Summerlin man’s military service spanned three branches

James A. Ruffer, 69, comes from a military family, so it was no surprise that he was entranced with toy soldiers as a child. He also played with a toy medical bag complete with a stethoscope, a thermometer and tongue depressors. It was an interest that eventually led to medical school.

He went on to serve in three branches of the military, devoting 20 years of his life in service to his country as a captain in the Marines, a full colonel in the Air Force and a commander in the Navy, from which he retired in 1995.

“For about a five-year span of time, I was (assigned to) on an Army base, dealing with Army commanders,” said Ruffer, a Summerlin resident. “So I almost feel like I was in the Army, too.”

When the Vietnam War started, he decided to postpone becoming a doctor, as the war effort needed pilots. He enlisted in the Marines Corps at 23 and served from 1966 to 1971. Other pilots in his class of 388 operated only propeller planes, but Ruffer went on to fly jets. He was part of the Black Sheep Squadron, made famous by the TV show of the same name starring Robert Conrad as Pappy Boyington. Ruffer flew 92 missions.

“You’re up there pulling 4, 5, 6 G’s (G-force), swooping this way and that, flying straight at the ground and pushing the envelope,” he said. “It’s like a wrestling match when you go up there and dog fight. When you come back down, you’re worn out.”

He followed that up with training to be a doctor and surgeon and served with the Inactive Marine Corps Reserves until 1977, about the time he graduated from medical school. He then entered the Navy as a flight surgeon and served as an officer from 1979 to 1985. In 1986, he made an interservice transfer from the Navy Reserve to the active-duty Air Force.

When the Voyager crew circumnavigated the globe without refueling on a nonstop flight in 1986, Ruffer was part of the support team. He evaluated pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager after their nine-day, record-setting effort and oversaw their recovery at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where they’d taken off from and eventually landed.

“They were like (Charles) Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart,” he said. “They did something never been done before.”

In the late 1980s, Ruffer had a clandestine role in another historic event. He was in Panama City when the U.S. government decided it wanted hostage Kurt Muse freed from prison. Muse, rumored to be a CIA operative, had been captured after running radio interference whenever Panama Gen. Manuel Noriega broadcast his speeches. Muse was beaten and thrown in jail, a prisoner at the infamous Modelo in Panama City.

The U.S. government secured permission for Ruffer to enter the prison and provide medical care to Muse.

What the regime didn’t know was that the doctor was also providing intelligence to members of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, vital to helping it pull off the rescue, called Operation Just Cause. Nine months of planning went into the operation, which took place Dec. 19, 1989.

“It took them three minutes to get in and three minutes to get out,” Ruffer said.

Muse later wrote a book with John Gilstrap, titled “Six Minutes to Freedom,” that chronicled the events and included the part that Ruffer played. Ruffer was also interviewed about the escape plot for the Military Channel’s 12-part Combat Zone series.

Ruffer was involved in a number of historic events. He was one of the first to advance into Iraq when President George H.W. Bush ordered Desert Storm to commence. His medical expertise with chemical weapons put him near the front lines to assess the results of the initial wave in case of poison warfare.

He served in three branches but said he identifies most with the Marines, citing its “once a Marine, always a Marine” motto.

“The Marine Corps is rough and tumble, very much about manliness and gung ho and can do and giving it your all,” Ruffer said. “You wear the Marine Corps on your sleeve. The Navy was a gentleman’s service, very much a traditional service – swords and ships and command. It falls back on tradition that goes back so many years. … The Air Force is much more (about) technology, modern, big business, IBM.”

Darren Bryan has known Ruffer for about 15 years. They attend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 9580 Peace Way and visit church members who need help.

He said Ruffer is not the type to brag about his experiences.

“I’ve been to his home a couple times, and he has that office with the memorabilia,” he said. “It wasn’t until I asked him about that (that) he started telling me stories. He loves to share it with people, but you have to kind of get it out of him.”

Not all his notable moments come from his military service. When Ruffer was between 8 and 11 years old, his family lived in Kent, England, occupying the house where the presumed successor to the throne, Edward VIII, had trysts with Wallis Simpson.

While living there, his father ordered a set of crystal goblets in a design that was also ordered for a political meeting featuring Winston Churchill. Unable to fill both orders at the same time, the company asked the Ruffers if the set made for them could, instead, be given to the statesman, delaying the Ruffers’ set. The family, of course, agreed.

“So we were nibbling just a little bit on the edge of world history,” he said.

He met his wife, Margarita, in Mexico while in Panama. They have been married 40 years. They have 10 children, 30 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Ruffer is writing his memoirs. He said he’s on page 60 and is “still talking about when I was 5.”

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at or 387-2949.

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