WASHINGTON, D.C. — From day one at the U.S. Air Force Academy, every new cadet quickly learns about Capt. Lance Peter Sijan, the only Academy graduate to earn the Medal of Honor and the namesake of one of two cadet dormitories.
Cadets are encouraged to read his biography, “Into the Mouth of the Cat,” which details how, after ejecting from his disabled aircraft over North Vietnam, Sijan evaded capture for more than six weeks despite severe injuries and near starvation, after which he continued to resist harsh interrogation by his captors until his death.
Academy graduates know this story by heart, as well as legends about Sijan’s escapades as a cadet and an officer that establish him as an Airman worthy of emulation. His status as a role model is formalized in one of the Air Force’s most prestigious awards — the Lance P. Sijan Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated the highest qualities of leadership in their jobs and personal lives.
However, long before Captain Sijan was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he demonstrated the leadership, character and integrity expected of all Airmen in a way relevant to those of us who may never face the terrible ordeal of his final weeks.
In the summer of 1960, Cadet Candidate Lance Sijan and Cadet Candidate Fletcher Wiley arrived at Lackland AFB, Texas, for basic training at the Academy’s Preparatory School.
“Flash” Wiley was the only African American at the prep school. On the first day, the drill instructor told the candidates to gather together to determine room assignments. Wiley was a group of one until Sijan offered to room together. Lance later confided to Flash that he has been asked point blank by the military training instructor whether or not he had any problems rooming with a Negro.
Sijan’s simple decision to see beyond Wiley’s difference was a courageous move at a time when America was racially divided in spirit and truth. The Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy and segregation permeated all aspects of American life. Law enforcement officials looked the other way when Ku Klux Klansmen and other violent extremists hung African Americans from trees in communities across the south. It was an ugly time in our nation’s history.
Three years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed that Americans should not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character, Lance was ready to accept Flash on his own terms. This acceptance was based in part, on what the young men shared — an aspiration to be Air Force officers and their love of football and family.
Both Sijan and Wiley had been recruited to play football at the Academy, playing both offense and defense in an era when many college players were so-called “60-minute men.” Lance, tall and broad-shouldered, was a lineman. Flash, smaller and faster, played in the backfield. After their introduction at the prep school, the two players roomed together on every football trip they took during their cadet careers, a testament to their enduring friendship.
Starting from their common experiences, each man took the time to learn more about the other. During a recent interview, Flash said he came to see Lance as a “warm, thinking, caring and emotional individual who was as comfortable singing in the choir, painting pictures and sculpting as he was trouncing football opponents.”
Flash also recalled a story of how he and Lance would wake an hour before sunrise to clean their rooms, prepare their uniforms and prepare for the day. They were intent on being the best. He stated that one morning, scrubbing their floor with toothbrushes and wearing their skivvies, the room roared with laughter and amusement. They were amazed, amused and inspired about their commitment to make it. Neither could believe their effort, energy and enthusiasm, but both young men respected and admired the other.
Their friendship grew into a wider relationship between their families, starting in their Academy Preparatory School years and continuing to this day. Wiley said that when he met Sijan’s family, he really understood the man. “They greatly exuded the brilliance of character,” he said. “Through them, I came to understand that Lance’s exemplary character was part of a greater whole.”
Bill Bradley, a former Rhodes Scholar, professional basketball player and U.S. Senator — reflected on the ability of teamwork to foster respect and friendship as it did between Sijan and Wiley. “You can’t play on a team with African Americans for very long and fail to recognize the stupidity of our national obsession with race,” Bradley said. “The right path is really very simple: Give respect to teammates of a different race, treat them fairly, disagree with them honestly, enjoy their friendship, explore your common humanity, share your thoughts about one another candidly, work together for a common goal and help one another achieve it. No ridiculous fears. No debilitating anger.”
Even more important than the bond of friendship and teamwork between Lance and Flash, was the long-lasting positive outcomes of their relationship. Sijan’s color blindness led to wider acceptance of Wiley at the prep school, culminating in his selection as barracks chief — the number one spot for a cadet candidate.
While alienation from the cadet corps could have sidetracked Wiley easily, his early successes helped him go on to become a Fulbright Scholar, a graduate of Harvard University Law School and the John Fitzgerald Kennedy School of Government and a successful career as a corporate lawyer and businessman. He now pays back the benefits he received from his service as a member of the Air Force Academy Board of Visitors.
As for Sijan, one can only imagine what sustained him when he was pressed under torture to break faith with his comrades, but his strong personal relationship with Wiley and his other Academy brethren was certainly part of the equation.
This year’s theme for African American History Month is “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.” While the history of civil rights was shaped by these two historic events, it was shaped by many smaller ones too.
Lance and Flash discovered the magical formula of human connection at an early stage in their lives and in an era when it took great courage to do so. The step they took to cross toward freedom and equality through friendship was not spectacular, but it could not have happened without the experiences, expectations, character, integrity and respect for others that they both shared.
Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark A. Welsh, often reminds Airmen to learn other Airmen’s stories. Lance and Flash learned each other’s stories, embodied each other’s stories and shared each other’s stories. Their bond was a deeper shade of Air Force blue.
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the Air Force needs more Lance Sijans and Flash Wileys — leaders who chart new courses, lead change, are fearless and embrace strength of character. The constants of their character, boldness, leadership, capacity, tenacity, openness, courage — set an example and standard for us all to follow.