We’re 12 and 1/2 miles southwest of Veblen, SD to tell you the story of a man who went from riding John Deere tractors to flying fighter jets to become the highest ranking Navy officer in south Dakota history.
“I think my job here is to take these wonderful young sailors, many of whom don’t even have a high school graduate, and thrust them up onto a flight deck and give them just unbelievable responsibility to launch and recover airplanes, to handle missiles, to load bombs, to do all those things, and I’m the guy they look to for leadership. And I said, ‘I’m not going to fail them.’,” said Lyle Bien.
Lyle Bien is a retired 3-star Vice Admiral of the United States Navy. One of 7 kids raised way up north on a cattle ranch. Independence is a virtue here. “If there’s a quality that’s universally true of people that grow up in areas like this, is they become fairly independent and self-sufficient. And lo and behold, that’s the kind of quality so you can stand you in good stead in life,” said Lyle Bien.
Lyle’s brother, Neil, who cares for the family homestead, simplifies the “olden days” for us. “When the plate came around, you didn’t turn down the piece of chicken because it wasn’t the particular one you wanted. You took the one that was there. And I think we were all in kind of the same boat together,” said Neil Bien.
Lyle’s father, Emil, passed away his sophomore year. His Mom, Clara kept the ranch going. As a country school teacher, she inspired her kids about the virtues of education. Lyle went to Augustana where life changed for good his senior year. “It was January and I’m thinking about, what I’m gonna do in six months when I graduate. But I didn’t have to think long, because I got a letter that said, “Greetings”. And it was my draft notice,” said Lyle Bien.
The very next day, Lyle went to the Navy recruiting station. “He had a poster that was roughly the size of that garage door of an F-4 landing abord ship. And I said, I said, ‘I’d like to do that.’,” said Lyle Bien.
The Navy recruiter was not as supportive as he hoped. It didn’t matter.
“It’s a tough road to hoe. And you will end up by this time next year, you’ll be flying in combat.’ And I said, which I’m not proud of, but it’s, it’s a direct quote. I said, ‘Where do I sign,” said Lyle Bien.
Soon after, Lyle’s sister dropped him off in Sisseton so he could head off to training. She relayed some solid advice. “She said, ‘One more thing.’ And I said, and I spun around and I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘Don’t forget where you came from.’ ,” said Lyle Bien.
Lyle flew the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam. Throughout his career he attained an incredible 5,500 hours in a fighter aircraft. One of a handful to ever reach that mark. He made 1,300 aircraft landings and 225 combat missions. “I love the Navy with all my heart. I signed up for 3 years. I stayed for 31,” said Lyle Bien.
Who would have ever imagined this as a farm kid?” said Mike Heuther. “When we were younger, we were scared to climb the windmill. It was too high for us, the heights. And then you fly jet planes and fly off carriers and things like that, so you never know where it’s gonna lead to, I guess,” said Neil Bien.
Lyle felt right at home in the Navy. “When I get on these old John Deere tractors, it was like I was born to be there. Machinery and me get along really well and, and jet fighters are big time machinery. Aircraft carriers are big time machinery. I was very much at home amongst that big rickety and noisy machinery,” said Lyle Bien.
Admiral Bien commanded the Nimitz Carrier Battle, the Navel Space Command and was the senior Navy striker planner for operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. President Bill Clinton needed him to help resolve the Taiwan Missile Crisis in 1996. It was 4 a.m. with the President on the line. “He said, ‘Hey, I need you to go to Taiwan and make the firing stop.’ So, we went there and we were lucky enough to succeed in making it stop. So, I think we did what, but he did one other thing before he hung up. He said, ‘Tell your troops that we’re behind them.’ And I think he absolutely meant it,” said Lyle Bien.
There is so much more I want to tell you about Admiral Bien’s accomplishments. I want to, but Admiral Bien wanted this story to be about his wife Cathy, not him.
They were just engaged and on the homestead meeting family. Before they left, Cathy had one more thing to experience. “She said, ‘I’ve done everything I could do that I wanted to do up here, except ride horseback.’ At about that time, my younger brother just rode in the yard on a horse bareback, and I said, ‘Well, there’s one. Go for it.’ So, she jumped on and she got just about 100 meters down the road, and she was bucked off or fell off and struck a power pole,” said Lyle Bien.
The accident severed Cathy’s neck and she was paralyzed from the neck down. This couple was married 8 weeks later with Cathy in the hospital bed. “Sometimes you think ‘ Woe is me’, you know why did this happen? Well she was around to show us that when even much worse things happen, you can be a special person which she was. No doubt about that,” said Neil Bien.
Their marriage lasted 41 years until Cathy passed away in 2013. Family friend, Pastor Janine Rew-Werling explains their unbreakable love. “This is my life and I’m going to make the most of it. This person of tremendous character and faith. You know, that’s, that says a lot about who Lyle is and it says a lot about who Cathy is and you can see how that identity of them together was so important and such a big part of Lyle’s life,” said Janine Rew-Werling.
KELOLAND, again there is so much more to tell about this humble man. For example, he just happens to be the highest-ranking naval office in South Dakota history. “He’s kind of an ‘Aw shucks’ South Dakota kid. I’m not that big of deal’,” said Janine Rew-Werling.
“I’m a pretty common guy to go into the military, put on a uniform and go to work and go, ‘Wow, they trust me to do all this?’ You can’t make that stuff up,” said Lyle Bien. “If you met him, you would think he is just a farm boy, doesn’t know very much. But what’s really happening, is he can command ships. He can build satellites. He can go to the Pentagon and play war games and strategize. Lyles made a difference in the United States of America. But he’d never tell you,” said Janine Rew-Werling.
In the 80s, Admiral Bien served as a “Top Gun” flight instructor. During that time, his squadron flew some of the Jets in the blockbuster film “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise. Cruise learned the life of a fighter pilot with Bien’s squadron as well.”