Our Wingman Heritage…from the 1950s to today

Commentary by Lt. Col. Chadwick Igl

3rd Space Operations Squadron commander

Many of you know the heroic story of Prisoner of War and U.S. Air Force Academy graduate Capt. Lance P. Sijan, and if you do not, I encourage you to research his struggle for freedom when he was captured after being shot down during the Vietnam conflict.

As we approach the holiday season I would like to relate a personal POW story. In a few days we will wrap up the Consolidated Unit Inspection Phase 0. Afterwards, the holidays are fast approaching and we will have the opportunity to relax with friends and family, reflect on the successes of the past year and balance the competing priorities each of us face in our life. During Wingman Day, we focused on building resiliency by focusing on the four pillars of Wellness (Physical, Spiritual, Mental and Social) and the 5Cs of Positive Behavior (Care, Commit, Connect, Communicate and Celebrate). Resiliency means different things to each of us and there are different levels of resiliency that each of us employs depending on the situation faced. During the CUI, we each tested these pillars and behaviors, but now that we are headed into the holiday season, we should remember the importance of resiliency and how our training makes us stronger, serves us daily and makes us great wingmen and Airmen because the holidays can be a stressful time for many of us. Resiliency is very personal and so I thought sharing this personal story of resiliency from the 1950s and how it relates directly to the resiliency we practice today will leave a message with each of you that ties in the heritage of our Air Force with our current Air Force way of life.

My wife’s grandfather flew during the Korean War. In fact he was in the first B-29 shot down during the War, and was held as a POW for the duration of the war. I am going to share some of his experiences to relate how he and his family stayed resilient during the most difficult of times and show that while the challenges of today may be different than 60 years ago, the tools which we used to make it through the inspection, the holidays or even tomorrow are still the same.

The first wellness pillar that Maj. David MacGhee used to survive as a POW was “Physical”. He was always a very healthy and fit officer, in fact he weighed 230 pounds prior to becoming a POW, yet when he came home he weighed 114 pounds. He faced countless physical challenges as a POW such as being hung by his thumbs until he passed out, having all his fingernails pulled out with pliers, or being burnt multiple times with cigarettes by his captors. He was blind folded and sent to a firing line to get him to tell U.S. secrets and told he would be killed. As a POW he never turned away food and always found creative ways to stay fit as a POW. Back then there was no fitness Air Force instruction; fitness was just a part of being in the young Air Force. Today, every unit at Schriever has scheduled fitness activities two to three times a week. Members of our units send us on 3-mile runs, set up fitness stations or engage in team activities like basketball and soccer to improve individual fitness. These activities not only improve individual physical wellness, they also build unit camaraderie and provide a way to “Connect and Communicate” outside of the work center.

“Spiritual” is the second Wellness pillar that my grandfather-in-law used to survive as a POW. He would lean on his faith through prayer. In his stories later in life he shared that another POW would sing when they were in solitary confinement. He said his prayer and music were two of the only things that got him through the toughest of times as a POW. As we approach the holiday season, many of us will take time away from Schriever to “connect” with friends and family around the world. Many of us will celebrate in places of worship and reflect on the challenges of “caring” for new or aging family members. While many of us relate spiritual to religion, that does not apply to everyone. For some, spiritual relates to a state of mind where you are able to reflect and grow mentally by showing “care” and “concern” for the higher things in life. By defending our great nation, we are able to defend the ability for all to express their beliefs freely without fear of oppression — a unique freedom and one our country has stood for over 236 years!

Resiliency doesn’t just impact those of us serving in the military, it impacts our families too. In fact, family members in the military “serve” our nation by supporting the military member through long hours, routine PCSs, and not so routine deployments. My Grandmother-in-law exhibited incredible resiliency during the time my grandfather-in-law was a POW. She dealt with several “mental” challenges; she was notified he was shot down when she received a knock at her door at midnight, did not know if her husband was alive for the first four months of his disappearance, and then had no idea if he was dead or alive until four months after the midnight notification when she heard for the first time that he was a POW through an Associated Press radio address. Prior to the war, they had three children and the oldest was 5…just imagine the mental and emotional challenges she had to deal with, not knowing if her husband was alive, and then knowing he was alive, but not knowing how he was being treated or tortured and if he would come home alive or dead. I’m sure the holidays were particularly difficult for her. As we prepare to “celebrate” the holidays this year, some of us may go through difficult life experiences and challenges, it is important for us to remember that there is always a wingman there to help us through these difficult life experiences or challenges. As Air Force members, each of us has a personal responsibility to be the best wingman and demonstrate a personal commitment to caring for each other. Furthermore, we must communicate that care for our Air Force family every day, but especially during the holidays.

The final pillar of resiliency is “Social”. At one point Major MacGhee shared that the Koreans figured out he had sent a secret message via a film clip that was shot of him. He realized that he should attempt to escape or he would suffer greatly at the hands of his captors. There were five POWs that wanted to escape. One was too sick to try and make the trek, one volunteered to serve as the diversion and the other three made a run for it. They worked together trying to steal a boat to get to safety but were caught less than 15 miles from safety. When they returned to the camp, my grandfather-in-law encountered the worst torture ever and the camp was completely transfigured with barbed wire to keep them locked in but the POWs came together and supported him. Demonstrating team work and determination, they secretly fed him their food rations, cared for him medically and at the end of the day kept him alive. The social aspect of a POW camp is something many of us have read about, but will hopefully never experience. A key point that we can relate to goes back to training. The POWs training ultimately allowed them to survive. In the same respect, the training we all receive in our primary professions saves satellites, protects priority resources, and defends our nation. From our finance and Force Support Squadron Airmen to our civil engineer and network technicians, each and everyone one of us contributes to the 50th Space Wing mission of “Commanding satellites to deliver decisive global effects.”

My wife’s grandfather used these four pillars to stay alive and was a great American as are each of you. I hope you learned some new skills sets today that you can take and utilize or share to survive whatever challenges come your way. As we pack our suitcases and cars or get on that flight home to visit friends and family, remember that our nation and your Air Force is relying on you to return to duty. Each of us has the wellness pillars of resiliency and positive behavior to make a difference as the ultimate wingman.

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