An Air Force doctor, whose medical expertise and French language skills were credited with helping save 14 U.S. Sailors' lives after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, received France's highest decoration at the French Embassy in Washington June 21.
Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Byron L. Hepburn, 59th Medical Wing commander in San Antonio, received the "Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur," or French Legion of Honor, during a ceremony hosted by senior French diplomatic officials and senior French military officials. The Legion of Honor was created in 1802 by General Napoleon Bonaparte to recognize the dedication of both civilian and military personnel in serving France.
The honor for Hepburn was an acknowledgement for a career of work promoting French-American relationships dating back to 1975 when he spent six months at the French Air
Force Academy in Salon de Provence as a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet in an exchange program.
"It is no surprise that, given your brilliant career path, you are one of the most deserving foreign officers who has been selected to be awarded the French Legion of Honor," said Lt. Gen. Gérard Nedellec, French Armed Forces surgeon general and commander
of the French Military Health Service, during his remarks at the Ceremony.
"From the battlefield to the classrooms of our medical schools, the relationships between the components of the U.S. Military Health System and the French Military Health Service have been improving every day and it is an honor to recognize one of the main people in this unique relationship."
In receiving the award - which is approved by the French president - General Hepburn joined such other luminaries as former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper and Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Navy Pacific in World War II.
"As a flight surgeon, you have never failed to promote the development of French-American relations and, to that end, you have frequently and personally intervened in order to make things move forward," General Nedellec said.
General Nedellec noted that in 1998, General Hepburn's "perfect command of the French language came in very handy" when he served as a key member of the French-American medical team conducting aeromedical research with the French Military medical Research Lab.
"Your scientific and operational backgrounds, as well as your charismatic leadership, were decisive in managing this very challenging scientific experiment," he said.
Along the way, Genenral Hepburn has also has lectured twice at a French military
medical school in Lyon and has had numerous collaborations with French military in locations such as Mazar e Sharif during a deployment to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
But it was General Hepburn's role while serving as commander of the 86th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Ramstein AB, Germany, in the aftermath of the attack on the USS Cole, that provided the most compelling portion of the French general's remarks. Seventeen American Sailors were killed, and 39 were injured as a result of the attack in
the Yemeni port of Aden.
"You played a major role in managing the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen by interfacing between the French armed forces trauma teams stationed in Djibouti and the U.S. forces in charge of the medical evacuation of the American casualties," he said.
"Again, your deep knowledge of both French and U.S. military medical organizations, as well as your command of the French language, helped to turn this joint medical operation into a true success story which saved 14 U.S. Sailors."
During his remarks at the French Embassy, General Hepburn said that his father - the late James W. Hepburn - served as a company commander with the U.S. Army during
WWII and participated in the liberation of France. The contacts he made during the war continue to be family friends of the Hepburns today.
"This is a great honor, but not an individual one. It's recognition of teamwork. Recognition at this level is really recognition of multiple teams at the Air Force Academy, the research lab and medical teams that responded to the USS Cole attack. I am receiving this distinction on behalf of the many teams that I have had the privilege of
working with during my career. I am accepting it on behalf of the Air Force and the Air Force Medical Service."
In addition to the general's family members and close friends, attendees included a joint representation of U.S. military medical leaders headed by Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for Health Affairs; Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Charles B. Green, Air Force surgeon general; and Dr. Charles L. Rice, president of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.