Retired Air Force pilot Philip J. Conran fought bravely in an inconvenient place.
Now the 78-year-old Santa Barbara, California, resident has captured congressional attention for his Vietnam War valor.
Revisiting one of the war’s most sensitive chapters, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, has introduced legislation that would authorize President Barack Obama to award Conran the Medal of Honor.
“His story is so compelling, not just for one event, but for a history of events,” Capps said in an interview. “He’s an example of the kind of veteran who deserves attention.”
There is just one problem: Conran’s heroism was demonstrated in Laos, a country where at the time the United States was not officially fighting. The military referred to it as “a classified location in Southeast Asia” and the Nixon administration worked hard to make sure the American public was kept in the dark about how the war had spread.
Conran said a general had told him that was why he didn’t receive the Medal of Honor the first time he was nominated. Instead, he received the Air Force Cross. Awarding Conran the Medal of Honor, some think, might have shed too much light on a shadowy war.
“I understood it,” Conran said of the decision, “because, let’s face it, the Nixon administration was in a terrible bind.”
More than 46 years later, Capps, whose congressional district spans San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, thinks it’s time to recognize Conran’s heroism. One of about 41,500 veterans in Capps’ congressional district, Conran exemplifies the search to clarify records and honor history. He does so with becoming modesty.
“It was their operation,” Conran said of the soldiers he ferried, and then helped save, in his remarkable Oct. 6, 1969, mission. “I was just the bus driver.”
Capps and Conran are the same age, survivors. Both have lost adult children to cancer. Conran’s son Shane passed away last year at the age of 56. Capps’ daughter Lisa passed away in 2000 at the age of 35.
Both Capps and Conran experienced the ’60s tumult, but differently. Conran was a career Air Force pilot, conservative in his politics but audacious in combat. Capps was a school nurse married to a liberal religious studies professor eventually famous for a class titled “The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Religion and Culture.”
Now Conran helps lead veterans groups and a Central Coast homeowners’ association. Capps is concluding her congressional career, which began in 1998 following the death of her husband, Walter Capps. Securing the nation’s highest military medal for a constituent could be one of her last official acts.
It could also be a long shot.
“The Air Force, and the military in general, is very careful about who they give medals to,” Capps acknowledged, adding that “we’ll leave no stone unturned.”
Conran was initially recommended for the Medal of Honor in 1969 for his actions as a helicopter pilot with the 21st Special Operations Squadron.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. role in Laos has become more public. In 2010, following the declassification and passage of legislation, the Medal of Honor was awarded to the late Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger for his courage in defending a clandestine radar base in Laos. Etchberger, like Conran, originally had been given the Air Force Cross in 1968.
“Among the few who knew of Dick’s actions, there was a belief that his valor warranted our nation’s highest military honor, but his mission had been a secret,” Obama recounted, in language similar to that now used by Conran’s allies.
Conran’s final Vietnam War mission, too, was classified.
According to an Air Force summary, Conran took off on the morning of Oct. 6, 1969, from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand as part of a flight of five helicopters. His call sign was Knife 62. Once in Laos, the lead helicopter was shot down, leaving its crew members stranded.
Low on fuel, Conran landed his CH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter so the 26 Hmong soldiers he was ferrying could help fend off the enemy, who numbered in the hundreds. Small-arms fire then rendered his helicopter inoperable. Conran was now a ground-pounder, too.
For the next six hours or so, Conran rallied soldiers, directed airstrikes and exposed himself to fire as he retrieved weapons and equipment from the downed helicopters. By the time two U.S. rescue helicopters could extract the men, just before dark, Conran had taken a bullet in his left leg.
“It’s still there, as a matter of fact,” he said.
Conran subsequently received his Air Force Cross and served out his time in the military and subsequent business career without, he said, giving the Medal of Honor much more thought. He was one of 179 recipients of the Air Force Cross during the Vietnam War, and it seemed honor enough.
Years later, retired in Santa Barbara, Conran came to know Hazel Blankenship. Married to a former Navy aviator, Blankenship is co-founding director of the Santa Barbara-based Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation.
Once she heard Conran’s story, Blankenship began advocating on his behalf. The 67-year-old former CIA analyst has worked every angle, Capps said with an appreciative laugh. Blankenship lobbied multiple lawmakers. She cajoled the campaign manager shared by Capps and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and she educated a Santa Barbara County supervisor who’s now running for Capps’ seat.
“It just seems like the right thing to do,” Blankenship said, adding that Conran “wasn’t even talking about it that much, which is very typical of Phil.”
Starting in 2013, Capps and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, wrote the Pentagon separately.
In an April 2014 response, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James acknowledged that “Colonel Conran’s commander nominated him for the Medal of Honor” but added “there is no independent verification or official documentation that the original nomination was downgraded due to the political sensitivities or the classified nature of the mission’s location.”
Subsequently, Capps introduced her bill in December to authorize the Medal of Honor. It’s considered a “personal” bill, as it affects a single named individual. It also confronts high Capitol Hill hurdles.
Though they were once commonplace, resolving specific immigration disputes and the like, Congress passed only three personal bills from January 2010 to December 2015, records show.
“I haven’t introduced bills on behalf of individuals very often, if ever,” Capps said.
Several other bills have been introduced in this Congress authorizing the Medal of Honor, for potential recipients ranging from the late Navy SEAL sniper Scott “Chris” Kyle to a World War II veteran now living in Colleyville, Texas, named James Megellas.
Capps said her own bill’s best chance would come as part of a bigger package. In the meantime, Conran’s advocates plug away on behalf of a man who, when it counted, kept on fighting.
“Major Conran,” an Air Force officer wrote, in recommending him for the Medal of Honor, “would neither give up hope nor allow anyone to panic.”