Five AOPA team members who served in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army sat down with AOPA Live® to share a few of the many stories about their own military careers.
AOPA Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden flew fighters throughout most of his 20-year U.S. Air Force career, though he had one tour flying Beechcraft King Airs in the Philippines. His final tour was back in the General Dynamics F–16 leading the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
“What a capstone tour that was, just really a dream come true for a pilot,” McSpadden said of flying a high-performance fighter painted red, white, and blue, “and you get to demonstrate the power, the pride, the precision of the United States Air Force.”
AOPA Vice President of Government Affairs Murray Huling had to wait until after his 10-year service career (including three years in the Army and seven years in the Air Force) before he earned his own pilot wings as a civilian, though he still got his hands on the fastest jet in history, the Lockheed SR–71 Blackbird, which he maintained, along with the Lockheed U–2 reconnaissance aircraft nicknamed the “Dragon Lady.”
“It allowed me to go into some black programs, I guess you would say, in addition to those two airframes,” Huling said. “So that was very special duty for me.”
AOPA Deputy General Counsel Ron Golden graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1972, and served as a commissioned officer for five years. Stationed first in Korea, Golden was an artillery officer who helped guard the Demilitarized Zone and later worked with nuclear weapons. Later, he served as an aide to two generals, one of whom became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Golden said his service helped him figure out the rest of his life, and also made him appreciate that “great people” are found everywhere, both in the military and in other countries.
“I think … that there really are good people out there anywhere you go, and it doesn’t matter if you’re halfway around the world,” Golden said.
AOPA Air Safety Institute Aviation Safety Program Manager John Collins is a talented CFI and aviation educator today, but he carries fond memories of serving as an Army officer on active duty from 1989 to 1993, followed by seven more years in the reserves. He led his platoon into Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
“We actually got into battle and fought other tanks,” Collins recalled. “I was fortunate that none of my soldiers were ever wounded or killed, so I didn’t have to write that hard letter back to the family to let them know how their loved one died. But I had some friends who had to do that.”
AOPA Digital Marketing Coordinator Bob Orris said one of his most memorable missions in a 28-year Air Force career that included several assignments was protecting a special forces unit in Afghanistan. A navigator aboard a Lockheed AC–130 Spectre gunship, Orris recalled watching a situation develop on the ground where a special forces team was meeting with a local warlord, and Taliban fighters began to approach the meeting. The aircraft was cleared to engage an estimated 250 enemy fighters approaching the far outnumbered U.S. forces on the ground.
“And so, when we saw that we did, we did … fire, and we actually expended all of our ammunition,” Orris recalled. “That was our first mission in Afghanistan.”
Each of these veterans thanked the men and women with whom they served, and the families they left behind—sometimes for months or years at a time.
“I would say, thank you for your service. You know… less than 1 percent of the country serves [on active duty at any given time], and that’s OK. I mean, that’s what we need,” Orris said. “And you know, you probably already do it, but you know, thank your family because you volunteered. They didn’t. And they came along for the ride.”