My father-in-law loves his toys. Big flat screen TV’s with tons of speakers, state of the art laptops and a Cadillac DTS that is correct in only one color: bright red. Add a Florida home in the winter and it’s the perfect lifestyle.
He earned his toys the hard way. The ones he played with earlier in life were a bit more dangerous.
Getting to know a real warrior is hard. The real ones I’ve known don’t boast. In fact, don’t even talk about their service. I’ve been honored to know heroic veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador and Iraq. Army Green Berets and Navy SEALS, front line battle hardened veterans who keep their medals in drawers and only tell their war stories when curious journalists drag the truth out of them.
Don Ryan isn’t any different. He served this country for 30 years. From a dog face GI in World War II to the Army Air Corps and the very foundation of the US Air Force in 1947 he flew the tough flights. Losing a co-pilot in bloody combat in Korea he moved on to the beginnings of General Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command.
When LeMay took over SAC it was a mess. A disorganized fleet of World War II bombers charged with managing the ultimate new weapon of war: the atomic bomb. LeMay, who had personally led some of the most dangerous missions of the war, developed the slogan "peace is our profession." The primary weapon in his arsenal was constant, punishing training. His strategy for using atomic weapons was to destroy the enemy, in those days the Soviet Union, with a massive attack prior to war breaking out.
It would be tested in the fulcrum days of SAC when the world stood on the brink of devastation: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Hours away from Armageddon the steely determination of SAC’s pilots proved to be the ace in President Kennedy’s hand. Flying endless hours the Air Force bombers made it clear to the Russians the annihilation they were facing.
Had war broken out the eastern and southern seaboards of the United States would have been destroyed. Russia would not exist today. The few who survived the war would probably live a lifestyle akin to those in the middle ages.
That’s how my father in law, Colonel Donald Ryan earned his toys. Recently I pried the story from him of October ’62. He had been chosen by the Air Force High Command to lead his bomber group in the war’s primary mission. Strapped into the cramped pilot’s command seat for a week he flew constantly over the eastern Mediterranean. Haunted by thoughts of a wife and kids at ground zero on an Air Force base in Florida and knowing someday if the orders were given to attack return from the mission was highly unlikely. His target was the devastation of the Soviet capital, Moscow.
The crisis that former U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson said had "inched to the brink and ended in a blink" changed the nature of warfare in the latter part of the 20th century. Colonel Ryan and his lethal toys were the blunt instruments of those changes. The following year when he retired his aircraft President Kennedy came personally to salute his efforts.
There’s an estimated 24 million U.S. Military Veterans alive today. Memorial Day is coming. There will be parades, ceremonies and wreaths placed on graves. That’s the ‘thank you’ that is too late. Find a veteran or an active duty service person and wish them well. Their service is immeasurable, their dedication to be admired and their courage to be respected for in all of that lies the core freedoms of we the people.
Albert Paschall is Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research; a Harrisburg based non-profit educational foundation. Somedays is syndicated to leading newspapers and radio stations through out Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]
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