As we observe Veterans Day on Nov. 11 and remember the many heroes who have bravely defended the United States of America, I am filled with deep gratitude. Like all Americans, I am thankful to all who have answered the call to serve, and especially to the estimated 300,000 living Oklahomans who have fought for our freedom and advanced our democracy.
One of the greatest honors of my life was serving our country as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. I am eternally grateful to the men and women with whom I served during the first Gulf War and throughout my time in the Armed Forces.
I learned early on the tremendous responsibility and gut-wrenching decisions that one faces in the heat of combat. On Jan. 17, 1991 – the first evening of the Gulf War – I had been assigned to lead one of the first air strike campaigns into Baghdad. It was surreal to see all the enemy fire throughout the night sky. We destroyed our key targets and were returning to base when I received a new order. I was to turn back around and take out an enemy fighter jet. As I ran the intercept, I was cleared to kill.
But something didn’t seem right. The jet in question was flying very low and heading in the general direction of our allied forces. It didn’t make sense to me that he could be an enemy fighter. As I considered this, I received several orders to fire, each from a successively higher-ranking officer – all the way up to a general.
Still, I held my fire.
When I completed the intercept, I could see that the jet thought to be an enemy fighter was actually a Saudi Tornado. He was an ally who had gotten separated from our strike package and was trying to make his way back to our base. I ended up escorting him back to safety.
As we landed, I noticed the military police were waiting for me. They were not there to congratulate me. Rather, the MPs arrested me for disobeying direct orders. Thankfully the Saudi pilot -- a member of the royal family, as it turned out – told his command what had happened. My leadership removed my handcuffs and instead awarded me the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After that incident, all F-15 units adopted a more discriminatory approach to aircraft identification. That encounter and the tough decisions I had to make that night continue to guide me today. The right thing to do isn’t always the easy thing to do.
Our state has a proud tradition of military service. The Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame has recognized 235 heroes since its inaugural class in 1999. One of those heroes is Brigadier General Kenneth Marlar Taylor. Like me, Kenneth was raised in the Osage County town of Hominy. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he was stationed with the Army Air Corps at Wheeler Airfield in Honolulu. As the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor began, he and several comrades were able to get their P-40 fighters airborne to attack the enemy planes. Kenneth was wounded during the fight and credited with two probable kills. The following week, he and a fellow lieutenant were awarded the first awards for heroism during World War II, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross.
First Sgt. Pascal Cleatus Poolaw is another Oklahoma hero and Hall of Fame member who wasn’t afraid to make hard decisions. A member of the Kiowa Tribe who served in the U.S. Army during WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Pascal is the most decorated American Indian soldier in U.S. history. He was awarded four Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for his actions. Tragically, Pascal was killed in action in Vietnam.
These heroes exemplified the valor and the selflessness of so many other Oklahomans who defended our freedom. During my time in the service, I saw many face adversity with undeniable strength and make personal sacrifices with unwavering commitment.
This month, we honor our veterans and their families. Let us never forget that freedom is not free.