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They went through Arizona State together as student cadets and separated in the wild blue yonder as airmen, but this week a special group of alumni reunited in Tempe after years of seeing each other only in war zones and in social media.
About 20 Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps grads from the 1990s looked forward to tailgating, the game against Oregon, visiting Old Main and meeting the current corps of cadets — but mostly catching up with each other.
“It was like a fraternity,” said Lt. Col. Greg Grattop, a pilot with the Arizona Air National Guard who organized the reunion with his wife, Susanne. “We did everything together. … They’re my best friends, even if I haven’t talked to them in 10 years. I could talk on the phone with them tomorrow and be like we haven’t skipped a beat.”
Col. Wes French, vice wing commander for the 173rd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, said he was really looking forward to seeing the guys he sweated classes, tests and marches with.
“It’s fun to see guys’ names you haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years,” said French. “It’s pretty awesome to see who’s on the list and who’s going to be there.”
French ran into another ASU Air Force ROTC alum in Iraq years ago.
“We didn’t even know we were at the same base,” said French, an F-15 pilot. “I ran into another guy at a Red Flag (a huge war-game training exercise). I see them all over the world, and it’s always in weird places.”
Lt. Col Fred Atwater made a call while on the base in Balad, Iraq, and an ASU ROTC alum answered the phone.
“That’s how we found out we were both at Balad,” Atwater said. “Some of the other fellows I’ve run across in various parts of the world on mission-related tasks.”
Col. Matt Zuber said in general they’ve kept in touch because of their collegiate bond.
“We kind of cut our teeth and tried to learn new military skills and learn our career path,” said Zuber, a developmental engineer. “Those guys are pilots, and they’re operators. They’ve got funner and hairier stories about flying into Baghdad, and I’m a science guy.”
Atwater said ASU gave him a lot.
“I was a mission officer with a pilot slot the day I graduated from Arizona State,” said Atwater, the assistant director of the Nevada Test and Training Range at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. “I couldn’t be where I am today without those roots: officership, workmanship, pride, discipline, all those things that go with being in the military. ASU was a lot of fun. ROTC was a lot of fun too.”
Atwater ran into Grattop about a month ago. “All the other guys, it’s been several years,” he said. “Absolutely some of the best friends I’ve had in my life.”
With social media, it’s easy to see what everyone is up to, but opportunities to talk are few and far between. Now that the alums have risen in their careers, many of them are in command jobs.
“We’re all just getting busy with kids and everything else,” said Grattop, who flies the KC-135 Stratotanker. “Unless you live next to each other, it’s tough to keep in touch.”
When they do get together, they all turn 20 again.
“It’s all ‘Remember this? Remember that?’ ” Grattop said. “We’re all doing different jobs in the Air Force, so we talk about what we’re doing, talk shop. It’s fun. I know what a KC-135 pilot does, but not what an F-15 pilot does.”
Grattop said they all look back fondly even on such miseries as marching around in cadence and spending a hellish month during sophomore year going to officer basic training.
“It was a blast,” he said. “It’s like a small little club. Everyone has one goal: to get into the Air Force and do whatever.”
In addition to ROTC and earning two degrees, Zuber was a four-year letterman on ASU’s track and field team. Juggling all those commitments trained him well for the rest of his life, which has included being a flight test engineer, Air Force Academy instructor, manager of the Saudi Arabian joint foreign military sales program and a lead on the space-based laser that shot down a ballistic missile.
“It really made you learn to manage your time properly,” Zuber said of his time at ASU. “If you didn’t, you were behind all the time. In real life, those skill sets of time management and discipline really paid off dividends when I was working with multiple programs and dealing with issues in those programs, and at the same time I was being an athlete for the Air Force, which made it even more challenging. It really laid the foundations for the rest of my career.”
All the alumni were looking forward to meeting the current cadets at ASU on Friday morning, to talk to them about what helped them get through college and the program, and what they’d do differently now.
“That’s why I’m coming back — to give a little bit back to the Corps,” Zuber said. “I can say, “Hey this is where I screwed up, this is what I wished I’d known when I went on active duty.’ …
“All of us, when Greg kind of said let’s have a ’90s reunion, a lot of us were on board and wanted to go back and reconnect with the younger generation. It’s really important to tell them they’re coming from a great place, and be proud of that and let me give you some advice on what not to do. I think the exciting thing is to be giving back.”
French wanted to tell the cadets all their efforts will bear fruit.
“I would like to spend some time with the cadets and impart some wisdom, that there is a great light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s not a lot of fun now, but it really pays off in the end.”
Atwater’s son is a first-year cadet in the Air Force ROTC at ASU.
“I didn’t push that on him; he went into it all on his own,” Atwater said. “He wants to be a pilot as well. He wants to fly helicopters in the Air Force. He has to do it all on his own. I’m not assisting him with it.”
What does Atwater want to tell his son’s class?
“Look guys, you can do and be anyone you want to be in the future,” said Atwater, who has flown several planes, including F-15s in combat in Iraq. “Take me, for example. I’m an average guy; I’ve never won a smart contest. But I’m highly motivated.”
One alum will not be reuniting with his brothers. Capt. Kirk Jones was killed on an F-15 training flight over Scotland in 2001. He was not forgotten: He was recognized at the game, with his father present.
It’s the kind of touch that cements ASU’s distinction as an outstanding institution.
“Somehow we have a great reputation,” Zuber said. “You go out in the field and say you went to ASU and a lot of people say, ’Hey you went there? I know a guy from there.’ ASU has a great reputation.”
French remained grateful for the day he became a Sun Devil.
“I just had a really great time at ASU,” he said. “It’s a great college to go to. I’m really thankful for choosing ASU.”