U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson—also a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents—received the National Patriot Award, the Medal of Honor Society’s highest civilian award, this past Saturday in Dallas, for his service to the nation. The Republican congressman, who represents the third district of Texas, is an Air Force veteran and former Prisoner of War in Vietnam. He served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars as a fighter pilot, and for a time, was the director of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, the Air Force’s version of Top Gun. In his second tour of duty in Vietnam, he was shot down over North Vietnam and taken captive for nearly seven years. A POW bracelet with his name on it is on view in the "Price of Freedom" exhibition at the National Museum of American History.
What does your POW bracelet call to mind?
The POW bracelet was something that my wife actually had a hand in getting started. She helped start the National League of Families, which still exists in Washington, and they decided to do bracelets as a means of gaining support nationwide for the return of the POWs. I guess there were thousands of them sold around the country, and people wore them to try to get recognition for the plight of the POWs. When I got home, we must have gotten a thousand of them—people returning them. It was just overwhelming to see that.
What thoughts would you say kept you alive during your imprisonment?
I think belief in the Lord and the fact that America was, is and will be a free nation.
Your strong support for men and women in the military and veterans shows how much you value service to our country. What did you learn from being in the Air Force?
I felt like it was an honor to be an Air Force pilot and be able to protect this nation. I was in two of the wars—Korea and Vietnam, Vietnam twice. Our military is the strongest military in the world. Hopefully, it will stay that way. That’s what’s kept this nation free, and the leader of the free world.
What does it mean to you to be awarded the National Patriot Award?
I think being with the Medal of Honor recipients is just the highlight of my life. I don’t take this recognition lightly. Those guys did fight for this nation and a lot of them lost their lives. In fact, the six that have been awarded in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have all been awarded posthumously.
Many see your story as truly heroic and patriotic. And I imagine that as a politician and veteran, you have a favorite patriot that you look up to. Who would that person be?
George Washington. You got a lot of stuff in the Smithsonian on that guy. Course, he was the founder of our nation. We need to look back at our founders and try to emulate the vision that they had for this nation today.