I completed 339 combat missions for over 800 flying hours in my career as a United States Air Force pilot. I am one of only two Air Force “ace” pilots from the Vietnam War, where I returned as one of the most decorated pilots in history. And I am fortunate enough to have survived to tell my tale.
Many of my fellow pilots and crew members did not.
It is for them we pay tribute on Memorial Day; those brave men and women who died in the act of service to our great nation.
This Memorial Day is of particular importance to me because it falls on the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force. Upon graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1964 until retiring as an Air Force Brigadier General in 1999, I encountered some of the bravest and the most altruistic individuals I’ve ever known; whose actions spoke volumes of their love of country and disregard for self.
So while you enjoy some extra time off, consider taking a moment to reflect on the selfless service of the fellow American service men and women who served and died to preserve our freedom – better yet, show your support by taking part in a local Memorial Day event.
It is also the ongoing 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, which is the conflict where I served as pilot, becoming one of three “ace” pilots (someone who has shot down five enemy aircraft during aerial combat). Of the many American casualties during Vietnam, nearly 3,000 were Air Force service men and women. These Americans put aside their differences – cultural backgrounds, religions, and political views – to answer the call of their country. Whether they necessarily agreed with the premise of war, or not, these brave patriots laid down their lives to protect our nation’s principles and advance freedom for the oppressed.
Despite the various criticisms, the United States accomplished some very critical objectives during the fight in Vietnam. Among them, and most importantly, we helped stem the tide and spread of communism in that region, which ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union and the advance of freedom and democracy, which is felt around the world today.
For this and many other reasons, our living veterans of the Vietnam War deserve respect and admiration – make sure to thank them on this day – but their service pales in comparison to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country; and it is those fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines whom we honor on Memorial Day.
So, while you enjoy some extra time off, consider taking a moment to reflect on the selfless service of the fellow American service men and women who served and died to preserve our freedom. Better yet, show your support by taking part in a local Memorial Day event.
While many of the traditional Memorial Day celebrations have declined over the years, the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. is one of the shining tributes that exist to preserve the legacy of the fallen. I look forward to taking part in the parade this year, and I will do so with my fallen friends in my heart and mind.
Brigadier General R. Steve Ritchie is a member of the American Veterans Center’s Advisory Board. He’s the only Air Force “ace” pilot of the air war in Vietnam. A veteran of more than 800 combat hours in the F-4 Phantom during 339 missions over Southeast Asia, Ritchie is the only American pilot to down five MiG-21s, the most sophisticated fighters in the North Vietnamese fleet. By the time he left active duty in 1974, Ritchie had been awarded the Air Force Cross, four Silver Stars, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 25 Air Medals - making him the 30th most highly decorated individual in United States military history.