SJAFB facility named for pilot
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 27, 2011 1:46 PM
A photo of Maj. Robert Francis Woods, taken before the aircraft he was commanding crashed in Vietnam.
Lana Woods Taylor wipes tears from her eyes as she and her husband, Tom, help dedicate a Seymour Johnson Air Force Base facility in her father's honor.
It was just a simple piece of metal -- a bracelet purchased by a young ROTC cadet more than 20 years ago.
But as Phil Heseltine came to know Maj. Robert Francis Woods, the name etched on that band began to represent far more to him than a pilot who had been declared missing in action since his Cessna O-2 Skymaster crashed in Vietnam.
It meant heroes existed -- that some truly sacrifice everything for causes far greater than any one man.
It meant hope was alive in the hearts of those loved ones Woods left behind.
So when, nearly 40 years after the forward air controller and Capt. Johnnie Clayton Cornelius crashed into a remote area during a visual reconnaissance mission over the Quang Binh Province, Heseltine learned that the remains of the man whose spirit had been alongside him during every major milestone in his life had been identified, he embarked on a journey -- one that led him, first, to Arlington National Cemetery.
And Sunday afternoon on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, as Woods' daughters and granddaughter looked on, his mission, it seemed, had finally come full circle, as the 916th Air Refueling Wing named one of its newest facilities -- an auditorium where dozens of programs and celebrations take place -- in honor of a fellow airman taken far too soon.
Charlene Woods Johnson was only 11 years old when her father's plane went down.
But her mother, she said, never accepted the fact that he was gone.
"The whole time we were growing up, she would say, 'He's coming home. He's coming home,'" Mrs. Johnson said. "We never gave up."
So when those who turned out Sunday began to sing The Air Force Song, tears rolled down her face.
"I can still remember things he used to do," she said, taking a moment to fight back more tears. "I remember that song."
And she remembers how her mother would claim she saw her greatest love on MIA videos long after his death.
"She passed away never knowing," Mrs. Johnson said. "And never giving up on him."
Lana Woods Taylor has similar memories.
But at 25, she had far more time with her father before he left for Vietnam.
So when she found out that the 916th, thanks to Heseltine, would be honoring him, she was overwhelmed with emotion.
And when a framed shadow box -- one that will forever hang in the auditorium now named for Woods -- was unveiled, she, too, wiped tears from her eyes.
"I'm so proud that the Air Force has included us, and continues to include us, in their family. It's so easy to say, 'Well, good luck. Goodbye. Your father is gone so it was nice knowing you.' But the Air Force has kept us," Mrs. Taylor said. "Our hearts are just so full. I've run out of adjectives. It's overwhelming. It's humbling. It's just special -- breathtaking. My father is probably saying, 'What is all the fuss about?'"
More than three years after he passed his missing-in-action bracelet to Woods' son at Arlington National Cemetery, Heseltine reflected on just what it means to see his hero immortalized by his unit -- and base.
"I never could have guessed that what seemed such a simple act of honoring a missing-in-action warrior over 20 years ago would have brought us to this day," he said. "A band of metal bearing the name of someone I had never met traveled with me around the world -- present during my wedding; there when I earned these wings; in my pocket during every combat mission and at the birth of our children; there when I got the call that he had been found."
And you could sense, as he reconnected with a family he met for the first time the day Woods was laid to rest, that for the airman, it is no longer just a simple piece of metal.
It is now as much of a piece of his life story as it is his hero's.
"All this because of a piece of metal that somebody bought," Woods' granddaughter, Nicole Taylor, said. "It brought these worlds together."