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Remembering first living AF Medal of Honor recipient

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Steven R. Doty
  • 47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
On Aug. 16, 2014, the first living Air Force recipient of the Medal of Honor and the first Air Force member to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War, more importantly, an incredible legacy, passed away in Idaho at the age of 87.

When I heard the news of his passing, I was stunned and saddened to know that a part of our history was no longer with us and I retreated to a memory that had a profound impact in my life.

The date, Feb. 26, 2008. The place, Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. This time and place would mark a historical and memorable day for Kunsan, and more specifically, me. I was a senior airman, only four years into my career as a photographer, and I was preparing for the arrival of the first living Air Force recipient of the Medal of Honor, retired Col. Bernard Fisher.

His visit was a matter of circumstance. Fisher was visiting Kunsan to see one of his sons, then-Maj. Steven Fisher. Despite the circumstances, I was overwhelmed with excitement and extreme intimidation. I was about to interact face-to-face with a man I had only read about in my professional development guide and studied in Airman Leadership School.

Leading up to the seconds preceding our interview, one question ran through my mind, "Who am I to gather and share the story of such a hero?" All I had at the time were facts and insight into his reputation.

According to his citation, on March 10, 1966, in the A Shau Valley along South Vietnam's western border with Laos, Colonel Fisher observed a fellow Airman, Maj. Wayne Myers, crash land on the battle-torn airstrip and despite the extreme danger and likely failure, landed his aircraft and rescued the downed pilot. He was exposed to continuous enemy fire throughout this rescue, receiving 19 bullet strikes to his aircraft.

Colonel Fisher was one of numerous heroes of the past who bravely and distinctively displayed the Air Forces' core values of "Integrity First", "Service Before Self" and "Excellence In All We Do". Fisher's actions led to him receiving one of the military's most valued and respected achievements; the Medal of Honor.

The anticipation rose as his envoy pulled up to the building. We greeted each other in a small corner of the officer's club and immediately his humble presence and unique chuckle relieved the overwhelming anxiousness I was feeling at the time.

As we set up the lights, we began to talk about life, planes, Boy Scouts of America and our families in great detail. This was the part of the interview process that would cling to my heart the most.

As the interview began, he spoke softly but with great authority. Everyone within a visible distance leaned forward on their toes to absorb every word. He occupied the first 20 minutes of the scheduled interview time talking about his farm in Kuna, Idaho, his wife of 60 years, Realla, and the pride he had for his six boys, joking that he wouldn't stop unless I asked him another question.

I slowly transitioned into 'the meat' of the interview by asking, "So talk to me about March 10, 1966."

His response, "It was hot, but so was everyday", and then he chuckled and covered his eyes from the studio lights and looked around the room to see if everyone else had heard him.

As he spoke of the events that day in Vietnam, his voice drew us in and no movement or sound outside of his voice could be seen or heard. He spoke of the events matter-of-factly, like it was an everyday occurrence.

We closed the interview and enjoyed lunch, a simulator ride and a tour of the 35th Fighter Squadron.

More inspiring than sharing 60 minutes of uninterrupted time with Fisher, was watching him interact with the various Airmen. He laughed and joked, listened and asked questions and was awed at the professionalism of the military he was proud to still be a part of.

As I wrote the article, the gravity of what had just occurred began to settle in. I had just taken part in something special and historic. I was taught from day one that telling the Air Force story is a force multiplier that creates force projection and presence around the world.

As much as I had been taught that theory, I hadn't succumbed to the belief that it was true or that I would ever truly experience that emotion. However, after learning of his death and recognizing how much his story affected me in so short a meeting, I realized then that telling our story matters and impacts all Airmen.

"What a sad day for America and the United States Air Force to witness the passing of another American hero," said Col. Brian E. Hastings, 47th Flying Training Wing commander. "Reading Colonel Fisher's Medal of Honor citation is awe inspiring and truly embodies the essence of our core values and Airman's Creed. As an A-10 pilot, it is truly an honor to be a part of the continuing legacy of attack pilots. His story is the Airman story. It is our Air Force story, and what a great story it is."

As so many are honored to have served in the continuing legacy of a hero, I am privileged to have had a moment with Colonel Fisher. I will forever have a piece of that history in my interview notes, story and photos that I still keep.

More importantly, I, like so many others, am eager to reach out to others who have an important part of our military's history in their hearts, ready to share for future generations.

I end this tribute with Colonel Fisher's final statement from our interview on Feb. 26, 2008.

"I want Airmen to remember the standards and expectations they were sworn to hold and know that the members before you are very proud," Colonel Fisher said. "Understand that the satisfaction you get from the Air Force does not come in a medal, it comes from knowing that you are a part of something bigger than yourself."

The 2008 interview can be read here.