WASHINGTON (AFNS) --
Department of the Air Force senior leaders visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to pay their respects on National Vietnam War Veteran’s Day, March 29.
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, accompanied by Office of the Surgeon General Director of Medical Operations Maj. Gen. Sharon Bannister; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr.; and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ramón “CZ” Colón-López, accompanied by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, marked the 50th anniversary of U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam by paying special tribute to specific service members killed in action during the conflict with whom they have personal or service-related connections.
“This 50th anniversary of Vietnam Veterans Day is an important milestone,” Kendall said. “It’s far enough for historians to render objective observations but close enough that those of us who took part in or were touched by the war still vividly feel its effects.”
While visiting the memorial, senior leaders conducted traditional paper rubbings of the engraved names of Staff Sgt. William H. Pitsenbarger, Lt. Col. Rodney H. Smith, 1st Lt. William F. Ericson II, Capt. Lance P. Sijan, Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchbeger, Capt. Mary T. Klinker and Capt. Steven A. Rusch.
Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as an Air Force pararescueman, mortally wounded while aiding and defending wounded Soldiers from a pinned-down Army infantry unit. He was initially posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He was the first enlisted recipient of the Air Force Cross, awarded in 1966 for extraordinary heroism.
“He believed he could make a difference if he could make it to the ground,” Kendall said. “He was right and saved lives through his heroic effort.”
Smith was a combat engineer unit commander killed in action during a helicopter crash. Kendall received an award in Smith’s honor upon his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1971.
Ericson was an infantry platoon leader. His platoon's position was attacked by an enemy force of unknown size. Ericson was the first to detect enemy movement and alerted his platoon, causing the enemy to prematurely initiate the assault. Following the assault, Ericson led a patrol to locate the withdrawn enemy force, during which, his platoon came under fire again. Ericson charged the enemy position alone and was fatally wounded. Ericson was Kendall’s regimental cadet commander during his first year attending the academy.
“I recognized fellow West Point graduates at the wall,” Kendall said. “My memories of these teammates are etched into me, as well as the moment when we learned of their full sacrifice.”
Sijan, a pilot who was the first and only Air Force Academy graduate to receive the Medal of Honor, was also awarded posthumously.
“Fifty years ago today, the last American troops left Vietnam,” Brown said. “Capt. Lance Sijan evaded capture, plotted escape, battled illness and underwent torture – he never quit, never gave up but he did not return home. His incredible spirit will forever serve as an inspiration.”
Klinker was posthumously awarded the Airmen’s Medal and Meritorious Service Medal. She was the only member of the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps and only female Airman to be killed in the Vietnam War. Klinker was participating in “Operation Babylift,” assisting with the evacuation of Vietnamese children, including orphans. Her flight out of Saigon crashed due to a mechanical malfunction, killing her and many of the others aboard. Children that she helped evacuate survived the crash and were relocated to the U.S.
Bannister said she coincidentally met one of the evacuated children, now an adult, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a separate occasion. The evacuee was there to pay her respects to Klinker, whom she personally credited with her rescue.
“There are few opportunities as sacred as this one,” Bannister said. “This is not only a way for us to stay connected and carry on the legacy of those we lost. It's one way we can honor all the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country in Vietnam."
Bannister also etched the name of Rusch, her father, an F-4E Phantom II pilot, who was shot down during a ground strike mission.
“[Maj.] Gen. Bannister shared her story and experience with me,” Kendall said. “Her resilience at such a young age was moving. Her dedication to her father’s legacy is an example for us to study and appreciate. As Maj. Gen. Bannister prepares for retirement, she can be proud of her path. She treated and healed many through her dental skills and sustained the memories of the fallen through her volunteerism and community service.”
“As we mark this important anniversary, let us remember not only the fallen but the sacrifice of all who served and our continued efforts to account for the missing and bring them home,” Kendall said.