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Medal of Honor story shared by sister at PACE Summit

By Kevin M. Hymel | Air Force Medical Operations Agency History Office | Jan. 13, 2018

Joint Base San Antonio, Texas —

Janine Sijan-Rozina shared the story of how her older brother, Air Force Capt. Lance Sijan, earned the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award for valor, for his bravery to an audience of Airmen and Air Force civilians at the Profession of Arms Center of Excellence Summit Dec. 6, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas. 

Sijan-Rozina described her brother to the audience as her childhood role model, a fighter pilot who managed to avoid enemy capture for over six weeks before becoming a prisoner of war, and a man whose legacy still continues today. 

Sijan was born in 1942 and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was the oldest of three children to Depression-era parents. He was 12 years older than his sister, Sijan-Rozina. 

He was accepted into the Air Force Academy in 1961. Shortly after, he attended pilot training and survival school training. 

When Sijan received orders to go to Vietnam, he said goodbye to his sister and told her he would be back. When she looked at him he told her, “I can see the universe in your eyes, and every constellation. I love you.” 

“I adored him,” Sijan-Rozina told the audience. 

In Vietnam, Sijan flew an F-4 Phantom aircraft for the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron. When his friend’s aircraft was shot down Nov. 8, 1967, Sijan was selected to replace him as the last fighter of the wing. 

Flying out of Da Nang, Sijan’s aircraft wing dropped delay-fuse mines on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, near the North Vietnamese border. One of Sijan’s munitions exploded as he released it, damaging his F-4 Phantom. 

Sijan quickly ejected from the aircraft. The rough ejection and landing had ripped off his helmet and knocked him unconscious for a day. When he awoke, Sijan had suffered a skull fracture, a broken right hand and a broken left leg.

Sijan-Rozina told the summit audience a massive rescue mission was launched to search for her brother. Several aircraft went out on the search and rescue mission, but the planes and helicopters could not find him in the triple-canopy jungle.

When an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter approached the area where Sijan laid injured, her brother radioed to them “I see you.”

The rescue team offered to drop a Pararescue Airman to the ground to rescue her brother, but Sijan turned them away citing enemy presence around the area and him not wanting to risk the Airman’s life. He instead responded to them, “I’ll come to you.”

Unable to walk, Sijan dragged himself through the jungle on his back to meet his rescuers, but he was too far away to reach them. Nighttime came, enemy fire increased, and the rescue had to be abandoned.

That evening, Sijan took shelter in a cave where he fell and damaged his radio. The rescue team never heard from him again.

With no communications, Sijan kept to the military Code of Conduct: a guide consisting of six articles to members of the U.S. Armed Forces, addressing how they should act in combat, when they must evade capture, resist while a prisoner or escape from the enemy.

Sijan crawled over jagged rocks and through the jungle for 46 days. He did not reach a water source until 10 days into journey. North Vietnamese soldiers found him passed out on a road on Christmas day. The once 220-pound fighter pilot weighed only 80 pounds with open sores covering his body.

Sijan-Rozina informed the audience that while her brother was placed in a holding pen, he was able to muster enough strength motion to the guard to come close to him, at which point her brother karate-chopped him, rendering him unconscious, and escaped. He was eventually caught four hours later by villagers and transported to the Bamboo Prison in the city of Vingh, along with two other American pilots.

The North Vietnamese captors interrogated and tortured Sijan, but he simply told them, “I can’t tell you anything. It’s against the code.”

The two other pilots, hearing the torture, yelled to Sijan, “You’re cleared. Give them something!”

Sijan shouted back, “I can take it, sir.”

At some point all three pilots were placed on a flatbed trucks and transported to the Hanoi Hilton.

Sijan-Rozina informed the audience that the interrogations and the torture on her brother continued. The North Vietnamese pulled his arms out of his shoulder sockets and tied his wrists to his ankles, leaving him that way for hours. When the pain faded they untied him, bringing even worse pain to his arms. French-made leg irons intended for smaller Vietnamese prisoners, chewed the flesh off his ankles.

Still, her brother’s only answer to his captors’ questions was, “I can’t tell you anything. It’s against the code.”

By Jan. 21, 1968, Sijan lost the ability to speak. He developed pneumonia which went untreated. He was reduced to blinking his eyes once or twice to answer yes or no. His last words that day came when he suddenly sat up and called out, “Dad! Dad! Where are you? I need you!”

Sijan died the next day.

The day Sijan died, word of his incredible exploits spread around the POW prison. The American POWs developed a tapping code to communicate to one another and Sijan’s story circulated.

Sijan-Rozina told the audience her brother’s body was flown back to the United States March 13, 1974. Packed with the coffin was his wooden headstone with his initials, date of his death and two Vietnamese words, which translated to “hero without tears and chains.”

Former POWs recommended her brother for the Medal of Honor, which Sijan was awarded.

President Gerald R. Ford presented the award to Sijan’s parents March 4, 1976. During the ceremony his family learned, for the first time, of the details of Sijan’s last three months.

That same year the family flew to the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado, where a new dorm was named for her brother.

In 2010, an Air Force representatives asked Sijan-Rozina to share her brother’s story to a group of Airmen — a story of the man who lived before those lasts three months in the Vietnam, a man who loved life, his family and his fellow Airmen.

“It took me decades to know his story was not about him, but this continuum that we live,” Sijan-Rozina told the audience. “He was where he was supposed to be. I am where I am supposed to be.”