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Rob Lyon finally gets his medal

ROB LYON received the Navy Marine Corps Medal, the highest and least frequent non-combat award given to any member of the armed services, on Monday – 50-plus years after earning it. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

ROB LYON received the Navy Marine Corps Medal, the highest and least frequent non-combat award given to any member of the armed services, on Monday – 50-plus years after earning it. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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Rob Lyon is a hero.

It’s official.

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.

After Vietnam, Lyon became a commercial airline pilot, the years flew by, and he didn’t think much – or speak ever – about that fateful day at Pensacola. Then last year, he was “playing around on the computer” and he saw a Chinese proverb that stated, “When one life is saved, a thousand lives are changed.”

That started Lyon thinking. He dug up his old commendation letter, started wondering if there would be a way to get the medal he certainly deserved from 1963, and began making inquiries. He discovered he needed two eye-witnesses and a recommendation from the commander of his squadron. The commander was dead and finding the eyewitness was impossible.

But he knew that if an admiral heard about a story like his, and wanted to do something about it, something would be done. So he wrote a letter to an admiral, who turned it over to a JAG attorney, who turned it over to a Public Affairs Officer, who called Rob and, when he told her what he was trying to do, “She chuckled and said, ‘But it’s been 50 years!’”

The PAO suggested Rob send the story to some Navy aviation magazines. So he did, and Wings of Gold, the “voice of Naval aviation” printed it in the 2014 spring edition.

Meanwhile, Lyon kept emailing the PAO, who told him to try contacting the Chief of Naval Operations.

By May, with no response, Lyon quietly gave up.

On Monday, the medal was in his mailbox. Rob Lyon is understandably proud, if still mystified by what happened. The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, he explains, is “the highest award the military gives not related to combat. Far fewer are given than the Medal of Honor.”

Because there was no letter of explanation, just a sterile form headed, “Transmittal of and/or Entitlement to Awards,” the mystery remains and Lyon doesn’t even know who ordered it.

Nor does he know what happened to the hulk of the T-28 that almost killed Scott Henderson. When he and his golfing partner returned to the course after cleaning themselves up and visiting the hospital, there wasn’t a sign of the wreckage. It had all been removed.

Lyon speculates that an admiral may have been preparing for a golf tournament and didn’t want anything in the way. But that training plane fills an acute crevasse in his memory and he began wondering what became of it. All “Class A” accidents, he said, require an accident report. He can’t find one. So he filed a Freedom of Information Act request and expects to receive a response any day now.

Meanwhile, he is happy to display the Navy Marine Corps Medal, and to tell the fateful story of his first and only golf game, and the life he was able to save on the way to becoming, more than half a lifetime later, an official hero.