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Bay View students revive Lance P. Sijan Memorial Scholarship as example of leadership, love, and honor

“There was a time in Lance’s life when he knew the calvary wasn’t coming to save him. For some people that would mean defeat. But for others like my brother, he leaned into the challenge and turned it into rocket fuel. So when I speak to people about Lance, I ask: what will you do in your life when those dire moments come to you?” – Janine Sijan-Rozina

Students from Bay View High School have been leading the charge to bring back the Lance P. Sijan Memorial Scholarship, last given out in 1987. Their efforts motivated the development of a guided tour that was held on May 4, to educate area youth and members of the community about Captain Sijan’s story. It was also a special event to help raise funds for the scholarship, which will awarded this year for the first time in 32 years.

Lance Sijan’s sister, Janine Sijan-Rozina, hosted the spring tour for area youth, local residents, and Milwaukee Fire Department cadets. She also led a previous excursion on March 13 just for the BVHS AP U.S. History class students. It was a powerful experience for the participants, taking place 45 years to the day that Captain Sijan’s family picked up his remains at Mitchell Airport.

March 13 was also the wedding anniversary of his parents, who originally started the scholarship fund in his name in 1974.

Lance P. Sijan graduated from Bay View High School and the U.S. Air Force Academy before being assigned to Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam, where he flew as a pilot and systems officer in an F-4 Phantom. On November 9, 1967, Sijan ejected from his disabled plane and despite suffering severe injuries, managed to evade capture for the next 45 days. He was captured by the North Vietnamese on Christmas day and would later die in a POW camp on January 22, 1968. Sijan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1976.

The story of courage, love, and loss was explored on May 4 through the community tour led by his sister Janine Sijan-Rozina. The tour started at Bay View High School where Lance attended as a student. It then moved on through Sijan’s neighborhood, with a nearby stop by the athletic field named in his honor. The tour then arrived at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport’s Gallery of Flight to view Sijan memorabilia, including a replica of his Medal of Honor. Next came a short hop outside to the Captain Lance Sijan Memorial Plaza and its F-4 Phantom, the type of plane Sijan flew when he was shot down. Next was an emotional visit Arlington Park Cemetery in Milwaukee where Sijan is buried. The final stop ended at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Honor Roll of Milwaukee County war dead, before returning to Bay View High School.

Along with commemorative coins designed by students to honor Captain Sijan and raise funds, members of the community and local businesses contributed enough to keep the scholarship program sustainable for the next few years. The recipient of the Sijan Scholarship was announced at the screening of the documentary film “Sijan” at the War Memorial Center on May 9. The students have also teamed up with the Milwaukee County War Memorial to develop education programs for the community to learn about Milwaukee’s history of leadership, with Captain Sijan as an example.

The Milwaukee Independent spoke with the three principal individuals involved in the Bay View High School and community effort, around the scholarship and educational drive to share the story about one of Milwaukee’s own as a basis of inspiration for current and future generations: Janine Sijan-Rozina Owner, RDImage/RDI Stages; Kristen Scheuing, Education Program Manager for Milwaukee County War Memorial Center; and Katrina Halsey, Social Studies Department Chair at Bay View High School.

Milwaukee Independent: How was the Lance Sijan scholarship started and what happened to its funding?

Janine Sijan-Rozina: The scholarship was started and supported by my mother, Jane Sijan in 1974 to continue long standing Sijan family values in education, the Bay View Community, and the Legacy of her beloved son Lance. The family could no longer support the funding and the last recipient was in 1987

Milwaukee Independent: What inspired the Sijan Memorial Bus Tour to take place this year?

Janine Sijan-Rozina: At the leadership of Katrina Halsey, students took note of various Bay View High School Alumni in portraits on the school’s walls. One that resonated with them was Lance Sijan. As they considered what they could do to raise awareness of the legacy of Lance, they determined that the Lance Sijan Scholarship was something they wanted to bring back. That was where the idea began, and we realized that a tour of Lance’s origins in the community of Bay View would not only raise awareness to his story, but could help support funding the scholarship.

Milwaukee Independent: What messages do you hope these and other students take away from the experience?

Janine Sijan-Rozina: The seeds I have been planting are beginning to germinate on their own. These students aligned themselves with a young man that had roots similar to their own. He attempted to reach his greatest potential and as result touched the world in ways he never imagined. Each of us has this opportunity. Each of us can light the way for others. My hope is that the students will feel tangible evidence of what faith and stewardship can do. And how belief in their passion will manifest exponentially, setting them on a trajectory that is unbound. Many of these students do not live in Bay View and come from various parts of the city, so their efforts help to punctuate that virtue. By reaching out into the community that they are schooled in, they will help blur the lines of “us” and “them” and ultimately create the “we.”

Milwaukee Independent: How can students who have not grown up in military families understand Lance Sijan’s story?

Kristen Scheuing: The Lance Sijan story has so many angles that a wide variety of students can access and relate to. At the War Memorial Center, when we talk to school groups about Lance Sijan, we begin with the similarities – the things they can relate to. Lance had a typical childhood with multiple interests. He was in Scouts, he played football, he was in a theatre play, he enjoyed art. But he also struggled as a student. We talk about the importance of setting goals and working hard to achieve them. Once Lance set his sights on the U.S. Air Force Academy, he worked hard for years to get there. When he arrived, he was having trouble academically, and he made the difficult decision to quit football in order to focus on his grades. I have a copy of a letter Lance wrote to his parents expressing earlier doubts about his chosen paths. But it also expressed the clarity he had at the end of his time at USAFA, and his determination to succeed and not quit.

In our education program, we talk about making choices and looking at the bigger picture. We also discuss the service academies and the opportunities to get a world-class education that does not cost money, but does require a commitment to service. And we talk about the importance of training for a mission. The story of Lance’s experience ejecting from his plane, through the next 74 days of his life on his own in the jungle and in the prison camps, is so compelling. Whoever hears that story, regardless of age and background, is completely entranced. Those of us who have not lived through war cannot understand the war experience. But we can relate to stories of human resilience, pain, anguish, isolation, deprivation, longing for friends and family, even if we will never experience any of those things on a personal level.

Milwaukee Independent: What part does Lance Sijan’s example play in this year’s Milwaukee Armed Forces Week?

Kristen Scheuing: As we honor those who have served in the armed forces, it is important to remember the service and sacrifice of Lance Sijan. While he is one of an elite group to have earned the Medal of Honor, any service member can find inspiration in his story. Like all service men and women, Lance Sijan answered the call to serve. They all arrived at their service in a particular way, Lance through the USAFA, but they share the service experience and all the sacrifices that go along with it. I am sure they can recognize their own training in the story of Lance Sijan. His story makes many think about their own sense of duty and commitment, and how they might act under such tragic circumstances. Servicemen and women support their own. They all know that when you join the military, there is no way of knowing what will happen. They can never know the level of risk that awaits them.

Milwaukee Independent: What educational program does the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center use to teach the public about Lance Sijan’s experience?

Kristen Scheuing: The War Memorial Center recognizes many educational opportunities in the Lance Sijan story, and the chance to connect with various audiences. We have seen the interest in Lance’s story in our own education programs, which includes Stories in Resilience, a joint program between the War Memorial Center and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Students spend 45 minutes here and learn about Lance’s story, then spend 45 minutes at MAM, looking at paintings that convey resilience in the American experience. Even though Lance received the highest award for valor given in this country, his story remains absolutely relatable. Before he was a war hero, Lance Sijan was a Milwaukee boy. He is part of our city’s history, and part of a three-generation Bay View family. There are many groups that claim him as their own, the Air Force community, the U.S. military community, the Milwaukee and Bay View communities, and the Serbian community.

Today, with so many movies and pop-cultural references to heroes, here is a chance for students to learn about a true American hero. And we hope that by telling Lance’s story, students can see that we are all capable of heroic actions on many different levels. Not all heroes wear capes, and sometimes we come across these exceptional examples of a rare type of hero, like Lance Sijan. He possessed the fortitude and determination to never give up, and had a deep dedication to service. With fewer than 2% of the American population serving in the military, more kids will grow up without a personal connection to the military or the associated lessons of service and sacrifice. We have found that students who have no personal connection to the military really connect with Lance’s story, as well as all our veteran stories, and seem to innately understand the honor and respect these men and women have earned. We have Vietnam-era uniforms, equipment, photos, and other artifacts that help visitors connect with Lance’s story through hands-on exploration.

Milwaukee Independent: Why did the students identify Lance Sijan for this project?

Katrina Halsey: As we started the school year, I asked the kids to think about a service project they might be interested in putting together. It needed to tie into US History. That was they only requirement. As ideas began to be tossed around the room, Captain Sijan’s name came up. There were questions and discussions. One of my students is the child of a long line of BVHS Redcats. She also comes from a family with strong military ties. With that in mind, she rallied the rest of the kids to jump on board. The idea that a student, who walked the same halls they are walking in is a formally declared hero, really prompted them to think about what an influence they might be able to have on the community around them. From there, the students decided on a “thank you” to the vets in the BV community and BVHS family. We also invited the MFD Cadets and their instructors, many of whom are veterans themselves.

Milwaukee Independent: Since some of the students are not from Bay View, how do they feel about helping a more privileged school and community?

Katrina Halsey: I do not actually think they view it that way. I think the kids see it as helping out their own crew of students and helping build a bridge between the high school and the rest of the community. The student who have been here for four years – which is a requirement that they placed into the scholarship application – see themselves as a community, within a community. They have grown-up together, with all of the struggles and happy moments that comes with that growth. I truly think that they see bringing back the story and struggles of Captain Sijan reminds them that anything is possible. And that “anything” starts with education beyond high school. This story is a motivator and a tie to the history of the school. The scholarship is what makes their role in the greater story possible.

Milwaukee Independent: Do you have a memorable experience from the previous Sijan Memorial Bus Tour?

Katrina Halsey: I think that there are actually two moments that really spoke to the kids. The first was at the memorial in Milwaukee’s Arlington Park Cemetery. It actually caused me to take a breath the first time I visited the site a few years ago. You see the outline of the plane. You see the flowers. And then you see the headstone. Noticing the small headstone that someone in Vietnam took the time to create, it makes a moment of reflection. It took an intentional effort to mark the grave of an enemy. Captain Sijan’s impact went beyond BVHS, it went beyond his family and the community, and it reached out to someone who was supposed to be his enemy. He touched the life of stranger that the nightly news told the American public was evil. This reminds us that love and respect are greater than hatred and war. The other memorable moment was quieter experience. When we were at the aviation museum at the Mitchell airport and the kids saw the replica of Lance’s Medal of Honor, it drew them in. I am not really sure what it was about the medal. High school students are not impressed easily, and this medal did so without saying a word.

Lee Matz

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as an award-winning foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe. Lee proudly uses MCTS as the exclusive mode of transportation for covering all his news reports.