'Faith Can Move Mountains - or an F-4C Phantom Jet'
Editor's note: This piece originally aired on May 29, 2017. We are revisiting it in honor of Memorial Day.
Memorial Day observations started early for some in Milwaukee with the official dedication of the Captain Lance P. Sijan Memorial Plaza in front of the General Mitchell International Airport on May 26th.
Milwaukee native Lance Sijan was a US Air Force officer and fighter pilot. During the Vietnam War, his plane crashed over Laos. He successfully ejected from the plane, but sustained severe injuries. A rescue mission was unsuccessful and Sijan survived in the jungle for 46 days before being captured on Christmas day 1967.
Sijan escaped, but was recaptured, interrogated and tortured in two POW camps. Today, his example is held up to all military members as that of a perfect soldier who followed the military Code of Conduct until his death in 1968.
In 1976 he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and service. Now Milwaukeeans and visitors can visit a landmark that will serve as tribute to Sijan. A replica F-4C Phantom jet that was once housed at the southwest corner of the airport grounds now stands tall at the entrance off of Howell Avenue. This relocation of the jet is thanks in large part to the efforts of Lance's sister, Janine Sijan Rozina.
"I have been waiting to say this for a long time -- welcome to the Lance P. Sijan Memorial Plaza," says Sijan Rozina to a crowd gathered near the jet.
“A true soldier doesn’t fight because he hates what’s in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. The Sijan Plaza is tangible evidence of what the power of faith and stewardship can do," she says. "A made up mind is a powerful thing. Faith can move mountains, or an F-4C Phantom jet.”
Sijan "continues to bring people together" 50 years after his death in Vietnam, with members from the armed forces, veterans, civilians, and public officials such as Mayor Tom Barett and Governor Scott Walker gathered for the occasion.
"We are honoring a true American hero...who not was, but is and will continue to be, a great American hero," says Governor Walker. He proclaimed May 26th to be Captain Lance P. Sijan Day across the state of Wisconsin.
Many Air Force officials delivered moving addresses, including Adjutant Gen. Donald Dunbar. "These heroes that we rightly honor and revere were not shadows of a Dickens play, they were real live American men and women who had dreams, ambition, and tremendous drive...and so is the story with Captain Sijan," he says.
Colonel Dan Yenchesky, Commander of the 128th Air Refueling Wing at Mitchell Field, read a letter sent for the occasion by Senator John McCain:
Colonel Lee Ellis was a friend of Sijan's from the Air Force Academy and a fellow prisoner of war in Vietnam. He recalled the happy memories of their time training together:
"(The high desert of Southern California) was a great place to fly. We could take off in a flight of four and drop down below five hundred feet and go faster than five hundred miles an hour. And here we are at 23, 24 years old - we're like teenagers with a hot rod! It was such a thrill. Focused, learned, prepared to go to war, but we had a lot of fun...Golf and girls was our fun at that time...there's only one problem: (Lance is) about six two or three, tall, dark and handsome and I'm the mutt of the crowd and I'm five nine. Somehow (in our hustling)...I always came out second fiddle to Lance. But I'll tell ya, he was the real deal. But I want to reflect back on Lance Sijan the person. Because he is an extraordinary person. He is someone that we can look up to, he is someone that we can learn from. Not perfect, but extraordinary. He was focused, he knew how to have fun, he was a great friend."
Guy Gruters was a captain in the Air Force and a prisoner of war with Sijan at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He describes Sijan as "the perfect solider." It's thanks to Gruters sharing Lance's story with fellow POWs and beyond that Sijan was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Gruters notes that ceremonies such as the Sijan Plaza dedication reminds everyone of the true meaning of Memorial Day.
"It takes a nation being willing to be committed to freedom to keep it...I've seen the horror of war - Lance was one of the worst horrors I've ever seen in my life. But he's the first one to say from heaven, where I believe he is, that you got to keep fighting - don't quit. That's what I really believe."
Colonel Tom Moe flew with Sijan in the 480th Squadron in Vietnam at Da Nang Air Base and was on the rescue mission to try and save him.
"It's a great reminder, not only of him the person, what he did, what he went through, justifiably awarded the Medal of Honor. And then we think about all the other people who didn't come home," he says. "Whenever I'm recalling those days I think of the fact that I came home, I had two more children, and now I have six grandchildren. I look at them and I think of Lance and my other friends who didn't come home. It's very meaningful for Milwaukee to do this, it's a great credit to the city and to Lance and his family."