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An extraordinary partnership, forged by the bonds of survival

Army Col. (ret.) Bill McPherson is the honorary commander for the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Colonel McPherson proudly displayed and gave tours of his restored UH-1 (M) 'Huey' to 302nd Airlift Wing families during the wing's Family Day at Peterson Air Force Base on Saturday of the August Unit Training Assembly. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Skarban)

Army Col. (ret.) Bill McPherson is the honorary commander for the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Colonel McPherson proudly displayed and gave tours of his restored UH-1 (M) 'Huey' to 302nd Airlift Wing families during the wing's Family Day at Peterson Air Force Base on Saturday of the August Unit Training Assembly. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Skarban)

Lt. Col. Kathleen Flarity, 34th Aeromedical Squadron commander, is looking forward to standing-up the new squadron and being part of the Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing. The new squadron will create several new medical and support positions for enlisted and officer reservists. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. David D. Morton)

Lt. Col. Kathleen Flarity (pictured here) says Colonel McPherson “is one of the most patriotic and committed men I have ever met." Colonel Flarity commands the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. David D. Morton)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- At first glance, Bill McPherson appears to be a simple, outgoing, southern Colorado community leader with a deep appreciation for local military members.

But it's only after you get to know this highly-decorated Army veteran who retired as a colonel after 30 years of service and his story of being shot down in Vietnam that you learn just how close he is to the 302nd Airlift Wing's Air Force Reserve aeromedical unit.

In October 2008, Mr. McPherson, city administrator for the small mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo., was invited to participate in an AF Reserve Community Relations Tour to McChord Air Force Base, Wash., sponsored by the 302nd Airlift Wing. The tour, which allows Air Force organizations to reach out to local civic leaders, took Mr. McPherson, who's now known by the wing as "Colonel McPherson," and 24 other Colorado Springs and Denver-based leaders to the Northwest where they learned more about the AF Reserve.

It was during the two-day tour that then-302nd AW commander, Col. James Muscatell, Jr., learned about Colonel McPherson's military career, including his experience as a combat helicopter pilot and the rescue and transport by Air Force aeromeds who played an important part in saving his life in Vietnam.

Combat mission 197

On June 24, 1966, then-Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bill McPherson, a seasoned UH-1 (M) Huey helicopter gunship pilot on his 197th combat mission, was flying a close air support mission to assist U.S. special forces whose camp was under attack by North Vietnamese Army regulars and was being overrun.

"(The special forces) called for support, so I went in fully armed and provided close ground support to the camp," Colonel McPherson recalled. "All of the sudden, enemy fire was directed at me so my aircraft received several hits of ground fire. I received three wounds in the abdomen. The rounds from the ground fire badly damaged the aircraft, and as a result, I was shot down."

Colonel McPherson then remembered how the 8,000 pound-helicopter crashed inside the special forces compound, the impact tearing the transmission from its fasteners, killing Chief McPherson's co-pilot.

"My crew chief saved me by pulling me out of the aircraft as it started to burn," Colonel McPherson added.

The rescue

Colonel McPherson was then loaded onto another helicopter evacuating the special forces from the remote camp. A flight medic provided emergency treatment to his wounds until he reached the Army's 93rd Evacuation Hospital based at the town of Long Binh. There, he received emergency surgery for spinal injuries and the bullet wounds to his abdomen. As soon as he was stabilized, the warrant officer was whisked away to an awaiting Air Force C-141 Starlifter at nearby Ton Sun Nhut Air Base.

"There were several nurses and medical technicians on the aircraft. They were hovering over me throughout the whole flight. They were angels of mercy," Colonel McPherson said of the aeromedical evacuation flight nurses that took him from Vietnam to an Army hospital at Camp Ho Zama, Japan.

"For a servicemember who is critically injured, it is the aeromed who may be their last thought," Colonel McPherson explained. "The aeromed could remind them of their mother, wife or daughter -- they are in their thoughts during their last moments of life. I was saved by U.S. Air Force aeromeds."

An extraordinary partnership

Recalling his conversation with Colonel Muscatell, Colonel McPherson said the former commander suggested he become an honorary commander with the 302nd AW's 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Less than six months old, the newly-formed 34th AES was in need of a civilian counterpart to participate in the 302nd AW's honorary commander program which pairs subordinate organizations with local civic leaders.

"As the first commander of the new aeromedical evacuation squadron, I had several recommendations for an honorary commander, but none were the ideal fit," said Lt. Col. Kathleen Flarity, 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron commander. "When Colonel Muscatell shared his experience of meeting Colonel Bill McPherson, I jumped at the chance to meet him."

Two years later, Colonel McPherson has proven to be an incredible match for the 34th AES.

"Colonel McPherson is one of the most patriotic and committed men I have ever met. At 76, he has more energy and passion than most 40 year-olds. He has sacrificed so much for our great country over the years, yet he is humble and non-assuming," Colonel Flarity said.

And for Colonel McPherson, his record of participation with the 34th AES has been flawless.

The mentorship

"I've missed only one (unit training assembly) in the two years I have been the honorary commander," he said. "I'm a mentor." The colonel routinely draws on his 30 years of military service and 54 months of combat duty between Korea and Vietnam, allowing him to share his experiences with the Reservists.

"He quickly established rapport with every member of our squadron, as a coach, guide, mentor and role model. He sends the message that he not only cares, but supports those who care for our nation's heroes," Colonel Flarity added. "He gives a talk to our new members about what they bring to the fight - they allow the Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine to know they will be cared for if ill or injured. When you hear it from a Soldier who has been shot down and is critically injured, it is a lasting emotional bond."

"Being able to work with and talk to the young men and women of the Air Force Reserve is special," added Colonel McPherson. "I am 76 years old and it is just wonderful to see dedicated men and women give of their precious time. I am sometimes overwhelmed at the sacrifices it takes to be a part of the Reserve and to serve our country."

In January 2011, members of the 34th AES are scheduled to deploy to Southwest Asia in support of overseas contingency operations. When asked what advice he could give to the deployers, some who are deploying for the first time, Colonel McPherson said, "I would tell them how critical their job is, how stressful combat can be and how much their training will play an important part in their survival. There is nothing more honorable than treating the wounded and bringing them home," said Colonel McPherson.

Editor's note: The wing's honorary commander program allows local civic leaders to partner with the wing's unit commanders to personally share the role and mission of the wing. For more information on this community outreach program, contact the public affairs office at 302aw.pa@peterson.af.mil.

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