05/24/12 — Doherty's final flight

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Doherty's final flight

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 24, 2012 1:46 PM

An Air Force general extends his arms -- and a flag that represents a band of brothers and sisters that has thrived since its inception during World War II.

The man on the receiving end doesn't hesitate.

He knows the guidon -- and the responsibilities that come with it -- are his.

Moments later, Patrick Doherty salutes members of the 4th Fighter Wing for the first time as their commander.

"It was a special moment," the colonel said. "It's a happy moment, a thankful moment, but it's kind of intimidating as well. It's a huge mission, so you know it's a lot of work, you know there are a lot of great things to take on, and you're just hungry to go after it."


Hundreds of Wayne County residents have gathered on the hallowed grounds reserved as a place to honor those who have fallen in combat.

Tears fall when a lone bugler plays taps.

Children cheer when a group of F-15E Strike Eagles streaks overhead and executes the missing man formation.

Doherty is "humbled" to be among the faces in the crowd.

"That really was a neat privilege. You're just so honored ... to get to do what we do each and every day, and, gosh, you just have to pay respect to the generations that came in front of you," he said. "It's a very important message to recognize the past so our future generations understand the connection ... and the sacrifices they will have to take on. Hopefully, forever this country will be the light of the world, but it's not guaranteed. People need to know that."


Nearly 70 Strike Eagles taxi around the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line.

It won't be long before they execute a historic launch -- their way of paying tribute to the aviators who knocked the Luftwaffe out of the skies more than 60 years ago.

Doherty's jet is first in line.

"When I turned, got off the runway and looked down, I said, 'That's probably one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen,'" he said. "It was just phenomenal -- the true sense of air power displayed. That was a neat moment. Everybody did a phenomenal job ... to drive home a point.

"We did it for teamwork. We did it for flexing the power of the 4th Fighter Wing. And it was a phenomenal effort. This is just a great team, and sometimes we take it for granted, but God, they are good. They are so good at what they do."


The walls in the commander's office are bare.

His personal effects have been cleared from his desk.

This meeting feels different, Doherty says, than others he and his wife, Dee Dee, have participated in from a seat on the lone couch that still remains.

But they share a laugh when the colonel, against her wishes, talks about just how much his spouse has accomplished during her 26-month stint as the 4th's first lady.

"You did a lot of stuff and I'm just going to talk about you for a little bit," Doherty said. "I'm extremely proud of you."

And they stare into each other's eyes after she talks about witnessing the sacrifice that comes with serving one's nation.

Dee Dee admits that it was emotional to be a bystander when warbound aviators took flight.

"When I would go out and see the jets take off with the ladies, I would actually tear up because I remember those times and I'm feeling for them," she said.

But she also shared in loved ones' excitement when, after months away from home, their heroes touched back down.

"I enjoy it. I really do. I love seeing the kids get excited," Dee Dee said. "It gives me goosebumps just talking about it.

"It is just important to support -- either encouraging support or cheering support -- whichever event you're at. It's a family and I just love being a part of it."

She knows how much her support would mean because she has been the mother who had to endure the father of her children saying goodbye.

And she knows because she has dealt with the trepidation that sets in when your partner -- your rock -- is in harm's way.

"When you're going through it, you're going through it and you're doing it because that's what you do," Dee Dee said. "I do it because I love him and I love the country and I want peace. So being out there ... it was kind of my way to say, 'I am here helping lead the support system if you need something.'"


Doherty hears the sound of twin engines being fired up and turns to his wife.

He knows that after he relinquishes command June 1, there is no telling when -- or if -- he'll find himself, again, in the cockpit of the world's most battle-tested dual role fighter.

"I'm gonna miss that," he said. "I'm gonna miss that sound and what comes with that sound -- all the great airmen doing great things."

Dee Dee starts to cry when her husband predicts what that last salute will feel like.

Being stationed in Goldsboro has been, in many ways, a dream.

"It's going to be bittersweet," Doherty says, as he puts an arm around the woman who has been with him every step of the way.

"We feel so blessed to have had this opportunity. So I guess when I hand off that guidon, I'm going to be continuing to think, like I do today, of how fired up I am about this team and what great things it's going to do in the future. I've just had a phenomenal team around me.

"So I'll miss all the exceptional people that are a part of this wing, from airman basic all the way to my colonels. And we're going to miss the heck out of this community. They are top notch people. The best in the Air Force."