'Last American Ace' puts emphasis on strong values

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

America's last Ace fighter pilot told an audience Wednesday afternoon at Centennial Hall that the global war on terrorism is a test of the principles of the United States and its citizens.

Retired Brig. Gen. R. Stephen Ritchie said that in a time when many young people in other parts of the world are being taught to hate American values, it is more important than ever to instill ideals that will prepare us for any situation.

Preparation, teamwork and discipline are vital, Ritchie said "because we are in combat, and failure is not an option."

"Ours is a war of good versus evil, right versus wrong, freedom versus slavery, civilization versus chaos," he said.

Ritchie is one of four speakers in the Glacier Valley Rotary Club's Pillars of America Freedom lecture series. In 1972 he became the only Ace fighter pilot of the Vietnam War after shooting down five enemy MiG jets.

He is known as the last American Ace because of the changing nature of armed conflict that has resulted in shorter battles with fewer aircraft involved. Ritchie said the passing of that era is good because future air battles will put pilots' lives in less danger.

But despite the changing nature of armed conflict around the world, Ritchie said we will never know what's around the corner. The events of Sept. 11 are a bitter example of why the United States always needs to be prepared, he said.

"We got fat and lazy, didn't we? We let our guard down, didn't we? We didn't think it could happen to us, did we?" Ritchie asked. "Now we know."

He said the values taught by Rotary Clubs across the nation are helping to educate a new generation of young people "who ultimately make it possible for us to win rather than to lose, to succeed rather than to fail and sometimes to live rather than to die."

The real mission of Rotary Clubs - and all Americans - is to protect and preserve an environment where people are free to reach their full potential as individuals, Ritchie said. He illustrated his point with a story from an experience he had in Vietnam.

Ritchie said the most exciting mission he ever flew involved the rescue of Roger Locher, a pilot who was shot down May 10, 1972, and reported missing in action.

After 22 days, Ritchie received a radio transmission from where Locher had crash-landed his fighter jet. Though U.S. military forces were able to locate Locher, so were the North Vietnamese, leaving him vulnerable to capture.

Gen. John Vogt, an Air Force commander in Saigon, canceled the entire strike mission to the north and dedicated more than 150 aircraft to rescue Locher, Ritchie said. He said the situation created one of the greatest examples of courageous leadership he has ever experienced.

"Isn't it a very powerful statement about what kind of people we are, about the value we place on life and freedom and the individual?" Ritchie asked.

The next Rotary Club Pillars of America Freedom speakers will be U.S. Christian aid workers Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, who were imprisoned for three months in Afghanistan by the Taliban for preaching Christianity. They will speak May 1.

Timothy Inklebarger can be reach at timothyi@juneauempire.com.

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