The word “patriot” and “hero” get used often, but on occasion, those character traits are well earned.
Roger Ingvalson (1928-2011) was an American Patriot of the first order, and truly a hero. I have known him for 30 years, and for much of that time he served as a mentor and encourager, as he did for countless others. He stands tall among American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, and history will record that he was not only extraordinary courageous, but in equal measure both humble and faithful.
Roger drew his last breath on Christmas Eve, but his legacy is eternal.
On Veterans Day, 2006, I had the privilege of featuring Roger in an essay, A Tale of Two Oaths.
Allow me to share a few of those words.
Roger was born in Austin, Minnesota, in the era between the World Wars. He was an all-American kid, attending local schools and then the University of Minnesota. He joined the Air Force in 1950 and earned his wings in 1953. He married Jacqueline in 1959, and they had one son. He spent the next nine years as an operations officer for fighter squadrons around the world.
In 1968, Roger was flying the F-105D with the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Korat Royal Air Force Base, Thailand. The air war over Vietnam was in its third year, and the pilot casualty list included Roger’s wingman and best friend, LtC Wayne Fullam, who was shot down in late 1967. Wayne was MIA until his remains were recovered on September 24, 1987 and identified on December 4, 1987.
On 28 May, Roger took off on his 87th combat sortie, leading a mission to destroy a bridge in North Vietnam. (Roger notes lightheartedly today that it is very important to keep the number of mission takeoffs and landings equal.) With 1600 hours in the F-105, he was confident that this mission would be a success. As he pulled off the target, an air controller requested that he hit an enemy truck convoy nearby.
Roger’s tactical preference was for high speed and low altitude engagement in order to assure accuracy. At about 0900, he located the convoy of Soviet-built trucks near Dong Hoi and rolled in at more than 500 knots. At 50 feet above the hard deck, he fired a long 20mm burst into the convoy.
Moments later, Roger recalls, “I heard and felt an explosion and my cockpit immediately filled with smoke. I hit the afterburner to gain valuable altitude, then pulled the canopy ejection handle to get rid of the smoke. I rocketed up to about 600 feet before my aircraft went into an uncontrollable roll. I pulled the ejection seat handle and squeezed the trigger. As I was catapulted out of the burning aircraft, the wind blast knocked me out, and I didn’t regain consciousness until just prior to landing on a dried out rice paddy.”
As he hit the ground, Roger’s first reaction was to feel for broken bones. “With 15 years as a fighter pilot, I was fully aware of the fact that there is very little chance of survival during an emergency ejection at high speed and low altitude, without a multitude of injuries. To my amazement, I had no broken bones or other injuries.”
Roger had regularly attended church for 40 years, but he says his relationship with his Savior really began when he realized he had survived the ejection. He prayed and gave thanks for his survival as his would-be Communist captors were running toward him.
For the next 1,742 days, Roger endured torture, starvation, desolation, disease and one stretch of 20 months in strict solitary confinement. He spent much of his internment in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, made famous after “Hanoi Jane” Fonda collaborated with Roger’s captors to make a propaganda film purporting that American POWs were being treated humanely.
Roger received devastating news three years into his nightmare as a POW. He was told by his captors that his wife, Jackie, had died months earlier from complications related to multiple sclerosis. Roger recalls, “During the three years since capture, I had continually dreamed of her in a crippled condition. Then the night after receiving the tragic news, I had another dream of my dear wife – this time she was in perfect health, just like the day we were married. She had gained the victory from suffering and sin; whereas, I gained the peace of knowing that she was in heaven.” (His 13-year old son was taken in by Jackie’s parents.)
On 14 March 1973, after nearly five years of brutal incarceration, Roger and his fellow POWs, including future Senator John McCain, departed for Clark Air Base in the Philippines. There, for the first time in half a decade, he was given medical aid, wholesome food and clean clothes. “The Lord sustained me through 1,742 days of tragedy; nevertheless, I count my blessings. I was set free by the North Vietnamese Communists but had already been fully liberated by Jesus Christ.”
Col. Roger Ingvalson retired from the Air Force a couple of years after his release. His decorations included the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, seven Air Medals, and, of course, the POW Medal.
However, the most remarkable chapter in this Vietnam Vet’s story was yet to be written.
Upon his return to the United States, Roger married the widow of Wayne Fullam, his former wingman and best friend, and they raised their combined family of four sons together.
After returning to his wife’s hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Roger spent the rest of his career ministering to those in prisons.
John 15:12-13 records these words from Jesus: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Roger laid down his life every day.
In 1808, another Patriot, John Adams, wrote, “Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.”
Indeed, Roger honored his sacred oath to “support and defend” our Constitution until his last breath. He loved our great country.
Of such extraordinary men, Gen. George Patton said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
However, I both mourn Roger’s absence and thank God he lived, but take great comfort knowing he has gained victory over his suffering and is with our Savior for eternity. Job well done good and faithful servant!
Please pray for his wife, Booncy, and their children and grandchildren.
Godspeed my friend.
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