By Senior Airman Torri Larson
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
“I don’t need to tell you about character – if you didn’t have it, you wouldn’t be here,” retired Maj. Kenneth Carpenter said to approximately 200 Airmen who gathered in the base auditorium April 28 to support his Year of Leadership program visit.
During his hour-long chat with the audience, Major Carpenter focused on character and its relationship to strong leadership, advising Airmen to “Be honest, sincere, and do what you say you’re going to do.”
The Vietnam veteran recounted a particularly famous story involving himself and an eight-man crew, including Airman John Levitow, flying aboard an AC-47 attack cargo aircraft known as “Spooky 71,” during an offensive which affected all American bases in the area. While providing air support, Major Carpenter’s aircraft was rocked with mortar fire. Although the aircraft sustained heavy damage, Major Carpenter was able to land successfully. During the attack, Airman Levitow received shrapnel wounds which hindered him for much of his life.
“When I told him I wanted to put him in for the Medal of Honor he said, ‘I don’t need a medal – put yourself in,'” Major Carpenter said, smiling as he explained that Levitow’s character was evident in everything he did.
Years later, Levitow made it his personal mission to award Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor. Airman Pitsenbarger was a pararescueman who lost his life in Cam My, east of Saigon, when he elected to remain with Soldiers under enemy attack after helping airlift wounded Soldiers to safety.
“He told them he’d turn in his own medal if they would give it to Airman Pitsenbarger,” Major Carpenter said. “That was just characteristic of John. I think they finally just got tired of him.”
Tears welled in Major Carpenter’s eyes when he explained that Levitow was never able to see his efforts come to fruition. Shortly after Levitow’s death, Airman Pitsenbarger was awarded the Medal of Honor. His family was presented with his medal for his actions in Vietnam.
Major Carpenter insisted that character must be built upon and assessed constantly.
“It’s important for us to maintain good character,” said Col. Jay Raymond, 21st Space Wing commander. “This is a time when leadership is needed from everyone, from the Air Force chief of staff to our newest airman basic who just recited their oath.”
Major Carpenter’s words evoked a standing ovation from the crowd. His character was evident, as he spoke not of his own heroism in landing the damaged aircraft, but of the accomplishments of those whom he served with.
“I was John Levitow’s pilot,” he said. “Do you have any questions?”