Through Airmen’s Eyes: A hero’s story comes to life

by 2nd Lt. Kay Nissen
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Capt. Jason Powell received a copy of the book “Into the Mouth of the Cat” from his father when he was 13 years old. He didn’t know it then, but the story of Capt. Lance P. Sijan and his fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam would shape his future and eventually lead him to meeting one of the very men responsible for bringing Sijan’s story to light.

Every year, POW/MIA week is a somber, dedicated remembrance vigil for prisoners of war and service members who are missing in action. Throughout his military career, Powell participated in multiple POW/MIA week tributes, but none have compared to his experience at the event hosted by the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing here, Sept. 21.

“When I heard it was Capt. Gruters coming, my first thought was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s no way that’s the same guy,’” said Powell, an aircraft maintenance officer by trade who is currently working as the 435th Contingency Response Group’s operations officer.

Powell found that it was indeed the same man and volunteered to be an escort for the event.

Capt. Guy Gruters, a “Misty Fast-FAC,” or forward air controller, was flying with Maj. Bob Craner in an F-100 Super Sabre when they were shot down in December 1967.

They endured the brutal life of a POW for five years in the company of men like Navy Rear Adm. James Stockdale, Navy Capt. John McCain and Air Force Col. George “Bud” Day. During their time in captivity, he and Craner were made responsible for the care of Sijan through his final days.

After their release in March 1973, Craner’s recommendation and Gruter’s testimony were the basis for the award of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Sijan. Gruters also worked closely with Malcolm McConnell on his book, “Into the Mouth of the Cat.”

Powell carried his first-edition copy of the book under his arm while he escorted the veteran POW and his wife.

“We talked a couple times about the fact that had he not done what he did, (Sijan’s) story would not have been told,” Powell said. “I thanked (the Gruters) a couple times for doing what they did because my life would’ve been totally different had I never read this book.”

Powell recollected the impact the story of Sijan had on him.

“I was a pretty big geek when I was a kid. There was one specific passage in there which talks about Sijan when he was at the academy. During a basic cadet training ruck march, he stood up for a bunch of smaller, weaker cadets when an upperclassman was hazing them pretty good,” he said. “He forcefully and physically stood up for them. As a 13 year old who got picked on a lot, I instantly identified with him because no one had really ever done that for me and at that point, I decided, ‘I’m going to do that for somebody else.’”

The story inspired Powell to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Having read the book several times over, Powell gained a new perspective on the story when Gruters spoke at the POW/MIA luncheon.

“The fact that he was there with his wife was a big deal,” Powell said. “He would again and again credit his wife and the other military wives for being responsible for getting him through the five years in a torturous prison camp, and then the fact that they actually got the torture to stop and ultimately got them out.”

It was Sandy Gruters and the other wives and families of Vietnam POWs who rallied and focused political pressure for the Vietnamese to improve their treatment of prisoners and eventually to release them altogether.

Presented to a sincere crowd of Airmen from Team Ramstein, a silent eight millimeter film depicted Gruters’ reunion with his family after his release. Powell was touched by the image of the young captain greeting his little brother and two young daughters, reminding him very much of his own family.

“Seeing that visual representation of being separated from your family for half a decade — it was amazing,” Powell said. “It brought home the sacrifice, knowing that his daughters were 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 years old when he was shot down — the same age as my two daughters are now — and then seeing his re-connection with them five years later at 6 and 7. I think that’s why that video is so poignant and so powerful to everybody. It was a way to demonstrate this is why your family is the most important support structure you have.”

Powell attended a wreath laying ceremony with Gruters and his wife to honor both past and current POW/MIA members.

“My connection to Captain Gruters and the book itself, it put a human touch on it that I hadn’t had before,” said Powell after the ceremony. “The impact of actually meeting somebody that was there with the guy that I credit for my military career, or at least the start of it, it changed the way I will think of POW/MIA for the rest of my life.”