Bay View’s Avalon Theater hosted a private showing of the film “Sijan: A Quest for Freedom” on June 26, which featured the experiences, life, and courageous example of the Medal of Honor recipient as told through the memories of his family, friends, and fellow Vietnam Prisoners of War.
The premiere of the “Sijan” documentary was attended by several hundred guests, who all shared a special connection to the 25 year old Bay View native, Captain Lance Peter Sijan. Many in the audience traveled from across the country to see the film, and for the opportunity to trade their personal memories with others about the young man who had brought so much love and courage to so many.
“The story of Lance has propelled people to step into leadership roles, and I think that is what is so wonderful about all this,” said Patty Pritchard Thompson, Sponsorship Chair of the Bay View Neighborhood Association. “It has been really interesting to listen to all of the conversations between these amazing people who knew Lance and have been involved in preserving his memory. People in the movie offer firsthand accounts of being with Lance, so it is inspirational to see how their lives turned out after their experience with him.”
Lance P. Sijan was born in Milwaukee in 1942 and graduated from Bay View High School in 1960. On March 4, 1976, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the highest military award in United States, for his selflessness and courage in the face of lethal danger. The award was presented to his parents by President Gerald Ford. Captain Sijan was the first and only Medal of Honor recipient in Air Force Academy history.
“This was a collaborative community effort, supported by brilliant and talented individuals that work across the nation and also happen to live in Milwaukee. I stand forever grateful,” said Captain Sijan’s sister, Janine Sijan Rozina. “The one common thing I hear, when people discover Lance’s story, is that ‘if he can do that, then I can do this.’ As tough as the story is to absorb, the film is still a celebration of one person’s life. We punctuate that point as a constant reminder – one person can make a difference. We are still talking about our boy fifty years later, our boy Lance.”
The film project started six years ago with another Bay View native, Tim Seymour. The videographer and director of photography partnered with Janine to put her brother’s story together, and he put an incredible passion behind the narrative. For Seymour, developing the film was a blessing and an honor to be entrusted with the Sijan legacy.
“We all believed in the story and message of perseverance, honor, loyalty, and love. We felt compelled to follow through on this commitment despite the many uncertainties and setbacks,” said Seymour. “We feel that the story is timeless and has the potential to inspire viewers – particularly younger ones – to be their best self, and serve the greater good with whatever gifts they have. In that context, it is less a documentary and perhaps more of an advocacy piece that speaks to the power of a single person to influence the well being of many.”
Throughout the process, Janine made it a point to say that Lance’s story was not one of battle or war, but the story of love and perseverance, and hope for the future. During her introduction at the premiere, Janine made a heartfelt challenge to the audience.
“After the film, I encourage you all to ask each other what brought you here. There are incredible stories that each of you have attached to Lance, and the inspiration that he gives you,” said Rozina. “The trajectory of his life surges through so many of our lives still today. In a time when the pursuit for individual gain is attempting to replace family and community, this is a story that must be told.”
The film would not have been possible without the generous contributions of time and talent from the local Milwaukee production community, and editor Johnathon Olsen. Plans are underway to distribute the film to a wider audience beyond the military.
“There are lessons from his ordeal that I think everyone can use. Even if someone is not a supporter of the military or does not have a military background, there are some universal truths,” said Benjamin Wyatt Domian, SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape) Specialist for the United States Air Force Reserve, in a previous interview with Milwaukee Independent. “Lance never quit. He faced insurmountable obstacles when crawling across the ground inch by inch for weeks. Lance’s story is about achieving a goal. And also, it is a love story. His love of country, love of his comrades, love of his family, and his love for God.”
Domian also flew into town to be a part of the special “Sijan” screening, a testimony of reverence and respect to a man who died in a Vietnam prison camp 50 years ago. Tommy Mazzone, a Command Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, also attended the premiere, recalling the impact that Sijan’s story had on him as a young airman in the 1990s, and later when he received the USAF Captain Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award in 1999.
“After basic training, I was given the book “Into the Mouth of the Cat” to read. From there, his story of perseverance has guided me through my career. I think of him as a someone who personifies what the human spirit can endure,” said Mazzone. “The opportunity to be in the hometown of Lance, and spend time with all these people who share stories of him, and what his example of resilience has meant to them has been an honor.”
Pritchard Thompson recalled when her brother Peter Pritchard won the Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award at Bay View Hight School. He had felt it was an honor, but never truly understood what the award meant or who Lance was until more recently.
“Through the process of moving Lance’s jet to Mitchell Airport and doing the documentary, these revelations came along. This guys is a hero, a hero in our own backyard,” added Pritchard Thompson. “Every person in Bay View, if they live in 53207, should know exactly who Lance P. Sijan is. But not everybody is aware of the contributions he made and his family have made to the culture of Bay View. So I think the documentary is creating an opportunity to add a new level of understanding about Lance, and make him a household name.”
“A long time ago, I lived for a time in the company of heroes; men who endured great hardships, but who refused to lose faith in their God, their country, and their comrades. I am a witness to a thousand acts of compassion, sacrifice and endurance. But of all the men whose dignity humbles me, one name is revered among all others.”
– Senator John S. McCain
NOTE: This news series about Lance Sijan won for best online explanatory series in the Milwaukee Press Club’s 2017 Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism competition
- Janine Sijan Rozina: A story not of war but the spirit of love
- Fellow POWs honor their fallen brother at Sijan Plaza dedication
- Photo Essay: Preview of Sijan Plaza and memorials of honor
- Photo Essay: An example of courage installed at Mitchell Airport
- Ben Domian: a life influenced by family and Lance Sijan