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Portrait of Capt. Lance Peter Sijan. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
Capt. Lance Peter Sijan

Sijan was the first Air Force Academy graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor

Capt. Lance Peter Sijan was the first Air Force Academy graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor. On Nov. 9, 1967, then-Lt. Sijan ejected from his stricken F-4 (the flight commander, Lt. Col. John Armstrong, was killed in the explosion) over Laos and managed to avoid capture for 45 days. This is all the more remarkable considering the injuries Sijan sustained on impact-a broken leg, a skull fracture, and a badly mangled right hand.

Because he'd lost his survival kit, Sijan was unable to signal to rescue craft that attempted to locate him in the deep Laotian jungle. He did manage to push himself, inches at a time, to an open area, where he lost consciousness. This turned out to be the Ho Chi Minh trail. When Sijan awoke, he was in a NVA road camp. He attempted to escape there, but was recaptured.

When the skeletal young man was moved to a temporary prison, the guards placed him in the care of Maj. Bob Craner and Capt. Guy Gruters. Although Gruters had been in Sijan's squadron at the Academy, he did not recognize the formerly robust football player. When the three prisoners were transferred to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Sijan contracted pneumonia from their damp cell. Craner and Gruters carried his tale out of the "Hanoi Hilton" and recommended their comrade for a Medal of Honor. "[Lance] could have asked for help any one of a hundred thousand times, but he never asked for a damn thing!" Gruters told a journalist. Lance Sijan died on Jan. 22, 1968.

Sijan's Academy roommate Mike Smith recalled that they sometimes talked about the Code of Conduct that governs military personnel who become prisoners of war. "We found nothing wrong with the Code. We accepted the responsibility of action honorable to our country. [The Code] was strictly an extension of Lance's personality. When he accepted something, he accepted it. He did nothing halfway."

Lt. Sijan was promoted posthumously to Captain on Jun. 13, 1968. In supporting the Medal of Honor for Sijan, Craner said "He survived a terrible ordeal, and he survived with the intent…. of picking up the fight… I don't know how many we're turning out like Lance Sijan, but I can't believe there are very many."

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