4th Operations Group commander stands down
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 12, 2008 1:47 PM
A sign posted on a door at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, served as a poignant reminder for Eric Nelson of why he is a fighter pilot.
"The mission is an 18-year-old with an M-16," it read.
He came across that phrase before each mission he flew over the desert.
And each time, it was "humbling."
Humbling because, for most of his life, Nelson never saw himself as one of the guys protecting Coalition forces on the ground.
He never expected to command an F-15E Strike Eagle.
In fact, the Air Force colonel would tell you his military career has unfolded in one "incredible opportunity" after another, one dream realized after the next.
Commanding the 4th Fighter Wing's Operations Group has been no different.
So a week after he made his final approach into Seymour Johnson Air Force Base as one of its senior leaders, he downplayed the sadness associated with moving on and focused on the celebration waiting for him on the tarmac.
"There is no way I could have planned this or even imagined that I would be this fortunate," he said. "It's more than a dream. I would have never dared to dream it."
Not growing up in a rural town in western Kentucky when G.I. Joes and plastic soldiers were the only thing he knew about the military.
Not when he and his buddies spent their free time in the trees, "swinging off the sheds out back and ambushing each other."
Not even when he ran his fingers across a military aircraft for the first time as a Boy Scout touring an Army base.
For Nelson, the dream began much later than many of his colleagues -- after college, marriage and the birth of his first child.
"I was working at a plant in Alabama that covered about 1,700 acres. ... It just happened to be on a visual low-level that the Navy used," he said. "So every day, I would watch these Navy trainers fly over. Occasionally, you would see a two-ship of fighters. I just began to think, 'You know, being a chemist isn't all it's cracked up to be.'"
So he picked up a phone and called an Air Force recruiter.
"And I have never looked back," he said.
With his wife, Kim, in his corner, Nelson completed Officer Training School in 1987.
He hoped to fly F-4s one day, maybe see some combat.
But "the guiding hand of providence" had other plans, he said.
He ended up in an F-111 squadron at Lakenheath, England.
"Feeling the different stages of the afterburner, and then taking an 80,000-pound F-111 down the runway, it was just awesome. And from there, it only gets better," Nelson said. "You go low-level and pin the wings, so you're like a dart going through the sky -- 200 feet, 600 knots ... it's almost giggly."
And he saw more than a little combat -- deploying with his squadron in support of Operation Desert Storm where he logged more than 30 combat hours over Iraq.
"I thought, at that time, I had seen it. They told you in training that there was a war involving the Air Force every 20 years," he said. "I said, 'My career is over. This is what I came to the Air Force to do. The rest will be downhill.'"
Particularly after some of the moments he had in the cockpit "after the meat of the missions."
"We would come back from our combat missions in Iraq at about 30,000 feet, flying over the northern part of Saudi Arabia coming south. There was no cultural lighting. Over there, the sky, in general, is just so black. You can see all the stars," Nelson said. "But one night, we're coming back, and there are some towering cumulus clouds below. There is just enough light to see the clouds. And then, right across the top, a meteor shower. You see that and you get this feeling, 'There is nothing better to do on Earth.'"
That feeling was reinforced when he transitioned to the F-15E Strike Eagle.
"I had always wanted to fly the F-4. It was kind of my dream. But everyone said, 'The F-15, this is what the F-4 should have been,'" Nelson said. "To put the nose up and then look back between the tails and see the runway directly behind you, it's something you can never experience in an F-111."
He flew the Strike Eagle at Lakenheath and "spent a lot of time over northern Iraq," until 1995, when he was assigned to Seymour Johnson's own 334th Fighter Squadron.
And when he left Goldsboro, he had no idea he would return one day as a group commander.
"Sometimes, I think our steps are ordered," Nelson said. "I've been pinching myself for about two-and-a-half years now."
As Operations Group commander, the colonel was charged with overseeing several units -- including all four fighter squadrons.
The airmen, he said, impressed him.
But it was not just watching them fight through "100-degree days in North Carolina" that was inspiring.
When Nelson deployed to Bagram, he watched 4th airmen "pour their heart and soul into their work during those many months away from home."
Like the 336th Fighter Squadron air crews he flew with over Afghanistan.
One mission from that tour stands out.
Nelson and members of the 336th were responding to an ambush outside Kabul.
Allied forces on the ground had been hit.
"When we got there, those vehicles were burned beyond recognition. Our role now was keeping the bad guys at bay," Nelson said. "Our guys on the ground, they were definitely in the hurt locker."
As the jets circled the scene and waited for medical personnel to arrive, that phrase from the sign on the door set it.
"The mission is an 18-year-old with an M-16," it read.
"I think that is what motivates the common air crew," Nelson said.
So as he handed off command of the 4th Operations Group this morning at Seymour Johnson, he thought about his tour at Bagram.
And he reflected on his stint among the "finest collection of leaders" he has ever seen in the Air Force.
This assignment, like the first time he fired up a fighter jet, has been a dream, he said.
One he would have rather not seen end.
"You know, on that final flight, it was awfully hard to land," Nelson said. "We went to the range, dropped seven 500-pound bombs, came back and beat up the pattern for about a half an hour. It was just starting to get a little sad. So I said, 'Let's go. We might as well land now.'"
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