Friends, family members, political leaders, former prisoners of war and service members paid their respects as an Air Force Ace was interred at Arlington National Cemetery Jan. 23.
Brig. Gen. Robinson “Robbie” Risner, a Korean War fighter ace and Vietnam prisoner of war, died Oct. 22, 2013 at Bridgewater Retirement Community in Bridgewater, Va., at the age of 88.
“America has lost one of its greatest heroes,” said Ross Perot, a close friend of Risner, during the service at the Memorial Chapel on Fort Myer, Va.
Though Risner’s life on earth has ended, his flying legacy lives on, Perot said, speaking about how Risner passed on his aviation wings for both Perot’s son and grandson to wear.
“Robbie approved that my son Ross could pin Robbie’s wings on my grandson,” said Perot. “Can you imagine what that meant?”
Perot went on to share anecdotes from throughout Risner’s celebrated career, describing him as an “Oklahoma cowboy” who was hero and a friend, whose “love of God and love of country what was got him through seven and a half years as a prisoner of war.”
But for many other POWs, they credited their survival to Risner’s leadership.
“When the POWs came home from Vietnam, time and time again, I’d hear them say ‘if it hadn’t been for Robbie Risner, I wouldn’t have made it,’” Perot said, sharing a particular moment that defined Risner’s character.
While imprisoned in Vietnam, Risner gathered fellow POWs for a church service – something that was strictly prohibited. While the troops were singing the song “Onward Christian Soldiers,” guards rushed in, taking Risner and two other leaders to what Perot referred to as “the box,” a place of solitary confinement.
When this occurred, “more than 40 POWs stood proudly, some of whom are here today, and sang a strictly forbidden song, the Star Spangled Banner,” Perot recalls. “How’s that for guts?”
Upon Risner’s return from the POW camp, Perot asked him, “‘Robbie, what was going on in your mind as they dragged you back to the box?’ He looked me in the eye. His eyes were twinkling. He said ‘Perot, with those guys singing the Star Spangled Banner, I was nine feet tall. I could have gone bear hunting with a stick!’”
That moment and his words are reflected by a statue, exactly 9 feet high, that now stands at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Perot, a Navy veteran, closed with the note that “when you arrive at the pearly gates in Heaven, you will be warmly greeted by the United States Marines, guarding the gates.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III added to the humor of Perot’s remarks.
“I hope the Marines in Heaven know where the officer’s club is,” Welsh said. “Because that’s where all the fighter pilots are going to be waiting for him.”
Welsh spoke to the audience about Risner, as someone Airmen should look up to.
“He’s one of the greatest American Airmen ever,” Welsh said. “It’s really just that simple.”
Welsh spoke about how Risner’s life and legend means something different to everyone in the audience.
“He’s an icon, he’s a founding father … a member of that special generation who did fight in three wars, built an Air Force, and showed us exactly what courage looks like. An American hero.”
Members of the 336th Fighter Squadron, from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., his unit during the Korean War were also in attendance.
“He’s everything they want to be … a legendary fighter pilot,” Welsh said.
Addressing Risner’s fellow POWs in attendance, Welsh said, “I can’t imagine what he meant to you … I just can’t even imagine.
“What some of you have told me is that he was a leader and a role model at a time in your life when you needed one terribly … a man that somehow maintained his human dignity, his character and his moral strength,” Welsh said. ”They say they saw his conviction that they could survive, would survive … and they believed, because he believed. Gentlemen, I’m so sorry that your brother is gone.”
Welsh addressed other groups of people, Airmen past and present, individuals who were privileged to have known Risner over the years.
“To the people of this Nation, he was a noble idea … a comforting thought … the reassuring knowledge that there will always be those willing to answer the bugle’s call … to sacrifice more than they have any right to ask, to dare greatly … to risk everything, to fight and die on their behalf,” Welsh said, “He’s who all of them hope they would be.”
But most importantly, to his wife, Dorothy, he was “just the man I loved. That’s the real celebration today,” Welsh said, addressing the many family members in attendance. “Your husband, your dad, your grandfather, your brother … was a remarkable man.”
Risner is survived by Dorothy, six children and their spouses: Timothy Risner, Daniel and Page Risner, Dana and Gregory Duyka, Deborah and Michael Darrell, David and Pamela Risner, DeAnna and Timothy Parker, and 14 grandchildren. He leaves behind one sister and her spouse, Peggy and Norman Goldstein, and one sister-in-law Jean Risner.