No Airman Left Behind


Major Victor J. Apodaca was Missing in Action for 34 years before he came home.

“I will never leave an Airman behind.” These words are part of the U.S. Air Force Airman’s Creed and have a very personal meaning for Lockheed Martin Flight Test Engineer Robert Apodaca, who has seen these words come to life.    

Robert’s father, Major Victor J. Apodaca, was part of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s third graduating class of 1961, and was the first American Indian to graduate from the Air Force Academy. Six years later, his F-4C was shot down over North Vietnam, and his family spent 34 years searching for him.

“These people [veterans] are the ones we owe our freedom, our lifestyle, our everything,”

—Robert Apodaca

Major Apodaca’s wife, Rosalind, Robert, and his older brother Victor, have been involved in this issue for decades. They attended the 1969 Paris Peace Talks searching for any information about his loss and spent years waiting for closure and anticipating his return.

        
      Major Victor J. Apodaca, with his sons, Robert and Victor.

In 2001, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), a branch of the military family dedicated to forensic analysis and intensive DNA research, positively matched a sample of Major Apodaca’s recovered remains to a sample from the
Apodaca family.

Finally, after years of wondering, the Apodaca family had closure. Robert Apodaca traveled to Hawaii for a repatriation ceremony and presentation honoring his father by the JPAC. Robert and his brother Victor arranged transportation for his father to be laid to rest at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, at a ceremony that would coincide with Major Apodaca’s Air Force Academy 40-year class reunion.

Robert and his father departed for Colorado Springs on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, flying through the night. Instead of reaching Colorado Springs, their flight touched down in Minneapolis the next morning, when all air travel was canceled due to the tragic 9/11 attacks. After what seemed like days of waiting, Robert recalled there was talk of flights leaving, but no cargo would have been allowed.

Robert, who served as an officer in the Air Force for almost 10 years, refused to leave his father behind. He was waiting, searching for options.

“I was just staring out the window and way across the flight line, on the other side, there were all these green tails lined up in a row,” he said. “It was a C-130 National Guard unit.”

   
Major Victor J. Apodaca as an upperclassman at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  

Robert called the members of his father’s Air Force Academy class who were gathering for the class reunion. These classmates of Major Apodaca, some prominent members of the Air Force community, collaborated for a solution. Eventually, the Pentagon got involved and issued a call to bring this Airman—Major Victor J. Apodaca—home.

At three in the morning, Robert received a call that he was to be on the airstrip at 7 a.m.

A C-130 arrived for transport, and Robert was invited to sit in the cockpit near two Colonels who had volunteered to fly his father home. After take-off, the Aircraft Commander looked at Robert and said, “I don’t know if you realize this, but you are the only passenger in the United States airspace at this time.”

On the journey to Colorado Springs, the pilots used the call sign “Blue Bark 01”. Later, Apodaca learned this was the call sign used during the Vietnam War for planes bearing fallen soldiers.

Many reservist pilots who were flying F-15s and F-16s in close air patrol had flown during the Vietnam War and knew immediately what kind of mission this was. Shortly into the flight, one Colonel turned to Robert and told him to look out the cargo hold window.

          
  Robert Apodaca celebrates his father’s well-lived life and welcomes him home.

“I climbed down the ladder, went over to a window to look out, and there was a fighter jet about 10 feet off the wing,” he said. “The fighter pilot raised his visor, looked through the window at me, saluted, wagged his wings and pulled off.”

Robert said that as one jet left, another would pull in formation to take its place.

“These jets were coming from across the United States so that they could provide escort and they could honor the trip bringing my
dad home.”

Upon landing at Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, Robert and his father were met by his brother Victor and a color guard escort that laid Major Apodaca to rest, with family and friends gathered for final closure after 34 years.

“I will never leave an Airman behind,” the Airman’s creed says, and Robert witnessed firsthand in September 2001.

“The military family is a great family—one that I’m honored and privileged to be a part of,” he said. “I’ll stand up every day to say that.”

December 22, 2014