Friday, June 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Medal Ceremonies

During the same week that Britain finally dedicated a monument to RAF Bomber Command, there's word of two more delayed ceremonies that recognized vastly different American airmen.  In one case, the recognition was decades overdue, as it was with the heroes of Bomber Command.  In the second example, the belated recognition is something of an embarrassment, a reminder of a still-festering scandal that the U.S. Air Force can't acknowledge or resolve.

Earlier this month, the service finally recognized the heroism and valor of Captain Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, triggering an international incident that lasted for almost two years.  Powers, flying a secret mission for the CIA, was forced to eject from his spy plane at high altitude after it was struck by a surface-to-air missile.  Unable to take his cynaide pill, Powers was captured by the Russians, and subjected to a Moscow show trial.  That event, coupled with his on-camera "confession" was used to humiliate the United States.

When Powers was released in a spy swap in 1962, he was treated with indifference by the service and the intelligence community.  Many believed the U-2 pilot had betrayed his country by not committing suicide before the Russians captured him.  Others claimed that Powers divulged U.S. secrets during harsh interrogation sessions at the hands of his Soviet captors.

But historical records reveal a much different picture.  He was shot down because the intelligence community (including his colleagues at the CIA) believed that Russian SA-2 surface-to-air missiles were not yet operational, and posed no threat to Powers' U-2.  Not only were the missiles operational, they were deployed along the spy plane's familiar flight path across Soviet territory.  Russian crews fired a total of eight SA-2s at Powers' plane, downing not only the U-2, but a MiG-19 that was sent aloft in an effort to intercept the America jet.

Powers also kept the faith during his lengthy imprisonment, including extended periods in solitary confinement punctuated by extended "interrogations" by the KGB.  Both the CIA and a Congressional panel later divulged that Powers provided no classified information during his time in captivity.  Yet, many senior government officials still considered him a traitor, largely on the basis of an incorrect NSA assessment that was later debunked, when CIA records on the flight were declassified.

After being exchanged for a Soviet spy, Powers returned to the United States and left the Air Force.  He worked for Lockheed as a U-2 test pilot until 1970, but was terminated after he published a book about the shoot-down and its aftermath.  Some observers believe Lockheed fired Powers at the urging of intelligence officials, who were upset over his account of the events.  However, the CIA awarded the U-2 pilot its Intelligence Star for valor in 1965, and long after his death, Powers received the Director's Medal from CIA Director George Tenet for "extreme courage and fidelity in the line of duty."

Recognition from the Air Force was a bit slow in coming.  When records of the CIA-USAF overflight operation were finally declassified, the service presented Powers' family with the Prisoner of War Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.  And, earlier this month, Powers was awarded the Silver Star for his "sustained courage" during the U-2 incident.

Unfortunately, most of the awards came decades after Powers' untimely death.  After losing his job at Lockheed, the former U-2 pilot became a radio traffic reporter for a station in Los Angeles.  In 1976, he joined KNBC-TV as the pilot of its "Telecopter," a Bell Jet Ranger with state-of-the-art cameras and a microwave relay that transmitted pictures back to the station.  On August 1, 1977, the chopper crashed, killing Powers and a cameraman.  The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the crash to pilot error (apparently, the helicopter ran out of fuel before it could land at Burbank airport), but Powers' son reported that a mechanic had replaced a faulty fuel gauge without telling the pilot, who misread it.  There is also evidence that Powers deviated from his auto-rotation at the last moment, after spotting a group of children playing in the area where the helicopter would have landed.

That night, on NBC's Tomorrow show, host Tom Snyder offered a brief, but moving tribute to Powers, who he knew from his days at KNBC.  As I recall, Snyder hinted at how Powers had been treated after being released from a Soviet prison, suggesting that he deserved better from a nation he had served honorably and faithfully, under the most trying circumstances imaginable..

With the Silver Star ceremony in the Pentagon, the Air Force added another, well-deserved honor to the legacy of Francis Gary Powers.  Too bad it didn't happen 40 years ago.

It's equally regrettable that the USAF followed the Powers tribute with an awards ceremony that is simply jam-dropping, in terms of callousness and outright dishonesty.  According the indefatigable Glenn MacDonald at, the Air Force has awarded is Commendation Medal with a "V:"(Valor) device to none other than Major Jill Metzger.

That's right, the same Metzger who disappeared for three days in Kyrgyzstan back in 2006, then re-surfaced with an incredible tale of abduction and escape, complete with a 30-mile run to freedom.  Major Metzger is a champion distance runner, who has won the women's division of the Air Force Marathon on two different occasions.

As we've noted on previous occasions, Ms. Metzger's "story" has more holes than the proverbial block of Swiss.  A few months ago, Mr. McDonald thoroughly de-bunked an Air Force report that supposedly confirmed Metzger's version of events.  You can find his report here. Much of the analysis was conducted by retired Air Force Master Sergeant John Cassidy, an intelligence specialist with years of experience in search and rescue operations.  You'd think that Cassidy's work (cited by Mr. MacDonald) would attract the attention of the mainstream media, anxious to clear up unanswered questions about Metzger's mysterious disappearance in Kyrgyzstan.

But you'd be wrong.  Even the military press lost interest in Metzger a long time ago.  In the interim, she was awarded a 100% disability pension (reportedly due to PTSD, resulting from her brief time in "captivity").  Despite her condition, she still managed to compete in a couple of marathons, then returned to active duty in 2010, and was awarded her "valor" decoration a few weeks ago.

Not surprisingly, this latest episode was shrouded in secrecy.  The Air Force didn't release a photograph of the awards ceremony or issue a press release.  In fact, the entire ceremony was private, and many personnel at Travis AFB, California (where Metzger is now stationed) didn't learn about her valor award until Mr. MacDonald published an update on his website.

There has been plenty of speculation as to why the Air Force has protected Metzger for so long.  This latest episode will do nothing to end that speculation.  And giving her a valor award for such a fanciful, unsubstantiaed tale will only make matters worse.

But the service is undeterred.  If they can honor a real Air Force hero thirty-five years after his death, why not reward a phony and a fraud, too.  At this rate, maybe some enterprising staff officer--or even Metzger herself--can amend those claims of valor, setting her up for an Air Force Cross before she reaches flag rank.

We're not kidding.                  



Chuck said...

Spook: Can you recommend a book or websites that provide an accurate in-depth account of Powers' story? Thanks, chuck

James Nathan said...

-Giles Whittell, Bridge of Spies...Whittell has it mostly right. I hunk