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Military

By USAF Col. Stephen N. Whiting

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Happy Birthday, Air Force
(September 18, 2010)

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PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (9/17/2010 - AFNS) -- The Airman's Creed reminds all Air Force personnel that we are "faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor and a legacy of valor." On Sept. 18, we have the opportunity to remember our service's rich history and the heroic Airmen who have gone before us as we celebrate the 63rd birthday of the United States Air Force as an independent branch of the Armed Forces.

Although the Air Force is very young compared to our sister services, we have an amazing history that continues to be discovered even as its legacy is added to by today's brave Airmen.

And what a history it has been. With our roots in the U.S. Army's early aviation units, the first military aviators of what would become the U.S. Air Force were trained by the Wright brothers themselves. Within less than 20 years of Orville and Wilbur's first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, the airplane would become an indispensable weapon on the modern battlefield.

During World War I, virtually all modern aviation combat missions would be conducted in one form or fashion, and even our modern notions of aviation command and control were executed by Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, the first of many iconic figures who dot our history.

In World War II, Army Air Corps Airmen conducted strategic bombing missions across Europe while land forces were being built up to invade the continent, opening a significant second front on the Third Reich and diverting resources from their efforts on the Eastern Front. Ultimately, these strategic bombing operations would become a vital part of a massive joint air-land-sea campaign that ended the war in Europe, and prevented an invasion from occurring in Japan.

Additionally, World War II saw the awe-inspiring service of the Tuskegee Airmen, who not only took the fight to our enemies in a gallant and deadly manner, but also changed our nation forever through their undying dedication, optimism, and perseverance. All of us as Airmen can proudly proclaim that we follow in the steps of the "Red Tails."

In addition to our aviation history, we also can be proud of the Air Force's history in space.

When Apollo 11 went to the moon, two Air Force officers were on board, Colonels Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, along with Neil Armstrong. These three pioneers would perform one of the greatest feats in all of human history by going to the moon, exploring it on foot, and then safely returning to Earth.

Along the way, the Air Force would be at the vanguard of operationalizing space with our sister services in such a way that our terrestrial forces could be smaller, lighter, more lethal, more mobile and more informed than ever before.

It is not too strong a statement to say that the Air Force's efforts in space have changed the way America fights its wars. And we are currently forging an equally exciting history in cyberspace.

As we remember the remarkable history of our service, let's not forget that all of these achievements are made possible by the men and women who have gone before us. We stand on their shoulders, and we are amazed at the heights they have lifted us. So it is especially gratifying when we learn more about their remarkable exploits under very difficult and at times deadly conditions.

For example, just within the last few weeks, White House officials have announced that the president soon will present a posthumous Medal of Honor to Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger. Chief Etchberger died on March 11, 1968, in Southeast Asia at a time when neither his mission, his location nor his heroic actions could be acknowledged. His mission, however, was to operate a radar site, a mission to which the Airmen of the 21st Space Wing can fully relate.

But Chief Etchberger's radar site was in the country of Laos, and it was used to guide U.S. bombing operations in Vietnam. In fact, so great was the secrecy around this mission, and so great was the dedication of Chief Etchberger and his fellow Airmen, they were actually "discharged" from the Air Force before going undercover for this mission.

On March 11, 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked the radar site to shut down the support it gave to the American bombing campaign. During the battle, 12 of the 19 personnel at the radar site were killed, and Chief Etchberger selflessly tended to the wounded while engaging the enemy. He then helped to load the wounded onto a rescue helicopter.

Chief Etchberger was the last person to board the helicopter, but he subsequently died when the aircraft was hit by an armor piercing round, causing him to bleed to death. Although he was recommended for the Medal of Honor at the time of his death, political sensitivities regarding the nature of the mission in Laos prevented it from being approved. Fortunately, this decision will soon be rectified.

The chapter of the Air Force's history dealing with ground-based radar operations during the Vietnam War is not as well known as other events in our history, but Chief Etchberger's story is a telling reminder of the honor and valor that these early battlefield Airmen displayed, and the legacy they have left each and every Airman today.

So, on Sept. 18, all of us as Airmen can justifiably be proud of the heritage we have inherited; honored to stand on our nation's ramparts beside Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen; and humbled to walk in the footsteps of great Airmen like Chief Etchberger.

Happy birthday to the U.S. Air Force!

By USAF USAF Col. Stephen N. Whiting
21st Space Wing commander
Copyright 2010

Reprinted from Air Force News Service

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