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3rd Herd is family business for Wilsons

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- It isn't unusual to have a son follow in his father's footsteps, learning the ropes of the family business, entering the same career or even serving in the same elected position.

But it is unusual to have father and son serving together in the same service, at the same base and in the same unit.

"I'm sure it's very rare," says Master Sgt. Dennis Wilson. "It's funny because it's not common." Both serve in the 3rd Combat Communications Group -- the "3rd Herd" -- where Sergeant Wilson is the superintendent of the Base Level Systems Flight for the 31st Combat Communications Squadron while his son, Airman James Wilson, is assigned to the 33rd.

"I wanted to go overseas originally," explains Airman Wilson. But a swapping of orders found the new airman leaving technical training for an assignment at Tinker, a place he knows well. This is the elder Wilson's second tour with the 3rd Herd, having served with the unit in the mid-1990s.

"I have almost half my career here," explains the 21-year veteran Sergeant Wilson. "I like the Herd."

"Me, too," chimes in Airman Wilson, who arrived at Tinker in June after joining the Air Force eight months ago.

Despite being born in an Air Force hospital and spending his childhood on Air Force bases, joining the Air Force wasn't Airman Wilson's first choice.

"I went to school for a semester and I didn't enjoy it," Airman Wilson says. Joining the Air Force, however, was "always in the back of my head."

Join he did, progressing through tech school before receiving orders to report to New Mexico. A friend had orders for Oklahoma but wasn't keen on an assignment to Tinker. Airman Wilson was, the result being a trading of assignments. Little did he know he'd be serving in the same group as his father.

"I wasn't exactly overjoyed when I heard he was coming because I'd just gotten him off my couch," laughs Sergeant Wilson, "His mom's very happy he's here."

Although they rarely see one another during their daily duties, they do spend time as a family after hours. And supper around the table is usually filled with fatherly advice and tips from one professional to another. But being in close proximity in the same service means walking a fine line between urging his son to succeed and letting him learn from his own mistakes.

"I try not to tell him how to do his business," Sergeant Wilson says. "I try to let (his colleagues) do it. But it's hard."

"It goes both ways," says Airman Wilson. "He gets on me if I do something wrong."

"I'm tougher on him than I would be on my Airmen," Sergeant Wilson admits. "But he's a good kid."

When Airman Wilson recently attended the Combat Readiness School, Sergeant Wilson resisted the urge to visit his son to check on his progress. As a former flight supervisor overseeing the CRS, Sergeant Wilson didn't need to go anywhere to know how his son was doing.

"People would come up to me and say, 'You're Sergeant Wilson's kid,'" Airman Wilson says. Knowing that father and son are serving in the same group provides fellow Airmen with plenty of opportunities for good-natured ribbing. Although the two rarely see each other while on duty, they both wound up receiving flu shots together.

"I hardly ever see him," Sergeant Wilson says. "But I walked in the door and everyone said, 'Daddy's here!'"

But joining the Air Force is giving Airman Wilson a different perspective on his father's career. "It's different that what I imagined," Airman Wilson says. "I respect his rank a lot more than I ever did. It means more."

"It's hard to explain to your children and your family what you really do," Sergeant Wilson says, who deployed for 10 out of his first 14 months during his latest assignment to Tinker. "I think he understands it more. I think he understands more what his dad's gone through."

Mrs. Wilson doesn't worry about having both husband and son serving together, Sergeant Wilson says, because she knows the Air Force does all it can to make sure its Airmen are ready.

"She knows the military really tries to take care of us," Sergeant Wilson says, "and they do a good job."

Serving together does present some rare opportunities, such as when Airman Wilson received his first stripe at a commander's call. It is tradition that the new promotee select two others to "pin" on his stripes at the ceremony. Airman Wilson picked his dad.

"I was kind of surprised," Sergeant Wilson said. "He didn't tell me he was going to call me up there...How often do you get to pin on your son's rank?"

"I got a good reaction," Airman Wilson says, smiling.

Airman Wilson isn't sure he'll make the Air Force a career, but like his father, he believes the Air Force is preparing him for his future.

"I still want to go back to school eventually," Airman Wilson says. "When I do, I'll be better prepared."

"It's a great place to grow up," Sergeant Wilson says.

Having deployed to Aviano, Italy for a number of years, both Wilsons are eager to deploy again. Sergeant Wilson will get his wish with an assignment next year to Spangdahlem, Germany.

"That will probably be my last assignment," Sergeant Wilson says. "I kind of jokingly tell him I don't know what I want to do when I grow up. I'll have a second career. I just don't know what it will be."

Airman Wilson, too, would like to go overseas again.

"I feel when I do deploy, I'll be ready," he says. "I'm looking forward to it."