He was awarded the Air Force Cross for his actions during the operation to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez in Apr 1975. He was attending A-10A Thunderbolt II conversion training when he was killed during an A-10 training flight at the Gila Bend Gunnery Range in Gila Bend, AZ. At the time of his death, he was getting ready for his next assignment as an A-10 pilot with the 91st Tactical Fighter Squadron at RAF Woodbridge, England. He was posthumously promoted to Major, and was buried at the Air Force Academy Cemetery on Sep 5, 1979.
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to First Lieutenant Donald R. Backlund, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as a Helicopter Aircraft Commander of an HH-53 Helicopter of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, in action on 15 May 1975 at Koh Tang Island, Cambodia. On that date, while engaged in the recovery of the S.S. MAYAGUEZ and crew, Lieutenant Backlund, exhibiting superb airmanship, placed a contingent of United States Marines aboard the destroyer escort, U.S.S. HOLT. He then successfully landed several United States Marines on Koh Tang Island despite intense ground fire. After escorting his wingman to the U.S.S. CORAL SEA, Lieutenant Backlund then returned to Koh Tang Island and successfully recovered a group of United States Marines and airmen although encountering heavy, consistent ground fire. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Lieutenant Backlund reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
General Orders: Department of the Air Force, Special Order GB-583 (July 14, 1975)