ranks across the Air Force will begin gathering information, formulating bullets and populating AF Form 1206s to recognize a select few of our Airmen.

Arguably, the Lance P. Sijan USAF Leadership Award is, among all "blue suit" awards, one of the most coveted. After all, only four nominees are selected for competition at the squadron, group, wing and beyond. Moreover, the nature and substance of the package is divided into three categories, all fundamentally (and rightly so) focused on leadership -- the cornerstone of Airmanship.

A descendant of Serbian and Irish immigrants, Lance P. Sijan was born April 13, 1942, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had two siblings: Marc, five years his junior and younger sister Janine, born 13 years later. No doubt, the age difference proved complimentary to Sijan's innate leadership skills as he was highly successful in school, both in academics and sports.

A fierce and focused competitor all of his life, Sijan was determined to lead. He also was big at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 210 pounds. He was athletic as well, participating on the swim and track teams while also advancing as an all-city football player. At the end of high school, he earned an appointment to the Air Force Academy, where he played varsity football -- a defensive end for the Falcons -- until academics became increasingly more important.

Some years later, on the heels of his rest and relaxation leave in Bangkok, and on his 53rd combat mission Captain Sijan climbed into the backseat of his F-4C Phantom II, with Lt. Col. John Armstrong at the stick. At 8:39 p.m. on that November night, the aircraft exploded, plummeting Sijan to the ground with a fractured skull, three broken fingers on his right hand and bent backward to his wrist, as well as a compound fracture to his left leg with the bone protruding through the skin.

He was alone with no food, little water and with nearly nothing remaining of his survival kit. In spite of several attempts, his rescue proved ineffective and for the next 45 days, Sijan used his elbows and buttocks to traverse treacherous landscape in search of the ultimate end-state: freedom.

In and out of consciousness, he inched his way eastward, ultimately ending his journey three miles from his landing--on a dirt road and artery for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bruised, broken and with his buttocks worn to the hip bones, he was captured by the North Vietnamese Army and moved to a nearby camp.

Once there, he was fed and almost immediately began to recover strength and courage. You see, escape and reintegration was at the forefront of Sijan's calculus throughout his ordeal. Shortly after his capture, he managed to beckon a single guard close to his position and, in spite of a weakened left arm, managed to deal an incapacitating blow to the guard, enabling his escape. Regrettably, his freedom was short and he was dragged back to camp, punished, moved to a prison camp in Vinh, Vietnam, and again beaten severely. Nevertheless, he refused to give his captors any military information.

Shortly after his arrival in Vinh, he was placed under the care of Maj. Bob Craner and Capt. Guy Gruters. Gruters was a former classmate from the Academy. A few days later, Craner, Gruters and Sijan were transported to Hao Lo Prison, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton." Even there Sijan was convinced he could escape again as he even persuaded his caretakers to prop him up, just so he could exercise and strengthen his arms.

What happened next is best described directly from Craner:

"As best as I can recall, it was New Year's Day of 1968 when they brought him in at night. 'The Rodent' (a prison guard) came into the guy's cell next to mine and began his interrogation. It was clearly audible. He was on this guy for military information and the responses I heard indicated he was in very, very bad shape. His voice was very weak. It sounded to me as though he wasn't going to make it. The Rodent would say, 'Your arm, your arm, it is very bad. I am going to twist it unless you tell me.' The guy would say, 'I'm not going to tell you. It's against the code.' Then he would start screaming. The Rodent was obviously twisting his mangled arm.

"The whole affair went on for an hour and a half, over and over again, and Sijan just wouldn't give in. He'd say, 'Wait till I get better, you SOB. You're really going to get it.' He was giving The Rodent all kinds of lip, but no information. The Rodent kept laying into him. Finally I heard him rasp, 'Sijan. My name is Lance Peter Sijan.'

"That's all he told him."

On Jan. 22, 1968, Sijan paid the ultimate sacrifice and on March 4, 1976, President Gerald Ford presented the Congressional Medal of Honor to Sijan's parents.

So, as you survey the ranks for just the right Airman in this year's call for Sijan nominations, please do so through a calibrated lens formed of leadership, character, and tenacity. We owe that much to our heritage, our service, and to the good captain. Because even though he was physically unable to in the end, Capt. Lance P. Sijan always stood proudly on his own two feet.

In his mind, leadership was never about him, it was about everyone else. Perhaps most importantly, he clearly understood that rank, title, or position can be crutches for leadership and that the true measure of a leader is to inspire others by example.

Bottom line: they're out there. So let's find them, not only to celebrate their accomplishments but to elevate, celebrate and exemplify their Airmanship.