There’s a saying in the military, slightly scatological, that one “aw shit” wipes out a hundred “atta-boys.” Yesterday, an American hero was on display after totally discrediting himself and his office. He wiped out a lot of atta-boys. Maybe it is the syndrome of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Maybe it simply demonstrates that one can no longer serve in Washington without falling victim to the power hunger that warps morality and convinces you that what you know is fundamentally wrong might be acceptable for you.
Randy “Duke” Cunningham became a legend in the Vietnam War when he became the first ace of the conflict—a fighter pilot with five confirmed kills of enemy aircraft. It was hard to become an ace in that war principally because the opportunities for air-to-air combat against the North Vietnamese were rare. Most pilots could fly an entire tour against the North and only see MiGs on a couple of missions. The MiGs didn’t like to enter prolonged engagements and we weren’t tasked to fight them—we were going against ground targets and the MiGs were only an incidental inconvenience.
Then, along came Duke. He’d been an instructor at the Navy’s “Top Gun” school and really knew how to handle his airplane, his weapons and his tactics. He came on cruise when the war against the North resumed in 1972 and in one remarkable day—the 10th of May—he got three kills on one mission. With his two prior victories, he became an ace.
Instant fame leads to opportunity and as the years passed, Duke left the Navy and entered politics. With his name recognition, a hero and patriot had a chance to run for Congress and he took it. Over eight terms, he was one I pointed to when asked if it was possible for a noble man to serve in politics. Yesterday, he proved me wrong.
Duke disgraced himself and in the process has inevitably spattered the slime of his disgrace on his service and his peers in the profession of arms. He didn’t mean to give the military or fighter pilots a bad name. He only meant, apparently, to take his share of the big pie. He didn’t mean to make us look bad. He only needed a Rolls and a 42-foot yacht and a $2.7 million dollar crash pad.
There’s no apology for Duke. He must live with his mistakes and I can still believe that it will dawn on him quickly that he squandered his legacy. It’s too bad.
But, almost at the same time, there’s this piece about another Vietnam era Fighter Pilot (the capital letters are intentional.) This guy served his country in World War II as a Marine. Then he went to college on the GI Bill and became a Fighter Pilot in the Korean War. He returned to combat during Vietnam and helped found the “Misty” FAC program, using F-100 Super Sabre aircraft as forward air controllers in high threat areas. He was shot down and spent a lot of years with the North Vietnamese. Bud Day is the real deal and he balances the scales of honor after the disgrace of Duke Cunningham: Balancing the Scales
I’m fortunate to know Colonel Day. I see him almost every spring when I attend the annual Red River Valley Fighter Pilot Association (River Rats) reunion. He attends with his beautiful wife and is always accessible to talk with old friends and new young fighter pilots about the meanings of our very special profession. He works hard for the things he believes in—like the promised healthcare for life that military retirees were told we would receive. Bud spearheaded the class-action suit that brought the Congressional reneging to the forefront and got reinstatement of benefits for a lot of us.
He also was a prominent spokesman during the Swift Boat Veteran’s for Truth ad campaign in the last election. He had no reason to stand up and speak beyond his personal experience during that long ago war in Southeast Asia and his belief in honor among warriors. He had much to lose and predictably the media weren’t reluctant to disregard his comments.
Still, one Bud Day can outweigh a hundred Duke Cunningham’s on the scales of honor for Fighter Pilots.