June 15th, 2006 04:36 EST
Medal of Honor Recipient Shares Experiences For Airmen At War by Michael Tolzmann
SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) -- Today’s Airmen are learning from each other. Tours in Iraq and Afghanistan yield invaluable information on ways to better fight and survive.
In a previous generation, an American hero fought enemies in multiple combat zones. Under extraordinary conditions, this Airman rose above the usual call of duty, saved the lives of Airmen in combat, and for his actions in Vietnam was awarded the Medal of Honor.
His name is Joe Jackson. He served for nearly 33 years, retiring as a colonel in 1973. During his service to his country, Colonel Jackson was a B-25 Mitchell crew chief in World War II, flew 107 combat missions in Korea as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, became one of the first Air Force pilots to fly the U-2 Dragonlady in 1956, and flew 298 combat sorties piloting a C-123 Provider over South Vietnam.
While on a rescue mission on May 12, 1968, Colonel Jackson put his C-123 into a dive to avoid a barrage of gunfire and slammed his aircraft onto the runway of an enemy-overrun American special forces camp at Kham Duc, South Vietnam. He picked up three surviving American servicemembers, taxied the aircraft around a large, live, unexploded shell on the asphalt, and took off under heavy fire.
For his actions that day, Colonel Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Jan. 16, 1969.
Today at age 83, though legally blind, he lives an active life in Washington and has a sharp memory. He manicures his more than two-acre yard, collects food for the homeless, travels and lectures on his experiences, and sticks to a schedule that includes stops at a senior center and a weekly meeting with the ROMEOs, or retired old men eating out, where he talks about current events with friends and where they poke fun at each other. A street at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., was recently named for Colonel Jackson, and a highway in Georgia also bears his name.
When asked why he is willing to share his story with people, he said, “I like to pique their interest and have a positive influence in one way or another. That’s the greatest reward I have in speaking engagements. If I can somehow inspire them, or motivate them to be a better person, then I feel I’ve done a good job.”
In a recent interview, Colonel Jackson shared his thoughts, some of which provide relevant insight to Airmen serving in combat zones today.
Colonel Jackson, why did you serve your country?
“Serving your country is a prime thing of importance in your life. Serving my country is not only a desirable thing to do, but it’s a requirement if we’re going to maintain our freedom.”
How did you prepare yourself for combat -- for extreme, life-threatening danger?
“Training, training, training and really get highly professional in what you’re doing. Secondly, have faith. You have to train, train, train so that everything you do becomes automatic. And you have to have faith that you’ll survive and the determination that you’re going to survive.”
How did serving in combat make you feel?
“It makes you feel scared. But you know, the apprehension that you experience is the greatest before it ever starts. Once it starts, you just fall right in with it and do what you have to do. If you have time to think about it beforehand, you get these goose pimples and an apprehensive feeling. You can call it fear if you want to, and you experience a lot of it.
“The thing you have to learn to do is to learn to overcome that fear. And then let the fear serve you instead of hinder you. For instance, when you get scared, you secrete adrenalin, and adrenalin makes you react faster, to see things quicker, to do a thought process much faster. So you use the fear, and the adrenalin it produces to react a lot quicker. It gives you extra strength, too.
“Fear is a very natural thing. My first combat mission in Korea was one of the worst ones. You go out and you don't know what to expect. You are wondering how you’ll react. But as you fly more and more missions, it becomes -- I hate to say -- more routine, because it is never routine, but you become a lot more accustomed to it."
Why did you react the way you did on May 12, 1968?
“Well, it was the right thing to do, and it was. I was there and I saw what was going on down below. I had watched the unsuccessful attempt by another airplane to rescue the three guys. I knew where the three guys were and I had a feeling that I could do it. It just was the right thing to do. As undesirable as it was to go into that camp at that time, it still was the right thing. So that’s why I suppose I reacted that way.
“But you never take time to think about it. This automatic reaction is a result of your training. If someone throws a snowball at you, you don’t stop and think about it. You have a reflex to automatically duck to keep from getting smacked by the snowball. In hindsight, you can spend a lot of time trying to think about why you did what you did, but it just was a trained reflex.”
Why did you take such a steep descent into this hot zone?
“What I was trying to do was shorten my exposure time to enemy anti-aircraft gunfire. Down around the treetops is the most dangerous altitude. My objective was shorten my exposure time and get down on the deck just a quickly as I could.”
Did you take off again at a real steep angle?
“As steep as that sucker would go. A C-123, with those jets, you can take off at a fairly good angle, but certainly not as good as you’d like it.”
Was everyone strapped in?
“I don’t think so, but I didn’t care.”
How has the Medal of Honor changed your life?
“Most of the Medal of Honor recipients, and I know most of them, most of them feel that it is easier to do something to receive the award than what it is to wear the medal. Because it is very difficult, believe it or not. It’s not easy to wear. Number one, you’re trying to protect the dignity of the Medal of Honor. Everyone who has it knows it’s something special, something to protect. To wear it, to represent the thousands of other people from the services who have not been recognized for their sacrifices. We as a group, and as individuals, feel it’s our obligation to wear it with respect and to show it with dignity.
“We’re a role model for kids. We’ve got to walk the straight and narrow, and control our inhibitions. To let go and live it up -- we don’t do that. It’s natural for us to have a high regard for our country and to serve it. And we’re still serving our country, even after so many years after leaving the service.”
What does the Medal of Honor mean to you today?
“It means more service to our country. Sometimes I’d rather be out fishing or something like that. But I know that fishing can wait and that I should serve by participating in parades and meetings and giving speeches. It’s a requirement, sort of, but I do it willingly.”
Do you often think about your Air Force service?
“Not daily, but I still think about the Air Force, because, actually, I miss it. I miss the camaraderie I’ve had with my friends in the Air Force. I feel (my time in service was)some of the best years of my life. We had something in common. That was actually quite unusual. We enjoyed the singleness of purpose. I think the military is an excellent career for those who go into it with the right attitude. It’s a hard life, but it’s a good one.”
What are you hopes for the Air Force today and into the future?
“I hope the Department of Defense keeps updating the Air Force. And this is just my opinion, but I think they’re drawing down the number of people far too low. People are serving their time in places like Iraq. Then they come back home and after a short time end up rotating back over there. It’s not like World War II when they were sent over there for the duration. That’s no good to go right back. And I don’t think it’s good for the morale.”
What advice would you provide Airmen today who are fighting for the war on terrorism?
“I could give you a flippant answer and say, ‘Keep your head down.’ But, what I really think is that you should get all the training you can. And you can look out for new ways to do things. I borrowed a little saying from a friend of many years ago. He kept a sign on his wall that said, ‘Is there a better way of doing it?' And you should always look for a better way of doing something, not just be content of falling into the same routine all the time. Think of better ways of doing things. And look for the unexpected. Because it going to happen to you. If you’re prepared for something unexpected, it won’t be such a shock.”