TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Home Away from Home’s “Meet the Heroes Night” on March 22 featured a panel of distinguished U.S. veterans from different eras of military service who shared their collective wisdom with young Airmen at the American Red Cross office in Oklahoma City.
“Meet the Heroes Night” was a collaborative effort between HAFH and American Red Cross of Oklahoma City. It was designed to capture and share each veteran’s stories about their time in the service with Tinker Air Force Base’s younger Airmen, their HAFH host families and the base’s senior leadership.
Five heroes formed the panel, including retired Col. Stephanie Wilson, former 72nd Air Base Wing commander; retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Alexander; retired Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Clifton Howard; “Enlisted Aviator of the Year 2005” retired USAF Master Sgt. Jacquelyn Baker and United States Navy World War II veteran Ivan Stewart, a Pearl Harbor survivor.
Each speaker participated in a question-and-answer session before taking about five minutes to share their own stories. Wilson was the first speaker. When she was asked what some of her most challenging experiences were as the former 72nd Air Base Wing commander at Tinker, she said it was when she had to make difficult decisions that impacted people’s lives.
“Those are weighty decisions for me because I remember being 21 or 22,” Wilson said. “You don’t always consider the long-term consequences, so those were weighty decisions.”
She said she would have liked to have known then what she knows now when she was in her early 20s. In 1996, when she was 25, Wilson said she was deployed near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.
“The world was a beautiful place and life was good, I was having fun and you couldn’t have told me that anything different could happen,” she said. “Honestly, it wasn’t out of ignorance or anything, it’s when you’re young, you kind of look at life that way. On that deployment I learned that anything could happen in the blink of an eye.
“It is important for you to remember, not that life is short necessarily, because I want your life to be long and I want you to enjoy all that you want to do and all that you dream of fulfilling, but what I think is important for you to remember is that it can change in the blink of an eye, so be ready. When I say be ready, I mean for you to be what the USAF has taught you to be. Be ready to bring that skill every day, anytime.”
Wilson said it is essential for Airmen to have each other’s backs and she credits an unknown Airman for coming to her aid on the evening of June 25, 1996, when a truck bomb packed with 5,000 pounds of explosives detonated at the Khobar Towers complex and destroyed an eight-story building that housed Wilson and other USAF personnel. Nearly 500 people were injured and 19 U.S. Airmen died from the blast.
“I know they are calling us heroes tonight, but I’m nobody’s hero,” she said. “I’m a survivor, and I’m a survivor tonight because a fellow Airman helped me to survive. When Khobar Towers happened, some Airman, I don’t know his name and I may never know his name, put me on his back and ran with me away from danger; that was not his job description.
“There was nobody holding a gun to his head telling him to do it. It was an Airman taking care of an Airman. So, I just want you to remember that you may be called upon someday to do something that someday, one day, will be labeled as heroic, but that day you’re just doing your job. Just be ready.”
Wilson was injured and later received a Purple Heart for her service in Saudi Arabia.
In 2008, she was deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom to serve with the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The Army did not have enough engineers in service to support their operations so the USAF pitched in by sending a team of seven engineers to help. Wilson said she took the team to the Army base and they were embedded with an airborne combat team unit out of Germany.
“I had the opportunity to work, live and breathe with the Army for six months and from that deployment I earned my first Bronze Star,” she said. “It was a great experience, I call it though, and I don’t want to offend any brethren in the room, but I do call it my ‘Air Force Appreciation Year’ because we went to Army training before going to Afghanistan, then six months with the Army in Afghanistan and I’m just glad I chose the Air Force.”
Wilson earned a second Bronze Star after being stationed in Qatar and serving as a mission support commander in 2012. She went on to serve a distinguished Air Force career as a senior military adviser to a Senate-confirmed assistant Secretary of the Air Force where she guided daily operations of the 100-person team developing policy for USAF basing, installation and management, as well as environment, safety and occupational health and energy at the Pentagon in in Washington D.C. Her most recent assignment was serving as the 72nd Air Base Wing commander at Tinker. When she retired in 2017, she had served 24 years as a leader and engineer in the USAF. Wilson said she wanted to work for a local nonprofit and she now serves as the executive director of the YMCA of Midwest City.
“As executive director, it gives me the opportunity to give back to my community,” she said. “We find ways to help families and people make connections and fulfill their potential in life.”
The other heroes also spoke about their military careers and the young Airmen gave all the speakers their rapt attention during the event. HAFA Co-founder Pam Kloiber also announced that the nonprofit organization will have more events in the coming weeks.
For more information on the Home Away From Home program, call 405-503-5041.