Retired Air Force Col. (Dr.) James Ruffer stands behind the covers from the three different branches of the military in which he served. (Senior Airman Daniel Hughes / Air Force)
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Ruffer holds his Bronze Star with Valor at his home in Summerlin, Nev. (Senior Airman Daniel Hughes / Air Force)
During Col. (Dr.) James Ruffer’s 30 years of service, he wore three uniforms — of the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.
He said he will always be a Marine, but recently he was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for a mission working as an Air Force doctor helping to care for and rescue an American prisoner of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The 1989 mission was recently declassified.
As a Marine, Ruffer flew close air support as a pilot in the Vietnam War. In the Navy, he served as a flight surgeon and treated Top Gun pilots. In the Air Force, he reported to Army officers and worked with Delta Force soldiers in Panama.
Last month, Ruffer was awarded the medal for his role in the rescue of Kurt Muse, an American arrested for his work at Liberty Radio, a station in Panama critical of Noriega. Over 262 days, Ruffer made 110 visits to the prison to treat Muse and help Delta Force plan his escape.
The mission was the most rewarding of his career, with the award being a dream come true, said Ruffer, now 70.
Q. Why did you serve in three service branches?
A. I left the active-duty Corps late in 1971 ... to attend medical school. Then, as a young doctor, I joined the Navy as a flight surgeon in mid-1979. As a Navy doctor, I served with the Marines, flew again with the Marines and cared for Marine families, and delivered eight Marine babies at Navy Hospital Camp Pendleton in one 24-hour period. ... I stayed with the Navy until mid-1985. ... After [six months in solo practice in Idaho], I decided to go back into the military service. I picked the Air Force because it did not have aircraft carriers to send me to sea.
Q. Did you have a favorite tour in service?
A. It is hard to say if I had a favorite tour. ... [As a Marine,] I wanted to serve the Marine grunts on the ground with the best close air support possible. ...
As a Navy doctor, ... flying with [Top Gun-trained pilots] was a highlight of my career, as was the wide range of my medical practice.
But nothing can compare with the nine months I served as the only American in uniform allowed into the cell blocks of the infamous Modelo Prison of Dictator/Gen.Manuel Noriega in Panama from April to December 1989.
Q. Describe that mission.
A. I worked with Delta Force as I planned the rescue of Kurt Muse from my vantage point within the prison. (The regime had been forced by President George H. W. Bush to allow an American doctor to provide care for the hostage.) ... [I] was to know where Muse was being held and where his intended assassin was located; for Muse was “promised” death by the regime. With my help, Delta Force would be looking for the intended assassin’s location upon entering the prison on the night of 19/20 December 1989. ... Kurt Muse was rescued without the loss of an American life.
Q: Is there any time you felt at risk during the rescue?
A. During the Modelo Prison mission I was always at some risk of being detained either upon my approach to the prison within Panama City’s squalorous Chorillo District or within the prison during the visit or upon my departure. A gun was directed to my head, during one departure, along with the voiced declaration of the guard, “I’d like to blow your head off.” Sometimes I was stopped in the streets outside the prison — Panamanian Defense Forces’ guns at the ready, but I always kept my “appointment” with Kurt Muse. At one point I noted the presence of another American prisoner within the Modelo; this man, Dana Keith, was obviously dying of tuberculosis. I helped Dana Keith, hesitantly, in spite of the risk it might have wrought upon my primary mission to support Kurt Muse and Delta Force — I didn’t want anything to come between me and that mission — where it might have given the regime an opportunity to curtail my visits. I had to be very low key and cautious in my approach in saving the life of Dana Keith. With the help of the U.S. treaty affairs spokesman Lt. Col. Rob Perry, we were able to save Dana Keith’s life also, by cajoling the regime to give proper treatment to the dying man. I rendered every assistance possible in conjunction with his treatment.
The Modelo Prison mission was the most rewarding and demanding experience of my military career.
Q: Q. How does it feel to finally be awarded the Bronze Star with “V”?
A. Being awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for heroism is a dream come true. In my career, I had never sought recognition — I just did my job with enthusiasm and joy in service. However, I had been surprised that my end-of-tour award, at the close of my Panama assignment, had not included a word about the Modelo Prison mission: I had received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal at the end of that tour. My fitness report only had one short line recognizing the mission: “He was involved in a hostage rescue event.” I should not have been surprised: I had never been able to tell my supervisor anything about the mission — all he knew was that every other day I had to visit the Modelo Prison in Panama City. After the Invasion of Panama, my supervisor only knew that I had been involved, somehow, in what turned out to be a rescue, but I never had discussed it with him. I had kept the Delta Force mission top-secret.
The Bronze Star with “V” for heroism has come to me as a career ending dream come true. I am proud that I can now wear a medal for heroism. After all these years and after all the service, including service during Desert Storm, I can now wear a medal for valor. My family is extremely proud of me. I have a wife and I have ten children and 35 grandchildren who are proud of my service in the United States military. It has been my extreme pleasure and honor to have served, and I, likewise, honor every soul that has donned the uniforms of our country.