Keeping track of our moments in space

No one at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center knew of NASA astronaut Lt. Col. John M. Lounge, a member of the Texas Air National Guard. That’s what made it so awkward when I uncovered an amazing piece of history from this man, who flew on three space shuttle missions.

I discovered a unit patch – now framed with a certificate of authentication signed by Lounge – that went into space for five days in 1988, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

It is, on one hand, an amazing achievement that the campus captivated this great American’s interest and that he thought enough of us to go to the trouble of carrying our unit patch into space. On the other hand, it is one of the more unfortunate examples of not keeping track of our history because I found it dust-covered, atop a storage shelf.

John Lounge’s story is among the more poignant because he died from liver cancer just six years ago. I simply couldn’t call him to ask why he gifted it. My only clues were in his biography, which states Lounge joined the Air National Guard later in his military career and spent his service primarily as a Naval Academy graduate and physics instructor, who also flew radar intercept on an F-4 Phantom, including 99 combat missions. He joined NASA in 1978, became an astronaut in 1980, and left the program in 1991.

So why did he take our patch into space, on mission STS-26?

The usual experts I call on such matters, our past commanders and commandants, were equally amazed. They even came to my office to view the artifact hoping it would spark some memory, but they left just as curious as I was, if not, concerned because they take active roles and care in our heritage.

Shelving items randomly in a closet where they deteriorate in memory and, maybe worse, in environments detrimental to their physical condition, is how some units might inadvertently store and display memorabilia that’s potentially priceless Air Force heritage.

It is also a reason why my former Commander, Col. Jessica Meyeraan, and a handful of history-minded staff worked so hard to establish the TEC as an official U.S. Air Force Heritage Holding.

“From the day I arrived to take command of this great organization, I’d been impressed by the carefully-constructed and artfully-depicted representations of our heritage that grace this campus,” said Meyerann.

Two years ago, Colonel Meyeraan invited the Air National Guard’s historian, Mr. David Anderson, and the director of the Air Force’s Enlisted Heritage Program, Chief Master Sgt. Emily Shade, to see TEC’s heritage items.

“Their advice inspired me to take some meaningful action,” said Meyeraan. “A year later, we established a historical holding.”

The committee inventoried many important relics. Chief Master Sgt. Paul H. Lankford’s flight jacket, among his other service items, are in our care. He was a Death March of Bataan survivor and a WWII POW who helped create today’s enlisted professional military education. We have the American flag that the Air National Guard flew over every state and territory capital building and the friendship quilt sewn together from squares submitted by every state. The inventory includes scrapbooks, photographs, and memorabilia from the first days of Air Force education, including some of the first women and black service members to attend NCO academy at what is the oldest and largest center.

I suppose you could argue that preserving history is the work of historians. It’s important to remember that many bases assign it as an additional duty and do not have trained preservation experts.

“History doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Anderson. “Everybody plays a role in preserving it.”

Anderson along with his staff of three civilian historians collect, organize, analyze and safeguard, as well as write, the Guard’s official history. It is contemporary history, which means preserving today’s documents for future generations. They also do what they can to help units understand their responsibilities.

“Imagine if Captain Winters in the movie Band of Brothers didn’t write the after action reports that describe the battles his company fought,” said Anderson. “How much history would be lost if a historian didn’t come by to collect the reports? So much might be lost if historian Stephen Ambrose didn’t have the documents to write a history about the 101st Airborne in WWII.”

In Farmington, Mich., a 102-year-old Philas J. Kelly became a subject of interviews recently when Selfridge Air National Guard Base leaders learned the Army Air Corps veteran is more than likely their oldest living Airman.

Kelly joined the service in 1937 and more recently joined a local military association where officials pointed him out.

“He spent some 60 years thinking that his service didn’t really count because he was ‘just’ in the National Guard and that he never saw combat,” said Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton, the base journalist who wrote a feature story on Kelly. (See veteran recalls duty with Michigan National Guard)

“I say he helped lay the ground work for the 107th Observation Squadron that ended up helping to map out the Normandy beaches in the days leading up to D-Day.”

Heaton is writing his fourth military history book, and all of them center on Michigan. He said that the most critical thing Airmen can do today to preserve history is to share their stories, much like Kelly.

“What we do today is tomorrow’s history of the U.S. Air Force. That is a huge responsibility,” said Heaton.

Storage closets, reports, and veterans have a way of pointing to our importance. I believe it’s also a core value to help identify, collect and preserve that for those who served as well as for those who will serve. Even though we may never know why Lounge felt it his duty to carry a TEC patch into orbit, there will remain a safe place for it on our campus.

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