More MS news articles for Dec 2001

He’s a true Young Hero

Retired member of Air Force Reserve rescue unit honored for fight against MS

December 13, 2001
The News-Review

Never leave your wing man.

Good advice from the movie “Top Gun” rings particularly true for one retired veteran whose military buddies have vowed to never let him down.

The 939th Rescue Wing granted retired Chief Master Sgt. James F. Bell the Young Heroes’ Award on Wednesday at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs hospital. The award recognizes his heroism in his fight against multiple sclerosis.

It is given to children or adults facing life-threatening diseases or illnesses. The honor was established in 1990 by the Top Three, the top senior enlisted ranks within the Air Force Reserve rescue unit based at Portland International Airport.

Bell, 54, held two jobs for the past 16 years. During the week, he worked as the Roseburg VA hospital’s electrical shop superintendent. When his reserve duty called, he was chief of operations and electrician with the 939th Rescue Wing’s Civil Engineer Squadron in Portland. The Rescue Wing, during peacetime, aids local law enforcement in search and rescue operations. During wartime, its combat mission is to recover downed airmen behind enemy lines.

A Glide resident and father of two grown sons, Bell was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis about a month before his retirement from the VA and the military in May 2000.

“It’s too easy to give up,” he said after receiving the honor. “I intend to fight it to the end.”

MS is the degeneration of myelin, a material composed primarily of fats that insulate nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin allows transmission of impulses to the rest of the body. Once sclerosis, or scars, compromise the nerves, movement can become difficult and painful. Bell suffers from joint pain, but he is able to walk with a cane.

Bell served as a U.S. Navy Seabee, a member of the force’s construction battalion, before he joined the Air Force.

“The Air Force taught me how to be a leader,” he said. “When I was in the Navy, I was just a follower. I was a younger man then. I wasn’t ready to take on the responsibility of leadership. All that changed.”

Bell recalled an Air Force colonel once asked him which branch of the service he preferred.

“How can you choose?” he asked. “You can’t compare the two. Both teach you how to excel.”

Although mindful of his condition, Bell said it was difficult to leave his work behind. An experienced leader, he knew the importance of training his replacements years in advance of retirement so the VA would have a smooth transition once the time came. But it didn’t make leaving any easier.

“I wish I was working again,” he said. “Most people find a hobby when they retire. For me, work was my hobby. I had two hobbies. They were two of my great pleasures in life.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Almost two years ago, Bell noticed some serious changes in his vision — changes that couldn’t be corrected with new glasses.

Sensing something was seriously wrong, he consulted a local neurologist, who sent him through a magnetic resonance imaging machine and gave him a spinal tap in his search for a diagnosis.

After the doctor told him he had MS, Bell traveled to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for further testing.

“It never hurts to ask for a second opinion,” he joked.

Bell’s wife of 31 years, Lois, said this award was just what the doctor ordered. Her husband was growing listless and would spend much of his time thoughtfully gazing at Little River, which runs below their home.

“It’s been a really rough year,” she said. “It’s been so hard for him, going from two jobs to none. He used to be a very busy person, and now he’s stuck at home most of the time. This came at just the right time because he was really feeling down.”

Lois Bell said Air Force officials approached her last week, letting her know they planned to honor her husband. Looking for a cover story after her husband inadvertently answered a call from coordinators in Portland, she panicked.

“I work in the cake department at Sherm’s (Thunderbird),” she said. “So I told him they were ordering a cake. I think he was suspicious about why the Portland office would order a cake from Roseburg, but then I said it was for a small get-together. He was very surprised.”

Bell felt embarrassed and was concerned the event would inconvenience former co-workers because it was held in the VA boiler room among a handful of family and friends.

“I don’t want to be a hindrance,” he said. “I love to see everyone. I miss them so much, but I don’t want to get in the way. This was such a surprise.”

Bell said the award awakened feelings of pride and joy.

“The military gives these kinds of things to reward effort,” he said. “You never dream of being recognized yourself.”

The back of Bell’s medal says it was awarded for “Valor Above and Beyond.” He has taken his fearlessness and put it to good use in his battle with the disease.

“They tell you to take care of yourself,” he said. “But saying it is easier than doing it. It’s not easy to give up your eyesight, and your coordination and everything else. I want a cure, not a treatment.”