ARLINGTON, Va. -- Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein presented eight Airmen with the 2017 and 2018 Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award April 17 at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes in Arlington.
The award was named in honor of the first Air Force Academy graduate to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery and courage while evading capture and during his subsequent captivity as a prisoner of war after being shot down over Vietnam Nov. 9, 1967.
The 2018 award recipients: Lt. Col. Martin O’Brien, 1st Lt. Jason Quadros, Master Sgt. Robert Perz and Master Sgt. Veronica Babauta, alongside the 2017 award recipients, were all honored during the ceremony.
“Each of our honorees have their own story. Their commonality is the highest quality of leadership in the performance of their duties and in the conduct of their lives,” Goldfein said. “Just like Capt. Lance Sijan.”
Sijan’s younger sister, Janine Sijan-Rozina, accompanied Goldfein for the presentation of the annual award.
“There was a moment in Lance Sijan’s life that he realized that the cavalry wasn’t coming, and for some that might mean defeat, but for others (like my brother) he leaned into that challenge and he turned it into rocket fuel,” Sijan-Rozina said. “When you have been faced with that same moment, what will you do? I believe you’ll turn it into rocket fuel too.”
First given in 1981, the award recognizes Airmen who have demonstrated outstanding leadership abilities while assigned to organizations at the wing level or below.
“Of all the things we do as leaders, the largest impact that we have on our Airmen is to provide inspirational and courageous leadership,” Goldfein said.
Following the award presentation, officials hosted the first resiliency event within the Pentagon walls. Airmen and their families gathered for a screening of the documentary Sijan, recounting the life and death of the late hero.
Sijan-Rozina, retired Capt. Guy Gruters, a Vietnam POW who was confined with Capt. Lance P. Sijan during his final days, retired Col. Lee Ellis, a Vietnam POW who was stationed with Sijan during the war, and retired Col. Tom Owens, a U.S. Air Force Academy classmate, all paneled together to speak on how Sijan shaped their lives.
“(Sijan) believed, what I hope that we all believe, we would be willing to give up our bodies in order to do the right thing,” said Gruters. “He never backed down.”
The panel went on to speak about how they overcame their own personal challenges after enduring torture and losing the loved ones around them.
“(We) realized that hate (and bitterness) will ruin you, it doesn’t hurt them, but it will ruin you,” said Ellis, describing how he survived being a POW during the Vietnam War. “We helped each other overcome that bitterness so that when we did walk out of that camp, we walked out as free men.”
Sijan’s story of enduring life and death challenges demonstrates the strength of resilience to the point where others may draw the same motivating aspects into their lives.