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We could be heroes

2nd Lt. William Collette, 30th Space Wing public affairs officer, holds up his set of field training prop and wings (left) along with the set he received from WWII bomber pilot Noah Thompson, May 12, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

2nd Lt. William Collette, 30th Space Wing public affairs officer, holds up his set of field training prop and wings (left) along with the set he received from WWII bomber pilot Noah Thompson, May 12, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

Everyone has a hero. Whether yours was a famous basketball player, or a character in a book about magic and wizards, we all find someone’s footsteps to follow. For me, it was a World War II B-17 bomber pilot, named Noah Thompson, from the quaint city of Burlington, Vt.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, young man?” the elderly retired Air Force officer said to the young spirited middle schooler. “I want to be in the Air Force, just like you!” I quickly replied.

It was my thirteenth birthday, and I spent it at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, GA. Noah was a member of the 388th Bomb Group, which was part of the Eighth Air Force.

“Well if you hope to be in the Air Force,” Noah said, “here’s my address, so we can write each other and stay in touch!”

Fast forward six years, and I was off to field training at Maxwell AFB to represent the 590th Air Force ROTC Detachment. Shortly after, Noah mailed me his set of prop and wings, which matched the set I was awarded at Maxwell after graduation.

I was fortunate enough to travel from the University of North Carolina, where I was in school, to Burlington to visit Noah on occasion. Unfortunately, his health wasn’t improving as he approached the age of 100.

It became more difficult for him to write me back and hear my voice over the telephone, but it did not keep him from hanging on to hopefully see me commission one day.

Eight years after we met, and a shoe box full of letters later, I bought another plane ticket to Burlington. Without announcing my travel plans, I arrived at a quiet retirement home, and changed into my uniform.

“Is Noah Thompson still here?” I asked the front desk politely. They directed me to his room, and I knocked on his door.

It slowly opened, and without introduction, I was greeted by a smile of instant recognition and a “Hello, Lieutenant”.

A dream that was shared by two Airmen for nearly a decade had finally materialized, and I couldn’t be more proud to follow in the footsteps of a true American hero.

By the time I was sent to Fort Meade, Md. for Public Affairs tech school, Noah’s days were numbered. I took my last weekend off to fly to Burlington to visit him one last time, as a fully qualified public affairs officer.

I’ll never forget the last thing he said to me through the tears in his eyes, “thanks for being my friend.”

His family told me that none of his children decided to go the military route, and he felt like I was the one who carried his legacy to serve.

If there’s anything I can learn from Noah, it’s that wearing this uniform is one of the greatest accomplishments and responsibilities I’ll ever have.

Every day I drive on base, I get to work with men and women just like Noah. Airmen who are proud to serve, humble in every sense of the word, and true American heroes.

I’ll end this the same way Noah ended his book, titled, “A Pilot’s Story.” And that is “I [will] not trade these years for anything else I can think of. It [will be] an opportunity of a lifetime!”