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The Hero, The Rodent and a Father from Nellis

(Chuck Muth) – Of all the senior officers serving in all kinds of positions doing all kinds of work on all the bases all over the world, the Air Force this week selected Lt. Col. Tony L. Millican – the Deputy Commander of the 98th Mission Support Group at Nellis Air Force base here in Nevada – as senior officer recipient of the 2010 Air Force Lance P. Sijan Award “in recognition of his outstanding leadership both here and during his latest deployment to Afghanistan.”

(Chuck Muth) – Let me tell you a story about a man from Wisconsin, but I promise by the end I’ll connect this military hero’s story to a man right here in Nevada.

‘Tis a story told to every cadet entering the Air Force Academy. It’s the story of Capt. Lance P. Sijan (pronounced sigh-john), the first USAF academy graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Let’s start with some background information as provided in an official press release this week by the Public Affairs Office at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas:

“In 1967, Capt. Sijan was shot down over Vietnam and was able to avoid capture for 45 days. After his initial capture, Capt. Sijan escaped despite a compound fracture of the left leg, a skull fracture and a mangled right hand. Eventually he was recaptured and interrogated repeatedly, but he refused to give up any information except his name. Capt. Sijan died after months of living in a Prisoner of War camp…”

But that account hardly does justice to the story. Wikipedia fills in some of the details:

“On the night of November 9, 1967, for his 52nd combat mission, Sijan and pilot Lt. Col. John Armstrong were tasked with a bombing mission over North Vietnam. As they rolled in on their target to release their ordnance, their F-4C was engulfed in a ball of fire, due to the bomb fuses malfunctioning and causing a premature detonation on their release. The Phantom then entered a banking climb before plunging into the jungle.”

A 1977 article in the “Airman” picks up the story:

Capt. Sijan successfully ejected from the aircraft before it crashed but “suffered a skull fracture, a mangled right hand with three fingers bent backwards to the wrist, and a compound fracture to his left leg, the bone protruding through the lacerated skin.” Nevertheless, Sijan survived in the North Vietnamese jungle for six weeks, eluding capture with no food and little water by “propel(ling) himself backward on his elbows and buttocks toward what he hoped was freedom.”

A “gigantic search-and-rescue operation” involving 108 aircraft was launched and lasted for two days. At one point, a “Jolly Green” helicopter located Sijan and took enemy ground fire for 33 minutes in an unsuccessful effort to extract the airman. Wikipedia continues the story:

“Sijan, refusing to put other airmen in danger, insisted on crawling into the jungle and having a penetrator lowered by the helicopter, instead of sending down the helicopter’s Para-Jumpers to carry him. However, the helicopter crew could not spot him in the jungle and after 33 minutes the rescue team, which faced enemy fire and the growing darkness, had to withdraw. Search efforts continued the next day, but they were called off when no further radio contact was made with Sijan. He was placed on MIA status.”

After 46 days of evading the enemy by “clawing, clutching, dragging and hurting” in the jungle, Sijan was captured on Christmas Day, 1967, about three miles from where he originally landed.

“Horribly emaciated and with the flesh of his buttocks worn to his hipbones,” he still had fight left in him, the Airman article reported. At one point, when there was just one guard watching him, Capt. Sijan beckoned him over and knocked him out cold with a “well-placed karate chop from a weakened left arm and hand.”

Sijan pulled himself back into the jungle in an effort to escape, but was recaptured several hours later and thrown into a bamboo cell where he was brutally interrogated for military information by a prison guard nicknamed “The Rodent.” Col. Bob Craner, a fellow airman imprisoned in a cell adjacent to Capt. Sijan, picks up the story:

“The Rodent would say, ‘Your arm, your arm, it is very bad. I am going to twist it unless you tell me.’ The guy (Sijan) would say, ‘I’m not going to tell you; it’s against the Code (Military Code of Conduct). Then he would start screaming. The Rodent was obviously twisting his mangled arm.

“The whole affair went on for an hour and a half, over and over again, and the guy just wouldn’t give in. He’d say, ‘Wait ‘til I get better, you S.O.B., you’re really going to get it.’ He was giving The Rodent all kinds of lip, but no information.

“The Rodent kept laying into him. Finally I heard this guy rasp, ‘Sijan! My name is Lance Peter Sijan!’ That’s all he told him.”

Craner says that in all their days together, Capt. Sijan never gave up the idea of escape. “In fact,” Craner recalls, “that was one of the first things he mentioned when we first went into his cell in Vinh: ‘How the hell are we going to get out of here? Have you guys figured out how we’re going to take care of these people? Do you think we can steal one of their guns?’”

Eventually, Sijan, Craner and a third captured airman, Capt. Guy Cruters were shipped off to the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp where the three were put into a cell nicknamed “Little Vegas.” Craner describes the conditions there which ultimately took Capt. Sijan’s life on January 22, 1968, eight days after arrival:

“It was dark, with open air, and there was a pool of water on the worn cement floor. It was the first time I suffered from the cold. I was chilled to the bone, always shivering and shaking. Guy and I started getting respiratory problems right away, and I couldn’t imagine what it was doing to Lance. That, I think, accounts ultimately for the fact that he didn’t make it.”

It was Col. Craner who recommended Capt. Sijan for the Medal of Honor. “He survived a terrible ordeal and he survived with the intent, sometime in the future, of picking up the fight,” Craner explains. “Finally, he just succumbed.”

Capt. Sijan’s body and the headstone used to mark his grave in North Vietnam were returned to the United States in 1974. On March 4, 1976, President Gerald Ford posthumously awarded Capt. Lance Peter Sijan the Medal of Honor.

This is the story of the man for whom the United States Air Force has created the annual Lance P. Sijan USAF Leadership Award. First given in 1981, the Sijan Award is bestowed upon airmen who exhibit “the highest qualities of leadership in their jobs and in their lives. It is one of the Air Force’s most prestigious awards.”

Now here’s the Nevada connection.

Of all the 28,000 senior officers eligible from among the 494,000 members of the Air Force serving in all kinds of positions doing all kinds of work on all the bases all over the world, Lt. Col. Tony L. “Tonto” Millican – the Deputy Commander of the 98th Mission Support Group at Nellis Air Force base here in Nevada – was selected this week as the senior officer recipient of the 2010 Air Force Lance P. Sijan Award “in recognition of his outstanding leadership both here and during his latest deployment to Afghanistan.”

Here’s a little more about that deployment, where Lt. Col. Millican “endured significant risk of hostile actions as he served as Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) on 80 convoy missions in Kabul and Bagram…on routes that were designated at the very highest IED threat levels,” courtesy of the Nellis Public Affairs press release.

“From March to September 2009, Lt. Col. Millican was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan. . . . At one point, during his deployment, Lt. Col. Millican survived a 700-pound blast from a Suicide Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Device that exploded less than 50 yards away from his location. Immediately, and despite a head injury and hearing loss from the blast, Lt. Col. Millican commanded post-attack operations by leading the dorm recovery team to account for 100 percent of more than 600 people in less than 90 minutes.”

Lt. Col. Millican was awarded the Bronze Star by Gen. Stanley McChrystal for “exceptional performance during wartime operations…in keeping with the finest traditions of military service (that) reflects great credit upon himself, the United States Air Force, and the Department of Defense.”

I guess heroes really do walk among us, often unnoticed, because I didn’t know about all this until last Friday. I’ve only known Tony as a soft-spoken, gregarious country boy from Georgia who’s the father of the daughter of my daughter’s best friend.

Sure, I knew he was in the Air Force and stationed at Nellis, but in all this time I had no idea whatsoever that I was sitting next to an award-winning American military hero sharing a glass of wine and talking a little football. He never said a word.

Tony will be feted at a huge Pentagon ceremony later this spring, filled, appropriately, with pomp and circumstance. I can’t compete with that. But we here in Las Vegas will be toasting one of our own, Lt. Col. Tony Millican, tomorrow night at our First Friday Happy Hour at Stoney’s Rockin’ Country, along with conservative talk-show host Roger Hedgecock, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm.

I hope many of you will come by, shake his hand and buy him a beer in memory and celebration of the life of Capt. Lance P. Sijan. Cheers!