Kenneth Paul Stearn, IO

17th and 18th SOS, Tan Son Nhut, Da Nang, and Phan Rang, 1970-71

I was born in 1943 at Fort Smith, Arkansas, but grew up in Red Lion, Pennsylvania where I graduated from Red Lion Senior High School in 1962. To stay out of the Army and to sleep on white sheets, I joined the Air Force on 13 July 1967 at York, Pennsylvania.

In Vietnam, I was assigned as an Illuminator Operator (IO) to the 17th SOS, C Flight at Tan Son Nhut, Saigon from August to November 1970. Then I was temporarily assigned to the 18th SOS Flight at Da Nang. In December, I returned to the 17th SOS C Flight at Tan Son Nhut to fly missions until April 1971. I was transferred to the 17th SOS at Phan Rang to train Vietnamese Illuminator Operators until my return to the states on 10 August 1971.

There were so many exciting and dangerous combat missions that I flew in Southeast Asia, it is hard to pick out just one. The first time we were fired on by enemy 50 caliber guns still sticks out in my mind as a bonafide reality check. I mean we were flying in Cambodia and there were not supposed to be any 50 cal gun sites there. Then it happened, I really did not know what was going on. All of a sudden all I could see were white streaks coming up between the booms and a noise that I thought sounded like popcorn popping. It did not take me long to realize what was going on when I heard someone yell, “Break Right!” That was the first time I realized that the guys on the ground were trying to kill us. After that I became more aware of my surroundings in the air and on the ground. You really start paying attention when you realize that you could be killed at any time. I think I will always remember the people, Vietnamese and Americans. There were good times and bad times but we managed to make it through.

My awards and decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross with an Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Air Medal with a Silver Oak Leaf and three Oak Leaves.

I retired from the USAF at Langley AFB, Virginia on 1 Aug 1993 with 26 years and 19 days of service.

After retirement, I went to work for a copier company where I was in charge of the parts room. The organizational and management skills that I had learned in the Air Force started paying off. I worked there for eight years before they promoted me to warehouse manager and moved me to Richmond. It was a round trip commute of 156 miles. I stayed about four months and decided that was enough. For the next four years, I began working with substance abusers in Newport News. This was a real eye opener for me, seeing talented individuals throwing their lives away for drugs and alcohol. It was the greatest learning experience since Vietnam. I retired again in June 2005 and found retired life boring. I now work part-time as a Park Aide at one of our county parks while serving as administrator for our Moose Lodge.