LAS VEGAS — As a photojournalist, my job is to tell the Air Force story to the world, but sometimes telling it to a smaller crowd is more effective and meaningful.
Recently, I had the privilege to meet some of the Air Force’s behind-the-scenes heroes,; their accomplishments often forgotten over time but not any less important or extraordinary than the accomplishments of Airmen today.
On a street corner in Las Vegas, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard E. French relaxes with his wife and other retirees at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars center. He shares a special connection with the strangers around him, most of whom are current or former service members.
French was born in December 1929 in Newberg, Ore. He entered the Air Force in March 1952 and ultimately served more than 27 years on active duty as a fighter pilot.
During his career, he flew 683 combat sorties during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and was hand selected to destroy the Thanh Hoa Bridge during Operation Linebacker I. I learned later this bridge was important because it had survived 873 sorties and cost the U.S. 11 aircraft.
As I sat there and listened to his enthusiasm and passion for the stories he shared, I realized these interactions are a necessary part of our Air Force heritage. After all, if we don’t take the time to remember the places we have been, we’ll surely be doomed in the places we will go.
French was wounded twice during his career. He recalls his most serious injury was during his time in Vietnam when he was struck by ground fire that split his helmet down the center, glancing off his head. He received nine stitches and returned to flying operations the following day. He was awarded a Purple Heart.
French received more than 50 decorations throughout his career including the Silver Star Medal, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 23 Air Medals.
He retired in 1974 and said, “I am truly honored to have had this opportunity, to know that the people I worked with and know that they appreciated the things that I did. It makes this all worth it, and I thank the Air Force for allowing me the opportunities to do the things that I did.”
As he continued on with his many accomplishments and back stories, I paused to look around the room.
I saw the faces of Airmen and NCOs alike lit with curiosity and amazement that one person was able to accomplish so much.
His wife later thanked us for letting him tell his story to someone who could truly appreciate and understand them as they were. I was honored to have had this opportunity.
I was able to walk away from the experience with a deeper sense of country, commitment and honor for myself, my family and the USAF.
My advice to any service member, or person for that matter, is you never know what you might learn until you ask. Value those who came before you because when they go their experiences go with them.