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Defining a hero

By Cheresa D. Clark | Colorado National Guard | Oct. 8, 2015

Centennial, Colorado —

CENTENNIAL, Colo. – My 9-year-old son is obsessed with flying, and set his sights on becoming a fighter pilot after he saw his first Colorado Air National Guard F-16 as a toddler.

With such a goal firmly rooted in his mind, we often discuss airplanes and aviation (to be fair, he usually quizzes me, and I usually lose), world history as it relates to current events (and by extension, the necessity of a strong military), and what it's going to take for him to fulfill his dream of becoming a military aviator.

Being the smart kid he is, he's usually the one initiating these conversations – and constantly making me reference the all-knowing interwebs to help find the answers he's seeking.

So this morning, it came as no surprise when he asked me to name some famous pilots.

I started by pointing out our distant cousin, Lt. j.g. Francis "Cash" Register, a Navy Reserve aviator and North Dakota's first ace, known for a legendary feat of aerial fakery during a dogfight above Guadalcanal during World War II, which was just part of the reason he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross by Adm. Chester W. Nimitz. Then I told him about Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, briefly describing the US Airways pilot's heroism on the Hudson River, which saved 155 lives.

"No," the boy said.

"Well, there are lots of astronauts," I offered.

"No mom. Fighter pilots."

My apologies, Sully and NASA.

I wracked my brain, trying to remember all the famous (or infamous?) Air Force warfighters I was supposed to learn about at the Academy of Military Science when I commissioned in 2014. (To be fair, I started my military career as a Marine, so the names Lt. Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, Sgt. Maj. Dan Daly and Pvt. Opha Mae Johnson come to mind more freely.) The only famous pilot's face I could remember under pressure was that of the massively mustached Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, but the only detail I could remember about him is the makeshift urn/single-finger salute fashioned from his old golf glove and some of his ashes.

Fortunately, before I could (not?) think of any more aviator-rebels, my boy asked, "What about Smokey?"

Brig. Gen. Peter J. "Smokey" Byrne is currently director of joint staff for the Colorado National Guard. But he wasn't always so.

In June 2006, then-Lt. Col. Byrne was piloting an F-16 Fighting Falcon out of Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado.

While engaged in tactical combat maneuvers, he felt a pinching in his neck, what would later be diagnosed as the dissection of his vertebral artery – a stroke.

"I could barely move my arms or hands," he said at an award ceremony in his honor in 2007. "It took every bit of concentration I had just to get the autopilot on."

Fighting vertigo, pain and nausea, Byrne said his primary concern was avoiding populated areas in case he had to eject.

His wingmen quickly came to his aid and flew with him for the next hour and a half, helping him stay focused.

With fuel running low, Byrne's symptoms eased enough for him to coax the F-16 back to Buckley for a wingtip landing.

"By some miracle, I was able to land," he said. "I credit my survival in the air to my wingmen, and I credit my survival on the ground to the discipline and efforts of the crews on the ground. They saved my life."

Byrne's decisive actions and ability to cope with the traumatic event prevented a potentially catastrophic mishap.

In 2007, he was awarded the Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy for his outstanding feat of Airmanship.

The award is issued to aircrew members "who by extraordinary skill, exceptional alertness, ingenuity or proficiency, averted accidents or minimized the seriousness of accidents in terms of injury, loss of life, aircraft damage or property damage."

While I didn't tell my boy all the terrifying details, I did summarize Byrne's experience, with an emphasis on personal discipline and the necessity of trusting others – lessons I've been trying hard to instill in the kid lately.

"Wow!" my boy exclaimed. "He's my hero!"

At this, I smiled, not because this sycophantic little tidbit will assist me along the way (though it certainly can't hurt – thanks, kiddo!), but because my boy's new hero is someone he's actually met, and spoken with, and who's given the boy sage advice – and a model F-16!

"Put this on your desk at home so that when you're doing your homework every day, you see what you're working for," Byrne told him in an off-the-cuff conversation a few days ago.

I told Byrne that my son desperately wanted a flight helmet, like the one the general pulled out of his bag to show the boy during that fateful visit. (The kid had been pestering me for one all summer!)

"Oh no, you can't just buy one of these," Byrne told my boy. "You have to earn it."

So fast forward to today's conversation about the kid's newfound hero.

"Mom, do you have a picture of Smokey?" he asked.

"I'm sure I can find one. What for?" I asked.

"I want to put it up in my room."

I nearly choked at the thought of a picture of my boss' boss' boss hanging gracefully in my house. (No offense, Gen. Byrne.)

"How about we just save it on your iPad," I told him.

"No," he insisted. "I want to see it all the time."

Clearly, Byrne's short lesson in vision took root in my boy's head.

After the initial shock of that moment wore off, and I told Byrne of the morning's conversation, the general made a much more profound point about heroes.

In essence, he said, humans are fallible. And – awkwardness aside – the reason he didn't want his picture displayed in my house? He'd hate to let my boy down.

Considering that fighter pilots aren't known for their humility, well … That's some powerful stuff right there!

And the truth is that we're all fallible.

How often do I feel like a failure after yelling at my kid to get ready in the morning, knowing all along that his extreme sensory processing makes it a challenge for him to perform such basic tasks as getting dressed and tying his shoes, because he's distracted by every minuscule flicker of light, the quietest whisper, the slightest tickle of fabric against his skin … Sensory input most of us never notice prevents him from focusing on anything for very long.

Unless, of course, it's related to aviation.

Yet Byrne's point is simple and true. We all make mistakes. As parents. As leaders. As role models. None of us are perfect. But in a perfect storm, we should be able to count on our wingmen to help us land on our feet.

And ever since that first meeting with his hero, my boy hasn't pestered me for a flight helmet. Not even once.