Thursday, June 5, 2008

Like father, like son

Jun 4th, 2008 BETTY KAISER "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder, Climbing high into the sun; Here they come zooming to meet our thunder, At 'em boys, give 'er the gun!" This partial refrain from the U.S. Air Force's stirring anthem seems a fitting introduction for today's Father's Day column the careers of local resident and retired Chief Master Sgt. Henry W. Habenick and his son, newly retired Master Sgt. W. Eric Habenick. This father-son duo shares not only a family bond but a deep love of country and dedicated service in the U.S. Air Force. Initially, dad's enlistment came from necessity; his son's from the lure of flight . Both entered as young, raw recruits and ended up at the top of their game. Henry (aka Hank) did not plan on going into the military. He had plans for college when he graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1959. Those plans changed when his father informed him that he would be expected to start paying rent. Young, jobless and with no particular skills, Hank considered his options. On July 5, 1959 he met a military recruiter and signed up for the Air Force. It was his first job, and the sky was the limit. After completing basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas, he was trained as a flight engineer and assigned to Osan, Korea. Later, in England, as the cold war began heating up, he was involuntarily assigned to a top-secret , classified project and returned to the U.S. This new cross training on the Minuteman ICBM program changed the course of his life and defined the rest of his career . While training on the Minuteman in Illinois, he met and courted his future wife, Kay. They were married after he was assigned to Vandenberg Air Force Base. They have two children: Kristen and Eric. Although far from her family, Kay says that it was easy to adjust to military life. Her father was a schoolteacher who liked to move around. Her mother's motto was "Wherever I hang my hat it's home." This attitude set an example for Kay and Hank's new life together. They were off and climbing. "I was used to living on very little," Kay adds. "It was super easy to adjust to military life and income. We shopped at the commissary, had a housing allowance and bought a trailer to live in. The military was good to us. We'd do it again." Thanks to the Air Force and his own hard work, Hank received his desired college diploma in 1974, fifteen years after enlistment. He received numerous awards, including the prestigious Gen. Thomas S. Power Strategic Air Command Maintenance Man of the Year award in 1976. He was promoted to Chief Master Sergeant for his contribution to the SAC's intercontinental mission. Hank retired from active duty in 1982 and worked another 17 years for TRW Inc. In all, he served the nation's ICBM force for nearly 40 years. As a current board member of the Air Force Missileers, he proclaims himself "one of the few dinosaurs left!" As Hank's career was ending, son Eric's was just beginning, and his parents were not at all surprised when he chose to follow in his dad's footsteps . The wild blue yonder had been calling him for a long time. Eric had wanted to be a pilot since preschool. In fact, his parents laugh when they say he washed out of preschool because he didn't pay attention in class. Instead of coloring with the other kids, he was always looking out the window, watching the airplanes. When Hank came home from work Eric would say, "Daddy, daddy! Car, car!" He wanted to go down to the flight line where the action was. He jumpstarted his career by joining the Jr. ROTC in high school. After graduation, like his dad, he headed for the recruiting office . He was ready to fly , but there were no openings unless you were a college graduate. That's when it helps to have a friend in high places. His dad called a friend (who called a friend) and closed doors started opening. Eric enlisted in the Air Force as an Aircraft Loadmaster in 1987, graduating from basic training as an Airman First Class. During his career he garnered many awards and worked his way up the ranks. Among others he participated in exercises and operations in Panama, Kuwait, Antarctica, Somalia, Sarajevo, Kosovo and Iraq. So what does a loadmaster do? Well, in the Air Force world the pilot is the boss of the cockpit. He flies the plane. The loadmaster is in charge of the rest. The load he carries can be anything from paratroopers to a 65-ton M1 Abrams tank or a dignitary like Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan. "It is a great responsibility for a young person to be in charge of a multi-million dollar aircraft," Eric says. "One day we would fly into an Army post to pick up ammunition and airlift it to the war zone; other times we would airlift relief supplies or marines who had been in Afghanistan for 18 months"¦ The military trains to do one thing to go to war and protect U.S. interests anywhere and anytime. To be able to put all that training into action "¦gives you a great sense of accomplishment and pride. I did my best to give the public the best security possible." Eric loved his job and at 39 years of age was not ready for a medical retirement. Diabetes made it a necessity, as he was no longer considered worldwide deployable. Although he will continue to serve in a new career with the Transportation Security Administration, it will not be the same. "Retiring is bittersweet," he says. "There is something very special about flight . Watching the sun come up over Europe at 37,000 ft., or going 300 knots only 250 ft. above Afghanistan takes you to a realm very few get to experience. And to think"¦I got paid for it. Amazing!" His retirement ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, was fittingly held in the back of a C-17 pulled out for the occasion. His wife Theresa arranged a reception and slide show following the ceremony that had many reaching for a Kleenex to dab their eyes. Their children, Brit and Chelsey, also received recognition. As the reception ended, Hank shared a few remarks , and a rainbow appeared behind him as he saluted his son. A fitting blessing on this father-son duo who have served their country well in the Air Force's "wild blue yonder." Happy Father's Day to all! Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.

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