Echoes of Vietnam: An Air Force family legacy

  • Published
  • By Bryce Baswell
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Sharon Rusch was three days from her sixth birthday when a knock came at the door. She says she does not remember the Air Force officers from casualty affairs speaking with her mother. She does, however, remember the birthday card, the last message she would ever receive from her father.

Stephen A. Rusch enlisted in the Air Force and later commissioned as an Air Force weapons systems officer flying with an F-4E Phantom squadron during the Vietnam War. On the morning of March 7, 1972, his two-ship formation was flying a classified mission over the jungles of southern Laos when it was cleared to engage enemy trucks on the ground. On the second pass, the flight lead lost sight of his aircraft.

Three days of aerial searches by the Air Force yielded nothing, and Rusch’s status was changed to missing in action. Finding out the details of what happened to her father and coming to terms with it has been a lifelong journey for Sharon and her family.

“No words can explain the years to follow,” Sharon said. “The uncertainty was always there. What if my dad had died on impact? What if he had been captured and tortured? What if he got lost in the jungle, injured and alone?”

It would be many years before Sharon would learn any more details of her father’s mission or disappearance. Nearly two decades later, after graduating from dental school, she completed Air Force officer training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. While attending a formal dinner at the conclusion of training, a senior Air Force officer kept glancing at her from across the room. Finally, he came over and asked her name. The man was Maj. Gen. Billy G. McCoy, the commander of Lackland Training Center. He had been deployed with Sharon’s father when he was shot down and recognized her from family photographs.

“He sat with that whole group of young officers and told the story about the day my dad went down,” Sharon said. “For me, that was a transitional moment, not just because of my dad, but because I realized the kind of community a person would have to come from to care enough to recognize someone from their baby pictures.”

After that, Sharon served numerous tours of duty as an Air Force dental officer. Over the years, more information about her father’s final mission became available. When details were declassified during the Carter administration, her mentor, Col. Tim Lillard, a fellow dentist and former C-141 Starlifter pilot, encouraged her to acquire and read the file. In 2007, Sharon was packing for a move to a new duty station when she received a phone call from Air Force casualty affairs. They had positively identified human remains at an aircraft crash site as her father’s.

“I flew out to Joint POW/MIA Command in Hawaii, and they brought me his remains and the X-rays from his dental record,” Sharon said. “As a dentist, I was able to compare the two, and there was no doubt in my mind. It was definitely my dad.”

After 35 years, Capt. Stephen A. Rusch returned home. His remains were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery just after Thanksgiving, 2007.

“For the first time, I was able to cry,” Sharon said. “Something people don’t understand about POW/MIA families is that you’ve got zero closure until you actually have something to mourn.”

In addition to her own journey toward healing, Sharon has spent much of her life helping others with theirs. In 2009, the Air Force sent her to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, as the medical group commander. She worked closely with Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and spent her three-year tour performing as a dignified transfer officer bringing home fallen heroes in addition to her commander duties.

“I brought so many people home—it was such a busy time,” Sharon said. “Sometimes you would see families out on the flightline who were silent when their loved one was carried off the plane under a flag-draped casket, sometimes you would see families who were angry and sometimes you would see families who were crying. And I thought, as hard as that was for them, that’s when their healing could begin. My hopes were that somehow, by me understanding how they felt, me leading the dignified transfer could make things better.”

Sharon said her various experiences in the military helped her come to terms with her father’s loss. However, her younger sister, Rebecca, wanted something else. In 2015, Rebecca bicycled the entire Ho Chi Minh Trail on an epic journey terminating at her father’s crash site. The trip is documented in the 2017 Emmy-Award winning documentary, “Blood Road,” a film in which Sharon also appears.

Sharon Rusch is now Maj. Gen. Sharon Bannister, a two-star general officer, mother of two and wife to a retired Army colonel. She currently serves as the director of medical operations in the Office of the Surgeon General in the Pentagon, close enough to walk to Arlington National Cemetery and just across the Potomac River from “The Wall” at the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where she frequently volunteers. On March 29, she accompanied Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall to The Wall to conduct a commemorative paper rubbing of the engraving of her father’s name, as well as other names.

“People ask me all the time if I think my dad would be happy that I joined the Air Force,” Bannister said. “I think he would. I hope he would have seen me give my very best to people and mission. He supported me through connections with people that would later have a tremendous impact on my life. It’s important to connect with and care deeply for the Airmen and the families we serve. This made service to country for the past 31 years exceptionally rewarding.”

The black and white photo at the top hangs in the POW/MIA corridor of the Pentagon.