On Memorial Day we honor those who have fallen in Combat and also those who have died training for War. Every Veteran has memories; following are a few of mine.

Early in my Air Force Career then a new 2nd Lt. I would learn how serious this military endeavor would be. My Commander-in-Chief, President Kennedy, would be killed in the line of duty, followed in days by an Air Defense Command F-104 crashing in front of my Pilot training class as we engaged in Physical Training. Two aircraft of his flight were on the ground after landing and were narrowly missed by the crashing F-104. Later after our class had advanced to the T-38 Talon (a supersonic trainer) a student and his instructor would crash probably due to instrument failure followed by special disorientation. Neither pilot survived. After winning my wings I would be assigned to Strategic Air Command, KC-135 aircraft and would be based at Walker AFB, New Mexico. I checked in prior to Advanced Flight School to be at Castle AFB, California and was introduced to my sponsor a 135 Copilot. Two months later now a qualified 135 Copilot, I learned his crew had recently crashed on a night training mission. For some reason, they contacted the ground while still in controlled flight. The aircraft hit the ground at an estimated 200 knots then bounced and exploded killing all on board. There were others who died while training for the nuclear war we prayed would not come.

The War in Vietnam would continue to escalate; the tanker fleet would do their part in operation “Young Tiger”. The tanker fleet would continue their role as a nuclear alert force being on duty 24/7, with the “Young Tiger” operation as a temporary duty assignment. Air Force Fighter/Bombers could not operate without the extended range the tanker fleet could offer. Generally, they would receive fuel before entering the “Package” and then receive a top off after the mission – returning to base. Our airplanes were always a welcome sight to the Fighter Pilots. Many times they came to us with battle damage barely able to sustain controlled flight. We lost over 900 fighters in that conflict. Too many pilots were KIA, MIA, or captured and imprisoned. Many others were rescued by the helicopters of the Search and Rescue Service.

While based at Utapo RTAFB one of our tankers crashed ending 25,000 accident-free flying hours all on board were killed. This aircraft was originally assigned to our crew, but the other crew’s aircraft was not maintenance ready so ours was substituted. I do not remember the names of that fated crew, but I saw their faces in the depths of my sleep for many years after. The thing is they never got any older, I, however, did. Now 77 I have been richly blessed.

In Taiwan, one of our crews hit a mountain. While in the States a vertical stabilizer failed while the aircraft was practicing an emergency descent. Structural failures were becoming more frequent in our aging fleet. “Fate is the Hunter.”

After each conflict, there is pressure to reduce the numbers in the Armed Forces as well as reducing the DOD budget. There also seems to be pressure to reduce funding to the VA. The VA is responsible for continued medical care to those Vets who are financially strapped or disabled due to their service. Too often it takes days to months to get a first appointment to see a VA Doc. For some with mental health issues, this delay may end with tragedy. All Veteran’s groups are supporters of continued funding of the VA. We have some very serious financial problems facing our Nation, many budget items will have to be eliminated or reduced. It will take Political courage to prioritize our spending. I believe funding for the VA will have to be increased mainly due to our continued conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. The number of wounded continue to increase – they need our care and support.

Our Air Force has been in constant Combat since 1991. Our guys and gals are fighting these wars with aircraft, in some cases, more than 40 years old (F-16 & F-15). I graduated from Pilot Trng some 51years ago. The KC-135, B-52, T-38 that were around then are still in inventory. The re-equip and rebuild that will be necessary will not come cheaply or easily. Being unprepared today is just too costly to contemplate.

Added note:

During my time on active duty we were given a “Code of Conduct” I don’t remember all of it but I do remember it is a Spartan Code one that requires a great act of will to uphold – thusly- “I am an American Fighting Man I serve in the forces that guard our Country and protect our way of life. If I am captured I am bound to give only Name, Rank and Service Number. I will evade answering any further questions to the best of my ability. I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners, and will make every effort to escape”. That’s all I remember for after all that was 50 plus years ago.

For our fallen: Eternal Rest Grant Them O Lord, and Let Perpetual Light Shine Upon Them – Amen.

Never forget – Regards to all Americans,

John Stiegelmeyer – former Captain USAF

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