AFCEE civilian receives overdue war honor

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Schneider
  • Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment public affairs
For Air Force veteran John LaHue, it was an award ceremony over four decades in the making.

The Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment chief financial officer received the Distinguished Flying Cross during his retirement ceremony Dec. 22 for extraordinary achievement while serving as a sergeant and C-47 airborne Morse system operator in Vietnam in 1970.

LaHue was officially awarded the medal 41 years ago, but without any formal presentation -- a common occurrence during a war that was unpopular in the United States.

"The day that I flew out of Vietnam to come home and landed in San Francisco, we were greeted by protesters who spat on us," LaHue said. "It was a very ugly 'welcome home.' Then a few months later, a package came in the mail - a Distinguished Flying Cross. But it was never presented to me officially."

LaHue saw the official ceremony as an opportunity to symbolically honor all veterans, particularly those who served during the Vietnam era and suffered a lack of recognition and respect from the public for their service.

Maj. Gen. Robert Otto, commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency at Lackland AFB, Texas, formally presented the award to LaHue during the ceremony.

"I travel the world to visit our units and, invariably, see stewardesses and attendants who look out for the military," Otto said. "I see people in first class offering their seats to the young two-stripe soldier who is coming back from the (area of responsibility). The nation is thanking our people for their service, and I think that's so wonderful.

"I think of John's experience, when he got off that Freedom Bird in San Francisco and there are demonstrators protesting not just the United States' presence in that war, but the Airmen and Soldiers and Marines who participated in the war. And they spat on them."

It was not a very proud chapter in our nation's history, Otto said.

"John finished his duty and then received a Distinguished Flying Cross in the mail," the general continued. "I don't know how that strikes you, but that strikes me as incredibly inappropriate. What I want to do today, before we get into the heart of the retirement ceremony, is to recognize him the way we should have 40 years ago, rather than his welcome in San Francisco, amongst a very warm group of friends who would like to recognize his accomplishments."

During his year of service in Vietnam, LaHue logged over 2,000 hours of airtime, equating to approximately 200 missions, he said. The top-secret missions involved identifying enemy locations and providing the real-time information to the units on the ground. LaHue said he often volunteered to take on additional aerial missions for members of the squadron who were married and had families to support. He found the work very rewarding.

"I felt tremendously satisfied knowing I was saving the lives of our guys on the ground," he said. "It was real-time tactical intelligence to the units and, when you'd see the infantrymen later, they couldn't thank you enough."

The particular mission for which LaHue was awarded involved a long and arduous flight over hostile terrain in adverse weather conditions. At the time, a typhoon was blowing in and LaHue's group was responsible for relaying enemy locations to the allied forces. LaHue said it was one mission in which he didn't expect to come back alive.

"There was a campaign on the Cambodian border and troops were beginning their assault," he said. "It was a major campaign and they needed enemy positions in real time. It was a volunteer mission and one I didn't think I'd live through. We got in there and found the enemy targets. Then, while trying to get home, the weather was so intense -- I've never experienced anything like it in my life. Miraculously, we made it home and none of us ever talked about it after."

The ceremony Dec. 22, not only acknowledged his service in Vietnam, but also marked the end of a 31-year civil service career. Over the course of his career, he not only served as AFCEE's chief financial officer, but also supported the missions of the Defense Logistics Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.; San Antonio Air Logistics Center headquarters in San Antonio, Texas; Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio; the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Antonio; and the Financial Services Center in Austin, Texas.