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Two find bond in downed pilot's heroism

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Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Cathy Meskel of Cedaredge and a recent guest at her Shady Creek RV Park, Ed Stadjuhar, were brought together through their separate encounters years earlier with a fallen Air Force pilot and POW, Capt. Lance Sijan. Meskel and Stadju

Over many years of supporting America's service personnel and veterans, Cathy Meskel of Cedaredge has experienced numerous moments of emotional connectedness with the country's war fighters and their families.

Cathy has tied yellow ribbons around towns that she lived in, including Rifle and Cedaredge. She has sent at her own expense hundreds of "care packages" to active duty service personnel stationed in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. She organizes and helps provide funding for the Stars and Stripes Military Balls held in Cedaredge in November. Cathy is encouraged and fully supported in her efforts by her husband, Michael.

But a recent experience while sitting under the backyard awning with guests at their Shady Creek RV Park was the most vivid she has had of the emotional bond that exists among veterans, she explained.

Cathy broadcasts a recorded playing of Taps every evening from the RV Park. On one recent evening, as all the park guests were gathered under the awning for a social time and Taps began playing at 8 p.m., everyone stood and gathered around the flag.

As the solemn musical tribute concluded, Cathy happened to ask one of the guests, Karen Stadjuhar -- whose husband Ed is a graduate of the Air Force Academy -- if she had ever heard of Capt. Will Dubois, an F-16 pilot who was a friend of Cathy's son and who had died last December when his fighter crashed while on a mission in the Middle East. Dubois was a native Coloradan whose death had received much local news coverage. Karen then asked if Cathy had ever known of a Capt. Lance Sijan.

What happened next, as Cathy locked eyes with Ed, was an indescribably intense emotional moment. "It was a God thing," she said.

Ed had been in the same squadron of the cadet wing at the Air Force Academy as Lance Sijan had been in before he graduated in 1965.

As a young girl of 11 years, Cathy had sent away for a commemorative POW remembrance bracelet and the one she received had the name of Capt. Lance Sijan imprinted on it along with the date his F4 fighter/bomber went down over Laos.

"What are the chances that the two of us, myself and Ed, would meet here like this?" Cathy asked, amazed at the coincidence that had brought herself and Ed together under the awning at Shady Creek just as the nightly Taps tribute was playing. They were brought together in a bond of respect and tribute for the downed Air Force pilot.

"It was one of the most intense moments of my life," Cathy said.

Capt. Lance Sijan was a remarkable man and patriot. There is a residence hall on the AFA campus named for him. There is a memorial to his honor there. He was the first graduate of the Air Force Academy to earn the Medal of Honor.

Ed Stadjuhar, who knew Sijan personally, explained that Sijan's story was one of "pure guts and courage. He never broke under capture."

According to a newspaper account from 2004, Sijan, a 1965 AFA graduate, was on a mission in an F4 in November 1967. An ordinance released from the jet exploded, destroying the aircraft. The pilot was killed in the crash, but Sijan ejected into rocky, mountainous terrain.

With a concussion, fractured skull and broken leg, Sijan evaded North Vietnamese captors in the dense jungles for six weeks. He was finally taken and held in a "hell hole" prison camp.

He was relentless in his attempts to harass his captors and even escaped briefly with his leg still broken. He received no medical care and endured torture. Sijan died in North Vietnamese captivity, never having broken down before the enemy.

Fuller accounts of Sijan's bravery under the situation and his subsequent capture and detention in the prison camp are available online.

Cathy Meskel's personal connection with Capt. Lance Sijan's story had begun as a young girl. She was emotionally moved by television news images of returning Vietnam veterans, and especially of former prisoners of war. The scenes of families rushing across airport tarmacs to embrace their returning heroes moved her to send away with $2.50 for a stainless steel bracelet bearing the name of an American POW. The bracelet she received was inscribed with the name of Capt. Lance Sijan, and with the date that his F4 based out of DaNang exploded during the fateful mission over Laos on Nov. 9, 1967.

At one point after Sijan's fate had finally become known, Cathy returned her POW remembrance bracelet to Sijan's mother. But his mother sent it back for Cathy to keep, explaining that she had been given one made of gold.

Cathy Meskel still has that POW bracelet with Capt. Lance Sijan's name on it.

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Cedaredge, Pilot
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