These…are my brother-in-law Gene’s flight wings:
They were a special gift to Boo last week after she said the pledge of allegiance at his retirement ceremony. Imagine all the missions those wings have been on. Boo was brought to tears when Gene gave them to her. She also teared up throughout his whole farewell speech. We all did. It was so moving, and funny, and moved us all from tears to laughter to tears. I asked him for the transcript and have shared excerpts of it throughout this post.
First of all, Gene has the best sense of humor. He had us all laughing at the start:
“Not sure I’m on my A game. Christy changed my yogurt and it’s the “fruit on the bottom” kind. Would it kill them to go ahead and mix the dang yogurt. Program note…for my fans, I will not be playing the guitar during the ceremony, sorry. For my family, I will not be river dancing. I’m sure you are all relieved to hear that.”
I was really bummed that there wouldn’t be any irish dancing….Gene has mastered his imitation of Michael Flatley.
It was a super quick trip to Niceville, Florida…we drove down just for a few days. The only thing I really remember about the long, long drive is passing a bonsai tree store. (Must return to bonsai tree store.) The road to Niceville is very nice:
The morning of the ceremony we were whisked off to a really big hanger at Eglin Air Force Base and given strict instructions about photography.
Me: So…no selfie from the cockpit?
My nephews told me that if I took an unapproved photo men would come out of holes in the ground to tackle me within seconds. Is that true? I love secrets!
Boo got a personal tour of the F-35 from her Uncle Gene who has flown quite a few Air Force planes in his career. I learned that the finish of this plane is top secret…but I’m pretty sure the concoction may include Annie Sloan “Paloma” chalk paint:
“This is truly a bittersweet moment. I didn’t realize how bittersweet until the day finally arrived. It is scary and exciting to start a new chapter in our lives but at the same time when I stop to think that I will no longer be on active duty in the Air Force that I love it is a bit hard to take. Almost exactly 22 years ago I was driving cross country out to Vandenberg for Missile training. Then 18 years ago about an hour away at the Pensacola Naval Air Museum I was getting my wings.
As I was putting my notes together I was listening to some tunes and a song by the band “Third Day” came on, it is called “This is who I am.” The first verse is:
I’M A SON OF A GOOD MAN
I’M THE CHILD OF AN ANGEL
I’M THE BROTHER OF A WILD ONE
I’M THE LOVER OF A BEAUTY
I’M THE FATHER OF BLESSINGS
THIS IS WHO I AM
You see, this is all I ever wanted to do in my life. I take that back, I would have liked to have been the lead guitar player in KISS, but that’s not going to happen so… In 1986 my fate was sealed when Top Gun came out. I saw it 16 times in the theater went to the Army/Navy store and bought a flight jacket and a motorcycle and was ready to go. I think I even used the line on Christy when we met that “if the government trusts me, maybe you could.” It probably didn’t sound as good when I said it…
I’ve clearly passed that gene on…when Duncan was about 18 months or 2 years old one day he was in the car with his grandmother Kathy going by Barksdale AFB on I-20 and some airplanes flew over the car. Kathy said “Look Duncan, some F-16s or something.” Duncan’s reply was “A-10 Hogs Grandma, A-10 Hogs!” I think his first three words were Porsche, Dada, and A-10 Hog.
Seriously though, I have truly lived a dream.
As Tolkien wrote:
This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so;
and not a mountain of gold can amend it.
Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils – that has been more than any man deserves.
The ceremony was held in the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin. We got there really early and Boo had a chance to practice her pledge:
“For as long as I can possibly remember I wanted to fly in the Air Force, but, like most people in uniform, I never did it for me.
I never did it to get medals or free meals on Veterans Day. I did it so others didn’t have to. I did it because I believe in the greatness of America, for that flag, for the Constitution. I did it to make my mom and dad proud, and to confirm that they raised me to make a difference.
Christy and I were fortunate to attend the Special Operations Warrior Foundation dinner a few weeks ago. They raise money for SpecOps warriors who have paid the ultimate price for their country. AFSOC/CC Lt Gen Heithold spoke about something interesting. We are the real 1%. There are 300 million people in this country and only about 3 million men and women serving in the military.
We have been at war for more than half of my career and this war is not going away anytime soon. A few months ago we got a briefing on ISIS. We saw a propaganda video that had 6 to 9 year old kids being trained for and shouting Jihad against America. All of you in uniform and those who will be continue to answer the call, I for one am grateful.
I get it honestly. On the 7th of October 1780 Arthur McFalls and his brother John fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain in the Revolutionary War, on September 19th, 1863 his grandson and namesake Arthur, my great-great grandfather, was killed fighting with the 58th North Carolina Regiment on the field of battle at Chickamauga in the Civil War. My brother David left our home for the Navy when he was 17 years old and served on the USS Nicholas. My uncle, Lt Col Robert Abernathy was a fighter pilot. He flew 3 of the airplanes in this room. The P-47, F-105, and perhaps the most legendary fighter of all time the P-51 Mustang. I idolized him growing up as he would regale me with stories about shooting down ME-262s, strafing boats along the Rhine and flying Thud Ridge in Vietnam.
Having this ceremony in this room, surrounded by these planes, with the mighty BUFF outside, is a perfect way to end this chapter of my life.”
That’s the mighty BUFF, the B-52, and Gene back in the day. Boo got to see one up close at the Air Force Armament Museum. Any plane that needs wheels just for its wings is huge.
All the way to Lieutenant Colonel:
Right after the ceremony, as we walked outside the Armament Museum, two F-35s flew right over us. It couldn’t have been better timed.
“Why did I take the time to tell all that? Because I’ve never thought of this as a job. To me it was a calling. Every time I got into an airplane I felt like I was getting away with something. I would shake my head and say I can’t believe they are letting me do this. Getting paid to do it was just a bonus.
When I was a Missileer I would think the same thing… but it has a different connotation when you are 23 years old sitting in a launch control center by yourself with 150 nuclear warheads at your fingertips. I remember one pre-departure briefing prior to going on alert, a visitor was there who told us: someday, long from now, you will think back on this moment and know that some poor sap is on alert right now. I will never forget, and I hope you don’t, there are men and women of the Air Force sitting alert right now.
I’ve been able to do some amazing things over the last 22 years. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, carried nuclear launch codes across 100s of miles of North Dakota, flown in 10 different airplanes including a P-51 Mustang. I’ve been to 15 countries and worked with some amazing people. A lot are in this room.
The Robins Dream Team, the 563d alumni, all the B-52 crewmembers and the brilliant engineers like Brett, Ryan, and Mike Barks. Not everyone that I’ve worked with has been great, some really sucked to be honest but the vast majority have been outstanding amazing people, even the Army ones.
I’ve lost a few as well.
My dear friend and crew-partner Maj Dominic Saymo. Capt John Patterson, SSgt Michael Stewart. The HUMVEE crew that was blown up by an IED right outside my window on 7 July 2011 in Baghdad, I will never forget you, God Bless your souls.”
We are so proud of you Gene. You are the real deal. Our hero.
“I just want to say to those still in uniform: remember your oath and live up to it…support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Bloom where you are planted. Do the best you can do in whatever job you are in. Leave it better than you found it.
As my dad and Ashley, Jim Valvano, Stuart Scott and my beloved Dallas Cowboys showed…Never give up. Never.
Learn from bad leaders as well as good ones.
To those not in uniform, I want to thank you for paying taxes and allowing me to play with this country’s expensive toys for the last 22 years.
All of you in this room and many who are not here have made me who I am. I am those things I said in the beginning and much more because of all of you. My instructors, my students, my cubicle mates (Buzz), my aircrew (Jimmy), my teammates, my bandmates, my EW troops, , Our neighbors and friends, you have been and always will be part of our family, our Air Force family.
As William Wallace said in Braveheart, “Everyman dies…not everyman truly lives.” I have truly lived and If I had to do it all over again…
I would marry the same woman and I would join the United States Air Force.
A big thank you from our family to all our service men and woman. We are so thankful for all of the men and women who have fought and continue to fight for our freedom. To those on alert right this very second: we know you are there. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for being brave, day in and day out. Our family sends up prayers for all of you each and every day. May God watch over you and your families and protect you. And may our world one day experience peace.