We were flying a patrol over the President’s ranch in Texas. It was Thanksgiving week in 2002. Charlie Nelson was the flight lead and I was the wingman. At about 2 o’clock in the morning, Charlie came over the radio and said, “Got an idea.”
“I think we should start a squadron fishing tournament on the river this summer.”
We had the inaugural tournament the next opener. Family and friends from the Minnesota Air National Guard congregated with their kids on the river for fishing and a fine shore lunch. In the years since that first gathering, Charlie has become a professional guide on the St. Louis River (stlouisriverguy.com). I’m proud to say I was there when he had the idea.
This is normal. In the halls of our fighter squadron, you’ll hear talk of bow hunting, steelhead fishing, and how your kid shot his first grouse. You’re just as likely to hear about shooting sporting clays as you are to hear about how to shoot down a MIG. There are other places to fly F-16’s. There are other places to play in the outdoors. Duluth is alone in having the best of both. We know we’ve got it good.
I’ve been to the Middle East six times. Three times in the 90s to fly in Operation Southern Watch to defend the UN sanctioned No-Fly zone in southern Iraq. Recently, I’ve served three times in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 148th Fighter Wing Bulldogs of the Minnesota Air National Guard. Our unit just returned to Duluth in January 2009. I was married with no-children when I deployed in the 90s. That seemed hard. Now, with two children, leaving for combat is excruciating.
So, while at home, I try to pick hobbies that allow us to have family time combined with the outdoors. We just went on our first ice fishing expedition where I hand-augered some holes into the top of Whiteface Reservoir. I learned where the fish bite there from a service buddy in the Guard. My five-year old daughter skied the same two miles her 8-year old brother did in Hartley Park in Duluth. We all went up to Billy’s Bar to watch the John Beargrease sled dog race and hung out with other Guard members doing the same. My family climbs Oberg Mountain together in the autumn. We ride our bikes along the Munger Trail and the Gitchi-Gami Trail along the North Shore. I wake everybody up at the cabin so the kids can stand on the dock and stare open mouthed at the eerie glow of the Northern Lights.
Periodically, I leave all that behind and go to war. Most of the Bulldogs have made several trips to Iraq now. We raise our hands and swear to support and defend the Constitution, but that isn’t what I think about in Iraq. When I’m under my bunk waiting out a mortar attack, I think about how much I miss my wife and kids. I remember an article I read ten years ago about cross country ski racing. The writer met an athlete who said: “In every endurance event, there’s a time when you’ll say, ‘What the —- am I doing here?’ And you’ll just have to say, ‘This is what I do.’”
So, why do it? There are Americans on the ground where I fly in Iraq. For them, and for me, I’m fighting for our country, our land. Except now, my loved ones and I move across the land together with our skis and hiking boots and ice augers and bicycles and fishing poles. The land, my family, and the Guard are all bound together now; one and the same. I do it to come home to a safe place where I can hear the laughter of my children in the Northern Wilds. I do it so I can share the passing of the seasons outside with them. The joy I experience with them in the outdoors is greater than the pain of leaving them. It’s what I do.