By Scott Prater
As a former Air Force officer Robert Apodaca is keenly aware of the Airman’s Creed. What it says and what it means.
The words, “I will never leave an Airman behind,” sound honorable, and they represent an ideal that every Airman is supposed to live by. But for Apodaca, those words transcend mere language. They represent action.
Unlike most Americans, he holds fond memories of the week of Sept. 11, 2001. That is the week the United States Air Force provided a reminder as to what lengths it would take to honor its prisoners of war and missing in action.
Apodaca spoke about his experience Sept. 18 during his keynote speech at Schriever’s POW/MIA recognition ceremony.
His story begins 42 years ago.
He was just three years old when his family learned the most horrific news imaginable.
His father, Maj. Victor Apodaca Jr., an F-4C Phantom pilot, had been shot down while performing an armed reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam on June 8, 1967.
For years, Apodaca held out hope that his father had survived the crash and would one day rejoin his family.
“While I was growing up there were numerous reports of Americans still alive in captivity in North Vietnam,” he said. “The government would approach my family saying there was possible intelligence indicating my father was still alive, then weeks later they would return saying the report didn’t pan out. That emotional rollercoaster can really take its toll.”
As the years passed into decades, the Apodaca family eventually learned most of the details of Victor’s mission, and his actions on that cloudy June day in 1967.
He occupied the rear seat of an F-4C on a two-jet reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. The first F-4C was flying roughly a mile in front of his plane when the pilot of the lead jet dipped below cloud cover to get a clearer view of the mission’s objective.
Enemies on the ground spotted the lead plane and immediately began shooting anti-aircraft artillery into the sky. The artillery missed the first jet, but scored a hit on Major Apodaca’s aircraft, which was severely damaged during as a result.
Minutes later he radioed in to commanders that his jet’s hydraulics had failed and he was quickly losing air speed and altitude. He decided to turn the jet toward the ocean and leveled his plane so his copilot could eject. It was the last time anyone heard his voice.
Robert Apodaca would learn years later that his father went down with the aircraft. And the young lieutenant who ejected safely? Beaten to death by villagers less than mile from his landing site.
As the years passed, Robert Apodaca grew up with the few scant memories he held and the stories people who knew his father could supply. And along his emotional journey toward adulthood he experienced a painful realization.
“When I didn’t know what had happened to my dad, I went years wishing that I had him — that he was still alive,” he said. “But as I got older I started to realize what a selfish wish that would be, for him to be alive in captivity, as a POW, and to endure such harsh treatment. After that I turned to thinking about how much I wished I knew what had happened.”
It took an agonizing 35 years for the facts to become known. But early in September of 2001, he received a phone call. His father’s remains had been identified.
The bittersweet moment was cut short by a call for action. Robert went to work to bring his father’s remains home.
He hopped a flight to Hawaii, where he secured his father’s remains from the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base. The flight home was uneventful — until he reached Minneapolis on the morning of Sept. 11.
The now infamous terrorist attacks that had killed thousands and shocked our nation, had also succeeded in shutting down every airport in North America.
Apodaca remembers standing in the terminal of the Minneapolis airport frantically searching for options.
“I was staring out the window wondering what to do when I looked out and saw the huge tail of C-130,” he said. “As it turned out, that cargo plane was part of an Air National Guard unit stationed at the Minneapolis airport.”
His call to commanders at the Air Force Academy ignited a monumental effort that traversed the chain of command throughout the United States military.
Early the next morning he received a call to be on the flight line at 7 a.m.
En route to Colorado Springs aboard that C-130, he remembers time standing still.
“I love flying,” he said. “And the feeling of that take off was incredible. I had time to catch my breath and I thought, ‘you’re going home.’”
Just then the C-130 pilot looked back and asked, “Do you realize you’re the only passenger in the air over the United States right now?” The only other aircraft in the sky that day were fighter jets performing combat air patrol.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Apodaca said. “The Air Force was going to do whatever it took to bring my father home. I looked out the window and saw a fighter jet just off the tip of our wing. The pilot turned, looked at me, rocked his wings and pulled off. Then another pilot slipped into his place and others followed after him.”
Upon landing at Peterson AFB, Apodaca was greeted by an honor guard. Despite a national emergency and the closure of the gates at the Air Force Academy, Robert Apodaca had succeeded in escorting his father’s remains home.
On Sept. 15, 2001, friends, family, Air Force Academy classmates and even a few POW/MIA supporters gathered at the Air Force Academy cemetery to say fond farewell to Maj. Victor Apodaca Jr.
“This is a great Air Force that we belong to,” Robert said. “A great family to be a part of.”