'Eagles' inspire new generation

by Christopher Kratzer
Air University Public Affairs

6/10/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The Air Command and Staff College last week hosted its annual Gathering of Eagles, a program that honors pioneers in aviation and heroes of air, space and cyberspace.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the program, which honored 14 aviators. The event spanned an entire week and included in-depth interviews with each Eagle that recounted their stories, leadership lessons and the contributions made to air and space power.

"The purpose of these interviews is to capture their biography, learn from the past and apply it to the future leaders at Air University," said Maj. Rob Johnson, the Gathering of Eagles Foundation president.

The week also included a dinner hosted by Alabama Power at the Mann Museum at the Montgomery Zoo and a reception prior to the ACSC graduation ball honoring the aviators.

"We have to capture the lessons of these great heroes, and pass those on to the next generation of leaders," Major Johnson said. "It is an absolute honor to work with this program. This has been the most rewarding and most incredible experience of my life."

The event was an incredible opportunity for the 15 Maxwell students selected to organize the program, according to Maj. Kristi Beckman, the public affairs lead for the event. The students traveled to each Eagle's hometown. Over two weeks, the students put together a biography and commissioned a painting of each individual along with their aircraft by Jay Ashhurst.

"Every year, [the painting] is unique. It's a painting of them, their patch or emblem and, in the center panel, their aircraft. We take those to them and they sign those," Major Beckman said. "It's a really unique experience."

The event wasn't just rewarding for the students working with the program, the Eagles were honored to be a part of the event. Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr., an honoree who survived a Humvee explosion and suffered burns on 80 percent of his body, was humbled by the opportunity to participate in the event.

"I wondered why they chose me. All these honorees did all these extraordinary things. I just see myself as a normal regular guy. To see these guys and to hear their stories is awesome," Sergeant Del Toro said. "I'm honored to be in the same group with these men and women."

Deannie Parrish, an honoree and a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, was also honored to be included with the distinguished list of aviators.

"It's an awesome responsibility to try and represent all the WASPs. I want to represent all the other women who could not be here," Ms. Parrish said. "I'm overwhelmed. I hope I can inspire someone. I think it was such an honor and a privilege to be able to serve my country and we did it without any thought of recognition. We did it because our country needed us, and we did it with pride."

All of these aviators have made their mark in history. Major Johnson said he hopes it will inspire the students at ACSC to do the same.

"As officers who have spent most of our careers in a combat environment, at war, I think this event validates the commitment that we've made to defend our country," he said. "To learn from these aviator's lessons, it allows you to look in the mirror every day and know that you've made the right decision."