SAN ANTONIO — The life of Lance P. Sijan, the Air Force Academy’s only medal of honor recipient, was remembered Thursday. His sister and cellmate spoke to airmen of the 37th training wing at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland about his courage and story of survival.
Saturday, November 9 will mark 52 years since Air Force captain Lance P. Sijan was forced to eject from his fighter jet over Laos. He was on his 52nd combat mission. He faced severe injuries, including several broken bones. But for 46 days, he managed to evade enemies with little food or water. Sijan was eventually captured and tortured. He attempted to escape several times but was recaptured and beaten. The last person who saw him alive was Air Force captain Guy Gruters. He was captured before Sijan in North Vietnam.
“In the next few weeks, they beat him to death mercilessly. We heard every scream because we were only one cell removed. Of course, we're screaming as they're beating him because they’re beating him on hundreds of infected wounds that he got in the jungle from rat bites and so on,” Gruters said.
Gruters’ testimony was instrumental in getting Sijan the Medal of Honor. He said Sijan persevered and refused to disclose information to the enemies. “If we continue to have soldiers of the caliber of Lance Sijan, then the country will remain free,” he said.
Jeanine Sijan, the captain’s sister, came to the 37th Training Wing at JBSA-Lackland to speak to airmen. They watched the documentary film of his captivity called “SIJAN: A Quest for Freedom.” She and Gruters answered questions after the screening of the film. Jeanine said she often visits bases to talk about her brother’s bravery but also to share his life before he was captured.
“Justifiably so, we have really focused on the last 3 months of Lance’s life, but it really misses the measure of the man if we don't understand what a beautiful, glorious life he had until November 9, 1967. He was 25 years old. I’m trying to paint a broader brush stroke of Lance,” Jeanine said.
She said her brother’s story is a reminder to never underestimate the power of courage.
“If he could do that? Then I can do this. And so, we are not always aware in our life paths about the expansion of who we can become and what we are capable of doing. We're born with everything to be able to face those challenges,” she said.
Friday, Capt. Gruters will be the reviewing official at the graduation ceremony for trainees who will take their oath of enlistment to become airmen.
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