Answering his calling to serve
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 30, 2007 2:08 AM
Don Haley remembers the day a terminally ill schoolboy touched his heart.
He could close his eyes and tell you the child's name -- how his eyes lit up when he heard a group of airmen had funded his Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to Disney World.
But Haley admits the honor was all his.
Fighter pilots have heroes, too, he said.
So when the 4th Fighter Wing captain was recognized as one of the U.S. Junior Chamber's Ten Outstanding Young Ameri-cans last week, he was taken back a bit.
The service and compassion is just a part of who he is, Haley said.
So he had never entertained the notion of someone seeing fit to honor him for it.
"I was overwhelmed," Haley said. "I couldn't quite capture what it really meant."
In fact, the award is given to young adults who have achieved "great things" in categories ranging from politics and philanthropic contributions to moral and religious leadership.
Previous winners include the likes of former presidents John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford.
Haley is not so sure his name belongs among them, but said he was "deeply honored" to represent the 4th Fighter Wing and 335th Fighter Squadron "Chiefs" at the Omaha ceremony.
Still, he admits the true honor has been touching the lives of those who need it the most -- the terminally ill, physically and mentally disabled children he has worked with since high school -- and drawing inspiration from their stories of adversity met.
"Just to love them and see them respond to that love, it's special," Haley said. "Just seeing that, it's inspiring."
Community service has been a part of his life since long before he joined the Air Force.
Another one of his heroes introduced him to it, he said.
"I worked with my father a lot at those camps for kids with cancer. My dad, he always had a way with people in need like that," Haley said. "He always treated them like everyone else, like they were perfectly fine. That really impressed me. So when I work with these kids, I always want them to feel accepted and normal. After all, we all have our own limitations."
He remembers a paraplegic little boy he met one summer a few years back.
All he wanted was love, Haley said -- and to smile.
"I think one of the things that is so rewarding about working with kids is that they have such a joy for life. They haven't lived long enough to know about all the worries out there," he said. "There is this innocence that leads to pure joy."
Each of the children he met in his four years as a counselor at Georgia's Camp Glission had an inspiring story to share.
And Haley made sure he was there to listen -- and learn.
"There are certain people that I was blessed to have very unique and personal experiences with," he said. "They are those people who leave that indelible impact on you and they have shaped my life."
He said he carries their stories with him -- packing the lessons learned from their struggles into his roles as a pilot, father, husband and friend.
He can see their faces when he looks at his own children.
"Whenever you can see who you are helping, when you can look into their eyes and know you are making their life better, it is just amazing," Haley said. "Whether it's a kid who is bound to a wheelchair, one who has terminal cancer and could die any day, or just some normal kid living in the suburbs, there is that same string that ties them all together -- they just want to feel love."
He thinks about the lives he has touched and those who, without knowing it, have left a lasting imprint on his heart.
But even now, he refuses to take credit for the time he spent with them, for "doing the right thing."
After all, he will tell you that something has been guiding him every step of the way.
"The real story is that in high school I became a Christian," Haley said. "And when I went to college, I was challenged in so many different ways and the Lord just put me in the right positions."
It was prayer, he says, that helped him obtain an ROTC scholarship from Vanderbilt University -- the first step on his path to the F-15E Strike Eagle.
Faith brought him home from those missions over the desert.
And every so often, he said, God reveals Himself.
"There are times when I am out flying, when there is not much going on -- you are on your way home or your way out and you look out and just see a sunset. You look out and see something that is so spectacularly beautiful and you know He is with you," Haley said. "I remember flying above a broken deck of clouds, maybe at 14,000 or 15,000 feet. You're flying right on top of it and there is this full moon.
"Now people on the ground, all they see is black because of the clouds. But there you are, above that. It is literally like a sea of moonlight. You see something like that and it is just like, 'Wow. I am so blessed.'"
His role as an airmen is just one of the "callings" that have earned him national recognition.
So he approaches the adversity that comes with being a fighter pilot in a squadron known across the globe in much the same way he interacts with each of the children he has met over the years -- letting his overwhelming faith drive him to be the very best.
"When we go downrange, unfortunately, that is not the time my calling is working with kids. My calling in those moments is to serve my country -- to be a warrior," he said. "So in those situations, I just do whatever I can to be the best warrior I can be for my country."
And each time he comes home, he will turn his focus, again, on serving his country and all mankind in other ways, as a teacher, mentor or sympathetic friend -- whatever "the calling" might be.
"There is an ineffable joy and satisfaction in finding God's purpose for our life," Haley said. "Knowing that you are fulfilling this purpose is the greatest motivation that I can fathom. It is my faith that drives me. That is just who I am."
And he hopes that years from now, when his own children are grown, they might follow the example set by this self-described "simple man" -- looking beyond the flight suit he wears day to day and see someone simply committed to doing the very best with what the Lord maps out for him.
Surely, this year's TOYA judges did.
"I think one of the greatest rewards of what I do is that sense of nobility that comes with serving your country," Haley said. "It brings with it a satisfaction no amount of money could buy."
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