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Heroes of Siouxland with Shane Osborn

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‘Heroes of Siouxland’ fund-raiser urges donations as organization’s relief fund dwindles

Navy Lt. Shane Osborn to honor nominees and winners

By Jody Ewing
August 7, 2003

Tony Vasquez familyPhoto by Mike Northrup

When a tornado ripped off the roof of Tony Vasquez’ home in Jackson, Neb., in August 2001, the Red Cross helped his family get back on their feet.


Shane Osborn’s Schedule

Shane Osborn & Siouxland Heroes Schedule of Events

Sunday, Aug. 10
Noon to 2 p.m. – Book signing, Waldenbooks, Southern Hills Mall
2:15 p.m. – Enlistment & Reenlistment Navy/Naval Reserve Southern Hills Mall
4:30-5:30 p.m. – Pre-dinner social hour at the Marina Inn
4:30-5:30 p.m. – Pre-dinner reception with Shane at the Marina Inn; $125 per person includes dinner, beverages and hors d’oeuvres
5:30 p.m. – Dinner at the Marina Inn; $50 per person, Silent Auction, Hero Awards Banquet, Shane’s address and music

Monday, Aug. 11
12:30 p.m. – two-person alternating shot golf outing at Covington Links Golf Course in South Sioux City. Cost is $65 per person and includes 18 holes of golf, cart, steak dinner and prizes.
For more info: Online at
siouxlandredcross.org or contact Doc Zortman at 712-252-4081

Tony Vasquez quickly realized the importance of the American Red Cross when an F2 tornado slammed into his home on Aug. 17, 2001, as it cut a diagonal swath of destruction through Jackson, Neb.

Vasquez’s wife and four small children were home inside the house when the tornado struck around 5:45 p.m. that evening. “They took cover underneath the house inside the foundation area,” says Vasquez, who had not yet returned from work. “The house lifted up, then flew off the foundation.”

While the tornado caused no serious injuries, the twister demolished roofs and blew houses from their foundations, causing extensive damage to the historic public school, one commercial building, several homes and a local church. The Vasquez family was hit particularly hard, but the Red Cross’s intervention made their transition through the ordeal far less traumatic.

Vasquez’s wife, Anna, suffered a broken leg and spent time in the hospital, an expense the Red Cross helped cover. They also put the family up in a rental home and provided needed clothing.

“They are good people and were there to help,” says Vasquez, who has since replaced his home in Jackson. “They do what they have to do to help us start again.”

Now the Red Cross’s ability to help others is threatened as its relief fund budget dwindles nationally and in Siouxland, where the organization provides aid services to 10 Iowa counties and a county each in Nebraska and South Dakota. Known for providing assistance to more than 600,000 disaster victims each year, the organization now is in need of its own financial assistance as dollars from its Disaster Relief Fund have reached an epic low.

A “safe” amount in the organization’s national fund is $56 million, especially with disaster-prone seasons fast approaching. On June 30, however, the relief fund hit its lowest point in 11 years with a balance of only $1.5 million.

“If you think about the Disaster Relief Fund as a tank of gas, we are literally running on fumes,” said Marsha Evans, President and CEO of the American Red Cross. “Now, more than ever, we are relying on the American people to donate the funds that make it possible for us to help those in need.”

Richard (Doc) Zortman, public relations and financial development director of the Siouxland area chapter, says the Red Cross is facing a financial crisis that could threaten its ability to provide life-saving services upon which Americans have come to depend.

Richard Zortman

Richard “Doc” Zortman

“Imagine the American Red Cross not providing disaster services to individuals facing a future affected by a fire, tornado, hurricane or flood,” Zortman says. “Imagine the American Red Cross not providing Armed Forces Emergency Services assistance to families who are experiencing family crisis and have come to rely on the Red Cross for processing those messages.”

Calling on a ‘hero’

It was that type of concern that led Zortman, a former Navy journalist and photographer, to approach Navy Lt. Shane Osborn about the possibility of an area fund-raiser honoring local Siouxland ‘heroes.’ Osborn, a Norfolk, Neb., native born in South Dakota, commanded the downed EP-3 reconnaissance plane that Chinese fighters intercepted on April 1, 2001. Osborn and 23 crew members spent 11 days under intense interrogation before their release to the U.S. government.

“He said he’d love to help,” says Zortman, who then worked directly with Osborn to coordinate a two-day event that features a book signing, ArtSplash silent auction, a pre-dinner reception and Hero Awards banquet as well as a golf outing on Monday. Osborn is doing all events on his time and at his cost, including Sunday’s book signing, where profits will be donated to the local Red Cross chapter.

For Osborn, attending the event was a given.

“They do so much for people all over the world, here at home and abroad,” he says. “They’re a selfless organization that is dedicated to helping people out when they’re in their worst positions. No one ever hopes they have to use the Red Cross, but those that do are glad it’s there.”

Jackson residents agree wholeheartedly.

“They furnished families that needed it enough money for a place to stay and a couple hundred dollars for a clothing allowance, which was very generous,” says Jackson mayor Brian O’Neill, who has presided over his community for the past 14 years. “They brought all the water and pop and Gatorade and a food wagon. They also set up a drop-off point where people could donate clothing — just all the bare necessities that people need right away.”

Zortman says that despite the attention that large disasters receive, many people do not realize that it is the smaller, “silent disasters,” such as single house fires that steadily drain local Red Cross funds. Often unreported in the national media, the events go unnoticed and therefore do not generate financial contributions. And, because they are not a federal agency, the Red Cross receives no funding from the government.

The Siouxland area chapter is staffed by only seven people; the rest are volunteers, many of whom responded to the Sept. 11 disaster and spent several weeks in New York volunteering needed services.

Choosing between services

Though many people associate the Red Cross with blood, the Siouxland chapter is not involved with those services. Mobile units — such as the Siouxland Blood Bank — have fleets strategically placed to serve specific counties. Siouxland’s Red Cross, says Zortman, is more of a “disaster preparedness chapter.” And, on a local level, their lack of funds translates into having to choose some services over others.

“It becomes a question of distribution of funds,” Zortman says. “We provide health and safety classes — including the distribution of defibrillators and training for their use — and disaster services that include rent, clothing, food and even eyeglasses. And though there’s little warning about terrorism, the Red Cross should be prepared for terrorist acts; it becomes problematic when disaster funds are low.”

Osborn says many people don’t realize how badly the Red Cross is hurting or how low donations are, something he attributes to the lagging economy.

“I think it has more to do with the economy right now and the war causing the slowdown,” he says. “People are hurting all over the country.”

He hopes his visit to Sioux City will help jump-start interest in the Red Cross and appreciation for services they provide to surrounding areas.

“I grew up right near there — 60 to 70 miles from [Sioux City] — so you’re helping the people that are nearest and dearest to me,” Osborn says of the Siouxland chapter.

Jackson mayor O’Neill echoes that sentiment. “There couldn’t have been any better help,” he says of the local Red Cross. “They took care of us very well for a couple of weeks solid. They never left.”

Siouxland also is the area in which Osborn wants to return. With less than two years left in the Navy, he plans to move back to the Midwest where he can raise his family. “[The Red Cross] is an important organization and we need to keep it strong and going so if we do have something happen — Lord forbid — they are there for us.”

Read the interview with Lt. Shane Osborn


Shane Osborn

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A Talk With U.S. Navy Lt. Shane Osborn

By Jody Ewing
August 7, 2003

Shane OsbornCourtesy Photo
Navy Lt. Shane Osborn


The Details

Who: U.S. Navy Lt. Shane Osborn
What: Signing copies of “Born to Fly”
Where: Waldenbooks, Southern Hills Mall
When: Sunday, Aug. 10, noon-2 p.m.

It began as something simple: a son of America’s Heartland, a ride as a toddler in a war-surplus Piper Cub plane — a boy with a dream. It became an extraordinary story of courage, perseverance, overcoming impossible odds and the making of a hero.

On April 1, 2001, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Shane Osborn was piloting an EP-3 ARIES II reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea when two Chinese F-8II fighters intercepted the slow-flying plane. One Chinese pilot — Wang Wei — began to harass the American plane, coming dangerously close twice before finally colliding with the EP-3’s outer propeller.

The collision split the Chinese plane in half and inflicted catastrophic damage on the U.S. EP-3, blowing debris from its nose, chewing up propeller blades, damaging the fuselage, and throwing it into a steep, near-inverted dive plummeting toward the ocean. By the time the plane has fallen nearly 8,000 feet, the superbly trained Osborn somehow regained control, landing the crippled plane on the Chinese Island of Hainan, where he and his 23 crewmembers immediately were taken into detention.

For the next 11 days, Osborn endured nearly round-the-clock interrogation while shielding his crew from the ordeal. Though he refused to meet Chinese demands, the Norfolk, Neb. native and his crew were freed when the US and Chinese governments reached an agreement for their release.

In Born to Fly: The Untold Story of the Downed American Reconnaissance Plane — published in both adult and young adult editions — Osborn recounts his life-long love of flying and the fateful events that led him to receive the Navy’s highest airmanship honor. Throughout both books, the University of Nebraska naval ROTC graduate speaks of faith, courage, and dedication to one’s country. Osborn will sign copies of the books at Southern Hills Mall’s Waldenbooks on Sunday as part of a Red Cross fundraiser.

In a telephone interview from Seattle, the newly married Osborn spoke about his commitment to country, service, and why he was ‘Born to Fly.’

What did you most hope to accomplish by writing this book?

The thing that was most significant to me was the opportunity to maybe open up some eyes, to not only adults but some younger people with the young adult version, and let them know the importance of having goals and working towards them and more importantly, serving your country. I looked at it as an opportunity to maybe plant a seed in a young person’s head about serving when they graduate high school. I believe it’s very important that we have good men and women serving to maintain this country’s freedom. We’re going to need more of them in the future, and, especially today, I think people realize it and appreciate it.

Can you describe for the Weekender the events leading up to the collision, and what thoughts were going through your mind after it happened?

It was pretty much a standard reconnaissance mission. It wasn’t rare for us to be intercepted, however; in recent weeks they’d become more aggressive in their intercepts. That day we knew right away that it was going to be a very aggressive intercept when they joined up on us the first time and they were inside of my wingspan. We’d never seen nor heard of that happening, where they are only inches away from my propellers.

That happened twice, and so we had a pretty bad feeling that third time when the jet came to rejoin up on us. There were a lot of people in the back looking out; I couldn’t even see him coming because he was coming from the left side and I was in the right seat. I could hear it in their voices that this was not going to be good. When he hit us, we kind of all had a feeling that this might happen at that point. We didn’t know what was going on, why he was being so aggressive and dangerous that day. You just kind of had a feeling in the back of your head that something was going to go wrong because he had already almost hit us twice. When he came back the third time, that’s when we had the collision.

How would you describe those 11 days where you were interrogated and held against your will, and how did you hold up despite the constant sleep deprivation?

All my life I’d wanted to serve and talked to everyone about the importance of serving our country and how proud I was to do it. Now, all the sudden I was put in a position where I was responsible not only for myself, but for 23 other lives. It’s a very intimidating situation, so you’re either going to step up and take it or not. There’s no real choice there but to do what you need to do to get those 23 people home to their families. So it was very intimidating; you don’t want to show them that you’re scared, but inside you’re scared the whole time. Long interrogations, no sleeping and things like that start to get to you but you just kind of have to re-cage yourself. It tests all your beliefs, and you just keep praying and hoping that it will be over soon.

What kind of impact did this have on your family?

(Laughing) A pretty heavy impact, I would say. I aged my parents significantly along with myself during that time. But we’ve always been a very close family, so you could say it brought us closer but we were already close. It wasn’t a change there, but they didn’t regret it at all, either. They knew that since I was a little boy that this is what I was going to do and that there were risks involved. My mom wasn’t too happy seven months later when I left to go to the war in Afghanistan. She understood, though, but wasn’t too happy with me heading off to war that same year. She asked me if I had got enough, and I told her, ‘well, I’ll let you know when I get enough.’

What type of response have you received from young readers?

Excellent. It’s been great. I love going out and talking to kids of all ages. I tell them my story and tie it in, hopefully with something they can relate to. I get e-mails, letters, all types of stuff and I answer them all. I already know of a few that are now in the naval academy and going to college in ROTC programs, and it’s good to hear because they kind of update me with what they’re doing. It’s pretty cool to have the opportunity to help someone out in that way.

How do you define a hero?

To me it’s a word that was used so much I didn’t even want to be associated with it just because of some of the other areas in our culture that we associate with the word hero. Nowadays, I think we’ve been reeducated as to what a hero is. To me, a hero is anyone who serves, not just in the military, but anyone that does a selfless act is a hero in my book.

Did you have a hero as a child?

My mother. I didn’t look up to sports, athletes. I enjoyed sports, but I never looked toward movie stars or athletes or singers as heroes. I was lucky enough that my mom worked at the veteran’s home as I was growing up, so I got to spend a lot of afternoons after school and weekends talking to veterans. So those are the people I looked up to most.

What was the best piece of advice your father or mother ever gave you?

(Laughing) It was pretty much my mom, and there was a lot of it. She just had a steady sense about her, and she taught me by example by how she worked and lived more so than anything. But it would probably be, ‘Do whatever your heart tells you.’

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