March 03–Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady possessed three important core beliefs — faith in God, family values and a sense of patriotism — when he found himself trapped behind enemy lines.

Those fundamental building blocks of his identity helped the former fighter pilot survive an ordeal during which O’Grady understands he “should have died.”

In June 1995, O’Grady parachuted out of his F-16 that had been struck by a surface-to-air missile over Bosnia. He avoided Serbian forces for six days — with limited survival gear, food, or water — before being rescued by the Marine Corps, amid a barrage of enemy fire.

On Thursday, O’Grady visited Johnstown to share his experience during the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner at the Pasquerilla Conference Center.

“I tell a story of combat survival, and it entertains people about being a fighter pilot,” he said, “and being shot down in a war in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and surviving behind enemy lines where there were no friendlies, there were no safe houses, there was no underground network to get you out of that area where three armies were fighting around you, and 80 miles was the closest place to friendly territory, and death squads trying to kill you, to being rescued in daylight by the United States Marines under hostile fire where we were shot at by surface-to-air missiles and large gun placements and small-arms fire.”

O’Grady visited Veteran Community Initiatives headquarters, located at the Hiram G. Andrews Center in Upper Yoder Township, hours before the Chamber of Commerce event.

He uses the tale of “adventure” as a platform for the message about the principles that assisted him.

“Values are important,” O’Grady said.

“That’s your relationship with your faith in God. That’s your family values. That’s your patriotism.

“Those three themes are not only the important messages that I want to come across with my presentation, but they are also three motivators that kept me alive when I had death coming to knock on my door during this combat survival situation.”

O’Grady hopes his message resonates with people when they face challenges in their own lives.

“We can all find strength, and hope, and what we call the will to survive to overcome those challenges and tragedies,” he said.

Before the banquet, he spent the day in the Johnstown area, visiting VCI, touring Cambria County War Memorial Arena, and making other stops. It was his second trip to the area, having previously addressed AmeriServ Financial at the request of his friend Jack Babich, the bank’s senior vice president for human resources and a Navy veteran.

“You have a very strong veterans population here in your county,” said O’Grady, a resident of the Dallas area. “I think it is wonderful for not only the service that they gave their nation, while they were in uniform, but also what they’re doing now, giving back to their community as veterans.”

He added: “I’m not from Johns-town, but it’s not hard for me to recognize a community that has a good spirit and that honors its veterans. It’s important for the health of the local area and the community because it just shows you have a community that cares.

“And, when you have that, you can have a good living environment for everyone to enjoy. I’ve gone to places that don’t recognize their veterans and don’t have a sense of community; (that) don’t have a sense of giving back.”

While visiting VCI, O’Grady learned about the different ways the group supports former military personnel, including veterans court, symposiums, job fairs, and recognition ceremonies.

O’Grady also shared his survival story with members of the organization.

“I think it was just absolutely wonderful to listen to a part of history, and that’s definitely what it is. His situation was a part of history,” Tom Caulfield, director of Veteran Community Initiatives, said.

VCI was recognized with the Cultural Affairs Award during the Chamber of Commerce’s dinner.

“We’re making a real difference,” Caulfield said. “We’re there getting into the nitty gritty of these situations.”


By Dave Sutor, The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

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