There is something inspiring about being in the presence of Brigadier General N. Michael “Mike” Bissell. He does not have an imposing stance or a gruff, booming voice for intimidation, yet the cadets he guides as commandant of Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership recognize his influence and acknowledge it with genuine respect. His colleagues recognize it. The Mary Baldwin University community recognizes it. And recently the recognition reached him from the elite Army Aviation Hall of Fame at Fort Rucker, Alabama, into which he will be inducted in May 2007.
“Such a small percentage of people are selected for this honor, I am just beside myself,” Bissell said. Opened in 1974, there are only about 110 people, not including Bissell and other recent inductees, currently memorialized in the Hall.
One doesn’t make it to the Hall of Fame without an impressive military career, a commitment to service in the civilian sector, and many stories to tell. Bissell is no exception, although he is unlikely to flaunt his military accolades.
A graduate of Virginia Military Institute and University of Missouri, he served two tours as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. While in Vietnam, he was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor for rescuing a severely wounded American advisor in a landing zone under heavy fire. On Bissell’s second of three rescue attempts, machine gun fire crippled the helicopter, killed his gunner, and wounded him in the neck. He was ultimately successful, and received the Distinguished Service Cross. He also earned the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal. Bissell was selected by the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army to be the Senior Army Fellow at Harvard in 1985. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College.
Bissell’s last assignment with the U.S. Army was as executive officer for the Assistant Secretary of the Army. After retiring, he became program manager for the U.S. Army’s new stealth helicopter (Commanche) for the Boeing and Sikorsky Team. When that team won the contract with the Army in 1990, he returned to VMI to be commandant of cadets.
In August 1999, after four years as acting commandant for VWIL, he left VMI to become VWIL’s first full-time commandant of cadets. After all he has accomplished and witnessed, Bissell said helping lead VWIL is quite possibly his most rewarding post. His focus recently has been on targeted recruiting at military preparatory programs around the country, such as a recent trip to Chicago.
“It is not only relaxing and enjoyable, but it is just absolutely heartwarming to personally see the results,” he said. “Every year, I see students reach out for the world and find out what they can do. I often wish I had had someone with experience to talk to during that stage in my own life.”
Even with such a resumé, Bissell did not believe a place in the Army Aviation Hall of Fame would come his way. A colleague from years ago surprised him with the nomination.
More Positions and Awards:
- Commander, 17th Aviation Group
- Commander, Joint Republic of Korea Army and the U.S. Army Combined Aviation Force
- Director, U.S. Army Flight Training
- Deputy chief and acting chief of staff, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)
- Executive officer to the director of operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon
- Special assistant to superintendent (responsible for assimilation of women into the corps and support of VWIL), VMI
- Distinguished Service Medal
- Defense Superior Service Medal
- Legion of Merit