Friday, December 21, 2012

Through Airmen's Eyes: High school reunion ... above Afghanistan

by Staff Sgt. Eric Burks
U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs

12/21/2012 - KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- In 2001, three students -- each in a different grade -- shared the halls and classrooms of DuBois Area High School in rural Pennsylvania.

This month, those former students had a unique hometown reunion, stepping aboard a C-130J Super Hercules as Airmen on an airlift mission to transport cargo and passengers from Kandahar Airfield to other bases in Afghanistan.

The three Airmen are from different career fields and home duty stations, but their overlapping deployments provided an opportunity for the unique flight.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder, an Air Force Central Command Combat Camera photojournalist, had stayed in touch with 1st Lt. John Fugate, a 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron pilot and long-time friend.

"Communicating through Facebook, we realized we would be deployed at roughly the same time," Snyder said. "My combat camera team travels all over Afghanistan, so I was hoping we'd have a chance to fly with (Fugate)."

Before that happened, Snyder would meet another DAHS graduate -- Tech. Sgt. Dave Hoffer, a 772nd EAS loadmaster -- during a flight out of a small forward operating base in October.

"When I first saw John (Snyder), he looked familiar, but I didn't know who he was," Hoffer said. "We started talking about the weather ... after I said how I missed the weather in central Pennsylvania where I'm from, he said, 'Me too!' Then we learned not only had we gone to the same high school, but were from the same small town."

As it turned out, Snyder and Hoffer grew up just one mile apart in Rockton, Pa., population 889, according to the 2010 census.

It was another coincidence that Hoffer and Fugate were members of the same squadron -- Hoffer typically worked the opposite shift as Fugate as part of a different aircrew.

"Ironically enough, I just found out a couple days ago," Fugate said. "I knew he was part of the loadmaster community through his sister, who I graduated high school with, but I never put two and two together that he was actually part of our unit. The different crews, we don't see each other that much, all of us being on different schedules, so it's difficult sometimes to interact with each other."

Before they were Airmen, Hoffer was the first of the trio to graduate from DAHS, in the summer of 2001. Fugate was completing his first year there, and Snyder would be an entering freshman that fall ... just as Hoffer's Air Force career was beginning.

"I enlisted in the Air Force a month after graduation," Hoffer said. "I didn't have a college plan, and both my grandparents had served in the military around the Korean War time frame. They're still alive today and I grew up looking at them as my role models. The sense of duty that they had, I wanted part of me also. It just seemed natural for me to join the military."

Hoffer initially wanted to be an air traffic controller, but ultimately became a loadmaster.

"The life of a loadmaster is great," he said. "We're challenged with many different tasks, and different aspects of our job change all the time. There's a lot of problem-solving involved, and I really enjoy that."

Meanwhile, Fugate, who had always wanted to be a pilot, applied to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. He received an appointment to the Academy's Preparatory School and began his own career as a cadet candidate in 2004.

"I was inspired by my cousin, a graduate from West Point, and a C-130 pilot from an airshow that I remember going to and being awed by all the aircraft," Fugate said. "The pilot told me 'You can do anything you want.' At that point I decided I wanted to be a pilot."

In 2005, Fugate earned an appointment to the Academy, and was soon a college freshman of the Class of 2009. At the same time, Snyder graduated from DAHS, and began basic training in October after a short wait in the Air Force's Delayed Entry Program.

Although their active-duty careers began around the samte time, it would be years before they would meet again.

"For me, there's a sense of irony," Fugate said. "I left DuBois right after high school, went to Colorado for five years of college, then spent three years going through pilot and C-130 training. During that entire time, I never ran into a single soul from DuBois. Then I come out to Afghanistan, and suddenly I'm surrounded by people that I remember from high school and growing up."

Hoffer moved briefly from his usual night shift to a day shift to make the flight a possibility.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal to fly with guys that grew up in the same place as me," he said. "It's pretty cool and I'll definitely remember it."

Lt. Col. Ken Gjone, 772nd EAS commander, said, "One of the strengths of the Air Force is our diversity, bringing together people from all walks of life to accomplish our mission. In this case, however, having three home-town heroes all graduated from the same high school come together and perform different jobs on an airlift mission to an austere dirt landing strip in Afghanistan -- that's an unbelievable coincidence. DuBois Area High School and the central Pennsylvania community should be very proud."

And that's certainly the case, according to Sam Bundy, an English teacher at the high school.

"As an Air Force veteran, I spoke with all three of these students about serving and am really glad to see how well they are doing," he said. "DuBois High has a proud tradition of students serving in the military, and these graduates are a great example of that."

That Pennsylvania pride runs deep -- not just from within the community, but between its Airmen who serve.

"Having a chance to fly with this crew definitely makes me proud of the town I'm from and proud of the people around me," Hoffer said.

"I really think that the country as a whole develops quality servicemembers," Fugate added. "But I think that the mentality in DuBois, especially at the high school, does foster a sense of ownership for your country -- that you want to step up and defend it."

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