In one of the June 8 Statesman stories about the Bowe Bergdahl saga, Sen. John S. McCain, himself a former (and especially courageous) POW, agreed that the U.S. should do all it can to win the release of captured Americans, "but not at the expense of the lives or well-being of their fellow servicemen and women."
When I read this quote I was momentarily speechless with disbelief that he, of all people, would make such an outrageous statement.
I served as an Air Intelligence Officer for most of my 21 months in Vietnam with fighter, attack and special operations squadrons. I knew, and every pilot and aircrewman knew, and Sen. McCain certainly knows, that when a plane goes down, all the stops are pulled to rescue the aircrew. As intelligence officer I had a direct role in some such search-and-rescue missions. I'm proud to say almost all of them were successful.
But in almost all of them, other aircrews put themselves in harm's way, flying into dangerous situations, taking fire. Not all survived the experience.
Just up the road in Kuna lives Col. Bernard Fisher. The retired Air Force colonel was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in exactly such a mission. If you read the story of that rescue with any background at all, expect a momentary crawl of fear in your stomach. Col. Fisher landed his airplane on a makeshift strip in the middle of an ongoing firefight to pick up a pilot whose airplane had just been shot down. Suffice it to say that neither the landing nor the following takeoff were unopposed. Normally an extraction like this would be made by a specially equipped helicopter. But the nearest such helicopter was 30 minutes away, and the pilot on the ground clearly didn't have that kind of time to avoid capture. And so Col. Fisher acted, and probably saved a pilot's life, certainly at least his freedom. I consider it a privilege to have met Col. Fisher and to have him as a neighbor.
There are a number of stories about recent awards of decorations to troops on the ground who took similar risks in aid of comrades in distress. Courage, obviously, is not the sole province of a particular uniform.
There have been other efforts, less immediate but no less hazardous. There was a joint-services mounted raid on Son Tay prison camp in 1970; while not extracting any Americans, it did have the effect of improving conditions for those still in captivity.
There was Eagle Claw, mounted in 1980 to attempt the rescue of 52 American diplomats held in Iran. In this one we were not so lucky. Eight of our people lost their lives.
And I sleep at night secure in the knowledge that there have been other attempts about which I, or likely you, know absolutely nothing.
I hold no brief for Sgt. Bergdahl's current situation. Right now, it's above my pay grade. Trained in intelligence analysis, I can say this much: Like everyone, I know what I know. Like everyone, I know what I don't know. And like everyone, I don't know what else I don't know.
But I do know this much. American military members put their lives at risk for each other often. In fact, it's expected that each will have the other's back when there is trouble. Even if he did something stupid to get there.
And Senator McCain knows it.
George Moses is a Boise resident and former Air Force intelligence officer. He served at various bases in Vietnam between 1969 and 1971.