A special tribute for a retired two-star general who adopted Columbus as his home a quarter of a century ago will take place Saturday.
In recognition of his 37 years of distinguished service to the U.S. Air Force, Mark A. Pillar will become the seventh Bartholomew County veteran to be permanently honored on the “Our Gallant Men” wall at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum.
The public is encouraged to attend the 1 p.m. ceremony in the south gallery of the museum, 4742 Ray Boll Boulevard, located west of the terminal building at Columbus Municipal Airport.
While listing love of country as a prime motivator, the retired major general said much of his desire for public service stems from a willingness to put others first.
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“Your people come first, not the mission,” Pillar said. “Because if you take care of your people, they will take care of your mission. And that goes with everything in life, not just the military.”
While museum board secretary Gordon Lake said there are several reasons why he nominated Pillar, he cited both the many honors and the many years of military service as the most significant ones.
“He served in all the major conflicts, starting with his Vietnam combat time through the Global War on Terrorism,” Lake said. “He’s very deserving.”
Six board members voted unanimously for Pillar to receive the recognition.
Born in 1948, the Gary native was raised by his World War II veteran father to take personal responsibility and accountability seriously, as well as not be afraid to step out of his comfort zone, Pillar said.
After completing the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp program upon his 1971 graduation from the University of Evansville, Pillar was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force, taught to fly in Oklahoma, and sent to southeast Asia, where he flew 90 combat missions from 1972 through 1973.
Decades later, Pillar carried out similar missions in Operations Desert Storm, 1990-91; defended the no-fly zone with NATO forces in Bosnia, 1992; and served in Operation Desert Shield, 2006.
“I have never met anyone who has spent so much time in the service and distinguished himself to such a high degree,” said Jim Sellars, the museum’s past president.
In preparation for Saturday’s ceremony, volunteers have been busy working to complete an exhibit of items from Pillar’s military career, Sellars said.
Three years after the Vietnam War ended, Pillar transferred from full-time active duty to the Air Force Reserve in 1978. The transition allowed him to work simultaneously as a civilian pilot for Delta Airlines and hold numerous positions with reserve units at Grissom Air Force Base near Kokomo.
Since the airline allowed Pillar to arrange his career around the needs of the Air Force, he was able to accept military command positions at bases in Oklahoma, California, New Jersey, Nebraska, and finally, Washington, D.C., he said.
Although he and his wife, Linda, were both raised in northern Indiana, they looked at several communities in southern Indiana, southern Ohio and in the Indianapolis area for two years before choosing Columbus to raise their children, Matt and Lacey, in 1991, Pillar said.
Nation under attack
Ten years later, Pillar was a brigadier general taking part in a homeland security exercise at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, when he was unexpectedly summoned to watch events unfold from the East Coast on a large-screen television, Pillar said.
The date was Sept. 11, 2001.
It was only after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City that consensus was reached among Offutt military leaders that the country was under attack, Pillar said.
“There was a gasp that seemed to suck the air out of the room,” Pillar said. “It was organized chaos, because there was so much we didn’t know. But nobody was running around saying ‘Let’s go attack this or attack that.’ Our focus was to immediately mobilize to keep this from happening again.”
For Pillar and other high-ranking officers, that meant immediately launching investigations into rumors or suspicions involving such things as anthrax-carrying planes, the poisoning of drinking water supplies, and numerous bomb threats from the Transamerica Building in San Francisco to the John Hancock Tower in Boston, he said.
After President George W. Bush arrived at Offutt later that day from Florida, Pillar found himself helping to field questions in conference calls with such leaders as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Since military personnel were only given about 30 seconds to react and evaluate proposals ranging from closing New York bridges to evacuating the White House, the pressure was tremendous, Pillar said.
“But our subsequent job was to gather good intelligence, follow logic, and make a strategy,” Pillar said. “Everyone knew their job, and did it to the best of their abilities.”
Life in retirement
After retiring from Delta in 2005, Pillar’s last military duty assignment was working for the undersecretary of the Air Force at the Pentagon. He retired from the military June 13, 2008.
But while the man took himself out of the service, the desire to serve was never taken out of the man.
“I decided to devote my time to my community,” Pillar said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction when you think you are making a difference for someone else.”
For the past eight years, Pillar has remained active as a Mason, through the Columbus Rotary Club, at First Lutheran Church, and as a disaster volunteer.
The 67-year-old Pillar has also served leadership roles with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, the local High 12 Club, and the local Red Cross.
“We feel he’s a pretty special guy,” Sellars said.
June 13, 1971: Commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force after graduating from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp.
September 1971 – September 1972: Undergraduate pilot training, Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
December 1972 – March 1973: EC-47 co-pilot, Da Nang Air Base, Republic of South Vietnam.
Feb. 28, 1973: Commissioned first lieutenant.
March 1973 – November 1973: EC-47 standardization and evaluation co-pilot, Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB, Thailand.
Aug. 29, 1975: Commissioned captain.
December 1973 – September 1978: KC-135 pilot, 305th Air Refueling Wing, Grissom Air Force Base, Indiana.
September 1978 – March 1992: KC-135 instructor pilot, evaluation pilot, flight commander and squadron commander, 434th Air Refueling Wing, Grissom Air Reserve Base.
June 16, 1989: Commissioned lieutenant colonel.
March 1992 – March 1995: Commander, 74th Air Refueling Squadron, Grissom Air Force Base.
April 1, 1995: Commissioned colonel.
April 1995 – June 1996: Commander, Operations Group, 434th Air Refueling Wing, Grissom Air Force Base.
July 1996 – August 1999: Vice Commander, 507th Air Refueling Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
August 1999 – October 2000: Vice Commander, 4th Air Force, March Air Force Base, California.
October 2000 – September 2001: Mobilization assistant to the commander, 21st Air Force, McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.
March 30, 2001: Commissioned brigadier general.
September 2001 – December 2004: Mobilization assistant to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
June 30, 2004: Commissioned major general
December 2004: Mobilization assistant to the Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C.
June 13, 2008: Retired from U.S. Air Force.
Awards and Decorations: Distinguished Service Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; Distinguished Flying Cross; Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters; Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters; Aerial Achievement Medal; Air Force Commendation Medal; Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with “V” device, silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters; Air Force Organizational Excellence Award; Combat Readiness Medal with silver and three bronze oak leaf clusters; National Defense Service Medal with two bronze stars; Vietnam Service Medal; Southwest Asia Service Medal with two bronze stars; Kosovo Campaign Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; Armed Forces Service Medal; Humanitarian Service Medal; Armed Forces Reserve Medal with hourglass and “M” device; Air Force Training Ribbon; Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with palm; NATO Medal (Former Republic of Yugoslavia); Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia); Kuwait Liberation Medal (Government of Kuwait).
Mark A. Pillar will be the first person permanently honored on the “Our Gallant Men” wall at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum since William Robert “Bob” Hilycord in October 2015.
Hilycord (1931-2001) received the Purple Heart and was a POW during the Korean War.
The five earlier honorees were:
- John Hoff (1922-2011) – Air Force major general
- Richard Thayer (1919-2001) – WWII POW later elected sheriff and mayor.
- Thomas Thayer (1916-2011) – WWII veteran immortalized in the writings of Ernie Pyle.
- John Walter – WWII pilot who flew 35 missions.
- Forest Bruce Warren (1920-1984) – Decorated WWII Marine fighter pilot.