Kent State honors fallen Coast Guard Aviator

>Story and photo by Coast Guard Reservist, PA1 John Masson

It was the kind of weather that only a Guardian could love, a recent Ohio evening replete with drenching rain layered atop that first autumnal chill. The kind of night all too familiar to those who put their lives on the line for others.

So perhaps it was a suitable night to unveil a monument to Coast Guard Lt. Jack Rittichier, a former track star and football player at Kent State University who went on to grittier heroics as a Coast Guard exchange pilot flying combat rescue missions in Vietnam.

(Right: Lt. Cmdr. Lonnie Mixon (left) and Lt. Jack Rittichier, both from Coast Guard Air Station Detroit, were the first Coast Guard aviators to enter the Vietnam Wat and the first combat helicopter pilots in the history of the Coast Guard. USCG Photo)

Rittichier served as an Air Force pilot after graduating from Kent State in the late 1950s. After his Air Force service he joined the Coast Guard, where he flew difficult rescue missions out of Air Station Detroit over the frozen Great Lakes.

But war was raging on the other side of the globe, and he knew his nation and his fellow pilots in Vietnam needed the unique expertise he had forged in the Coast Guard. So he volunteered for a joint rescue team that flew the fabled Jolly Green Giants – helicopters that specialized in plucking downed aviators from the jungles of Southeast Asia.

It was on one such mission in 1968 that Rittichier and three Air Force crewmen aboard his Jolly Green Giant were shot down and killed by enemy troops while trying to rescue a downed Marine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a Coast Guard Unit Commendation.

His remains weren’t recovered until 2002. He was buried on Coast Guard Hill in Arlington Cemetery in a plot willingly given up by former Coast Guard Commandant Tom Collins.

But that’s not where this story ends. At halftime Sept. 26, during a sodden football game between Rittichier’s Kent State Golden Flashes and the Miami University RedHawks, a monument to Rittichier’s service – to his country and to his college – was unveiled.

(Right: From left to right, Dave Rittichier, Kent State Athletic Director Laing Kennedy, and Capt. David R. Callahan prepare to unveil the Lt. Jack Rittichier monument at Dix Stadium Sept. 26, 2009. USCG photo by PA1 John Masson)

The airman’s brother, Dave Rittichier, pulled off the blue drape after Kent State Athletics Director Laing Kennedy and Ninth District Chief of Staff Capt. David R. Callahan, himself a Coast Guard aviator, pulled away the yellow ribbon. Several other members of Rittichier’s family were on hand, as well.

In addition to dedicating the monument, the ceremony also officially renamed the Golden Flashes’ Most Valuable Player award as the Lieutenant Jack Columbus Rittichier Award.

The granite-and-bronze memorial – presented by the Coast Guard Aviation Association – stands tall beneath the scoreboard in Dix Stadium in a plaza at the south end of the field. A 90-yard Rittichier touchdown run that helped send Kent State to its first bowl game is depicted in bas-relief, alongside the Kent State and Coast Guard logos. Rittichier’s story is told below that. At the base of the monument are individual bronze nameplates, as yet unfilled, that will bear the names of future Golden Flashes MVPs.

(Right: The Jumbotron images of players reflect off the marble monument to Coast Guard Lt. Jack Rittichier, a Kent State University football and track standout who was killed on a helicopter rescue mission in Vietnam. USCG photo by PA1 John Masson)

Undoubtedly many of them will have drawn inspiration from the heroism – both athletic and military – of their brave predecessor.

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