Rob Lyon is a hero.
On Monday, he and his wife, Robin, went to the mailbox and found a small package from the U.S. Navy Personnel Command.
Pinned inside a commemorative box was the Navy Marine Corps Medal, the highest and least frequent non-combat award given to any member of the armed services.
There was no letter, no ceremony, no explanation. Just the medal and a simple, bureaucratic government form.
As a Vietnam War, Navy combat pilot, flying F-8 and F-4 Phantom jets, Lyon already had plenty of air medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Gold Star, among “a little over 20” he can remember.
But the award that arrived by mail at Lyon Ranch, the Diamond A property where he and Robin care for a menagerie of exotic animals used primarily for nursing home and school presentations, involved an act of peacetime heroism from so long ago that Rob had almost forgotten about it. In fact, neither his parents and twin sister – now all deceased – nor his wife and children ever knew about it.
The act in question took place Oct. 30, 1963, on the golf course at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola Florida, where then-Ensign Lyon was playing his first and last game of golf. A friend with a prized tee-time needed a partner and Lyon agreed to play, even though he had never swung a club before, and hasn’t since.
While playing the 18th hole, Lyon saw a prop-driven, single-engine T-28 trainer come careening over the fairway toward the first tee. The plane lost its landing gear and both wings, and as Lyon ran toward the crash site he could see the pilot slumped in the cockpit, clearly unconscious. A crowd gathered near the wreckage as flames lapped around the fuselage. No one moved toward the pilot, apparently afraid of an explosion.
Lyon climbed up the fuselage, straddling the cockpit, and unbuckled the pilot, who was bigger and heavier than he was. As he pulled and pushed the man out of the cockpit, one foot became trapped under the seat. Finally freeing the leg, Lyon eased the still-unconscious pilot into the waiting hands of his golf partner. By then the plane was so hot, Lyon had burned the hair off his arms and eyebrows and thought his clothes were on fire. He dropped to the ground and rolled around to extinguish any flames when there was a loud “whooshing” sound like a gigantic barbecue burner and the entire plane was engulfed in fire.
The pilot, Scott Henderson, was quickly transported to the hospital with, it turned out, only minor injuries. He later re-entered flight training and became a Naval aviator.
Lyon got a commendation letter from his commanding officer, acknowledging his courageous action “with utter disregard for your own safety,” but that was the end of the Navy’s official response. At least for 50 years.
Lyon ran into the man whose life he saved twice later – once in California near the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and later, while he was stationed in Vietnam he ran into Henderson during an R&R stop at Subic Bay in the Philippines.