Son of Air Force Legend Takes Command of National Guard

General Joseph L. Lengyel (Air Force Photo)
General Joseph L. Lengyel (Air Force Photo)

The new chief of the National Guard Bureau said he plans to focus on its role as an operational force.

"The development of our most important assets, our people, will be our foremost task," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Lengyel, who was installed last week as the 28th chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a Pentagon ceremony.

One of his priorities will be to make deployments more predictable, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in June. Another priority will be to focus on the responsibilities of the National Guard's adjutant generals, the senior military officers of the National Guard in each of the states, territories and the District of Columbia, Lengyel said.

Much of the attention at the ceremony focused on Lengyel's legendary father.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter singled out in the audience retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lauren "Laurie" Lengyel, a Vietnam POW for six years who returned to the skies after his release and flew missions during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Carter first paid tribute to Lt. Gen. Lengyel. "He's logged over 3,000 hours behind the controls of an F-16. His 34 years of distinguished military service includes operational, staff and command assignments that included services in Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, Southern Watch and Enduring Freedom, among others."

"But perhaps most importantly, Joe knows what it means to be a military family. He knows the meaning of service, sacrifice and separation."

When Lauren Lengyel was shot down over Vietnam in August 1967 and held prisoner for six years, "it fell to Joe's mother Margaret to raise Joe, his sister Dottie, and his brothers Dan and Greg, who is now a major general in the Air Force," Carter said.

Maj. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, a career special operations pilot and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, now serves as deputy commanding general of Special Operations Command.

"Well, Joe's entire family served through those long years of uncertainty and strain, and they continued to serve when Joe's dad returned to service in Vietnam in 1975, one of only two former POW pilots to do so," Carter said.

"Joe's parents are here today, as is his brother, and I want to take a moment to thank them for their service and sacrifice. We pray that no military family ever has to go through Joe's experience growing up again," Carter said.

Joe Lengyel took over the National Guard from retiring Gen. Frank Grass, the first National Guard Bureau Chief to serve a full term on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his time on the JCS, Grass helped "to form the most integrated and Total Force in our history. He's helped increase our rapid deployment capability to respond to any crisis, and strengthened the Guard's partnerships at the local, state, federal and international levels," Carter said.

Carter noted that Lengyel was taking command of a National Guard that has sent more than 767,000 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan since the terror attacks of Sept. 1, 2001.

"You keep our skies free from danger. You respond to disaster with compassion and professionalism at a moment's notice. You stand watch at home and around the world. You responded when we needed you during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Carter said of the National Guard.

The Guard is also heavily involved in meeting current challenges across the globe, Carter said.

"We don't have the luxury of choosing between these challenges. We have to do it all. And all around the world, the Guard does it all -- from Eastern Europe, where the North Carolina National Guard, equipped with HIMARS [rocket artillery], participated in exercises with 24 nations in Poland, to the Pacific, where the Hawaii National Guard 204th Airlift Squadron stands ready to respond throughout [the] Pacific rim."

The challenges for the National Guard extend to the Mideast, Carter said, "where 8,000 National Guard members are currently deployed in the air and on the ground, including the Wisconsin National Guard as it supports the 101st Airborne's mission to enable local forces" in the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

At his confirmation hearing in June, Lengyel said that, "Although we are proud of our heritage and our past, I am more excited about our future," adding that "the skill and devotion of citizen-soldiers and airmen since 9/11 has transformed the National Guard into an operational force at home and overseas."

At the confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a retired Navy captain who also was shot down over Vietnam and spent more than five years in captivity, gave Lengyel some wry encouragement.

"I hope that, unlike your father and me, the number of landings have matched the number of takeoffs," said McCain, prompting laughter from other committee members.

Lauren Lengyel began his career with the Massachusetts National Guard in 1957 and went active duty with the Air Force in 1964, serving until his retirement in 1990.

On Aug. 9, 1967, Lengyel was flying an RF-4, an unarmed photo reconnaissance version of the F-4 Phantom, with the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron out of Tan Son Nhut Airbase in South Vietnam when he was shot down. It was his 40th combat mission. He was released with nearly 600 other POWs during Operation Homecoming in 1973.

Lengyel was briefly in the hospital at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts and then returned to active duty, flying C-141 Starlifter transport aircraft with the 86th Military Airlift Squadron at Travis Air Force Base in California from 1973 to 76. During that time, Lengyel flew combat airlift missions during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

At his home in near San Antonio, Lengyel keeps more than 50 "POW/MIA bracelets" with his name on them -- returned to him by people who wore them during his captivity. Occasionally, someone still stops by to give him another.

One of them was Vicki Adams of Yorba Linda, California, who kept the Lengyel bracelet through the years and only learned in 2013 that he had come home, the Orange County Register reported. Vicki and her husband Rick, an Air Force veteran, made a special trip to the Lengyel home. "He hugged me for wearing it," Vicki Adams said. "It just meant so much to us."

Lengyel later told the Orange County Register of his meeting with the Adams family that, "It was emotional for me. Just the thought that, with all that's going on in this country, there are still people who support the military, and who would take the time to return this to me, it means a lot. I'm very grateful."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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