French Medal has extra special meaning for Reservist on the 80th anniversary of D-Day

  • Published
  • By Erica Webster
  • Air Force Reserve Command HQ Public Affairs

On May 8, 1945, people around the world gathered in celebration after receiving news they had long waited to hear – Germany had officially surrendered, signaling an end to the war in Europe.

On the 79th anniversary of that historic day, Maj. Gen. Vanessa Dornhoefer, mobilization assistant to the Air Force’s deputy chief of logistics, engineering and force protection, received the French Médaille de la Défense nationale (National Defense Medal) from French Defense Attache Maj. Gen. Bertrand Jardin on behalf of the French Military during a ceremony at the World War II Memorial here.

Receiving the award on the anniversary of the Allied Victory in Europe was a surprising and humbling moment for Dornhoefer, representative of not just her work in service, but also respect for her heritage.

“This is a moment to really recognize my unique upbringing growing up with a French mother and American service member father,” she said. “Growing up in a multi-cultural family made me who I am and shaped the way I see the world. The ceremony is more for my parents than me and what they instilled in me.”

Her mother, Christiane, was born at the height of World War II in Toulon, France, eventually escaping across the Demarcation line into Brittany as the Germans began invading the free zone of France. As the country and her family slowly recovered from the war, Christiane became fluent in English and started working on an American base.

“I became a switchboard operator and loved to connect the GIs from all over the world,” she said. “There I met my future husband and got married. I became an American in Washington D.C. in 1973, took my family to all the monuments, and fell in love with the pioneers and history of my new country. It was the place to be in this world!”

When her mother learned Dornhoefer would be receiving the French National Defense Medal, she was “deeply moved and felt honored beyond belief.”

A recurring theme in Dornhoefer’s life is global community and service, something reinforced by her father’s 42 years of service in the Army.

“My father would host foreign exchange officers so I learned about countries that others would have only learned about through publications like National Geographic,” she said. “I also learned how much the officers valued the American dream of democracy and admired the strength of the U.S. Constitution.”

Growing up, she understood the importance of service but had no intention of joining the military until she met a person in high school who changed the trajectory of her life.

“Until this moment, I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated just how much my upbringing shaped my entire career, even the fact that a chance meeting was due to my mom teaching French in the small town of Saint James, Missouri,” Dornhoefer said. “My dreams in high school were to play guitar in a rock band and work as an auto-mechanic but that changed when I met Dr. Wes Stricker in my senior year.”

Stricker is a World War II aviation enthusiast whose father’s unit flew three missions over Normandy Beach during the D-Day invasion. While he never served, he often encouraged others to learn how to fly and join the Air Force.

“He put me in my first cockpit and offered me the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “If I got accepted into the University of Missouri and the ROTC program, he would give me a job to attend college and keep me flying throughout ROTC. He saw something in me and invested both time and patience.”

As someone who describes herself as “not college material” she ended up taking all the required correspondence classes and was accepted two weeks before school started.

“My initial goal was to fly in the Air Force but after losing my pilot slot during my senior year, which was devastating, I landed in aircraft maintenance,” she said. “I was offered the opportunity to fly a couple of years later but turned it down to stay in the logistics field, then ended up going down a different track.”

After five years on active duty, Dornhoefer became a traditional Reservist with hopes of pursuing a civilian career in international relations, but a post-9/11 world led to a new path that allowed her to blend her civilian expertise with her military capabilities.

“As a logistician, I found myself doing humanitarian work in zones of conflict and combat, and working with the United Nations and NATO,” she said. “Eventually, I ended up working with CIOR for seven years, first as a civil military coordination committee member and then I was voted to run the committee as chairman for three years to advise NATO on Reserve issues.”

The CIOR, or the Confédération Interalliée des Officiers de Réserve (Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers), is an organization that introduces Reserve service to NATO countries, providing advice on Reserve matters and assisting in the achievement of ally objectives.

“It’s crazy this all started from being a reservist who got selected for one course which manifested into seven years,” she said. “Then I ended up deployed on the NATO staff as the CJ4 Deputy Chief of Logistics and Chief of Plans, working with France again.”

Throughout the past 28 years, Dornhoefer’s relationship with France has played out in unexpected ways both personally and professionally. During the ceremony, everything appeared to come full circle as it sparked a period of reflection and served as a reminder on the importance of creating and maintaining alliances, whether they be on a public or personal level.

“I was looking at who was represented today during the ceremony,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve seen the French and American connection so strong in my entire career.”

The continued strength of this connection is due to our foundation of collective values that Dornhoefer says are deeply etched in the history of both countries.

The alliance between the two nations began in 1778 when France came to the aid of a young America assisting in its independence, a bond further solidified during the liberation of France from German occupation during World War II.

“As the U.S. claimed our independence and defended our values of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, so have the French in their defense of Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” she said.

With the 80th anniversary of D-Day approaching, this is a perfect time to not only honor our 246-year-old alliance with France, but also the bonds we have formed with other allies. During a time of uncertainty for many, it is important to remember that we are stronger together. It is through our continued cooperation and exchange of resources that will prepare us to protect one another while securing a future of security and freedom.