Elmendorf airman receives medal for heroism
December 30, 2002
On a rafting trip in Alaska, Tech. Sgt. James Dishman’s expedition received a very unwelcome guest.
“Somebody yelled out, ‘Look, there’s a moose swimming across the river … look there’s another,’” he said. Then came the bad news: “ ‘Hey look,’” the person continued to shout, “‘there’s a bear behind them.’”
Dishman was on a 12-day rafting excursion with a group of 22 children and 12 adults. They were trekking from Chicken to Eagle.
It was the seventh night of the trip, and the group had set camp on a small island in the middle of the Yukon River. Though there was still sunlight, it was late in the evening as everyone sat down to dinner, recalled Dishman. Everything was quiet except for the sound of the river and birds.
“Suddenly, we heard a crash,” said Dishman. That’s when someone noticed the ruckus in the river and shouted the warning.
Knowing that moose swim faster than bears and seeing the first one pass by their island, Dishman figured there might be trouble. So he hollered for two men to get the guns stored inside the boats and had the others gather in a large group.
As the sound of thick tree limbs snapping got closer and closer to their camp, Dishman said he picked up a stick expecting the bear to be in hot pursuit of the second moose — or coming after them.
“The bear chose to come in on us,” he said. “He started working us like a herd of caribou.”
As the bear charged the group of children, adults and two dogs huddled together near the river, Dishman brandished his stick and ran straight at the bear, yelling at the top of his lungs.
That stopped the bear momentarily, said Dishman who added that he got so close to the bear, he could have reached out and smacked the bear’s nose. When the bear reared up on its hind legs, Dishman, who stands at 6-feet-4 inches, said he had to look up to the bear which towered above him.
Dishman said he and Brent Morgan, one of the expedition leaders, charged the bear several more times to keep it from attacking the group before the men with the guns arrived.
The men fired warning shots that the bear ignored before pumping six to eight more rounds into the bear as it made its last charge. The bear finally retreated but stalked the camp from a distance.
“He was a dead bear. He just didn’t know it,” said Dishman, who explained that bears can attack even while mortally wounded.
Dishman’s wife, Diane, said she was “really glad” her husband was on the trip. “I have a feeling it would have turned out a whole lot worse,” not only for her own son Christopher, who also was on the trip, “but also for the other children,” she said.
From what she learned from others who were on the trip, there would likely have been loss of life, had not her husband reacted as quickly as he did.
An avid outdoorsman, Dishman said he has had his share of hunting adventures and close calls, but usually he’s prepared for anything. “This one here,” he said with his native North Carolina accent, “I really felt ‘nekid,’ because I didn’t have my guns with me… It came off a lot better than it probably should have. We really got lucky.”
Dishman said four men set up a perimeter around their camp to watch for any signs of the bear returning, as the rest of the group tore down the camp and loaded everything into the boats in 15 minutes.
When they reached Eagle, they reported the incident to authorities, who sent a boat up and recovered the dead bear.
Dishman, a facility manager for the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Elmendorf Air Force Base was recently awarded the Airmen’s Medal for his heroic actions on the trip.
The medal ranks higher than the Bronze Star, the military’s fourth-highest combat award, and goes to airmen who perform heroic actions outside actual conflict with enemy forces.