HomeNewsCommentariesDisplay

Commentary: A Proud Heritage

Airman 2nd Class (Sep.) Wilbur Pleets sits for a portrait during an interview in Mandan, N.D., May 3, 2016. Pleets served in Europe as an aircraft missile accessory repairman during the Vietnam War era. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class J.T. Armstrong)

Airman 2nd Class (Sep.) Wilbur Pleets sits for a portrait during an interview in Mandan, N.D., May 3, 2016. Pleets served in Europe as an aircraft missile accessory repairman during the Vietnam War era. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class J.T. Armstrong)

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- We hear it over and over from our leadership as it's reiterated at each commander's call. It feels like a mandatory tag line at the end of every speech. It's the topic that the chief will inevitably have to 'piggyback' off of.

What am I talking about? We all know the phrase, "Airmen, know your Air Force heritage..." Even our Airman's Creed states that we are "faithful to a proud heritage."

We all read the stories about Jimmy Doolittle and the Raiders, Henry "Hap" Arnold, and certainly, the Tuskegee Airmen.  We've memorized the key dates in the Air Force's historical timeline, and we share a slice of cake on our service's birthday.

This is what I thought it meant to know your heritage, because that's the heritage I'm told to know for my promotion test, right?

At the beginning of this year I was told by my leadership to make a list of work-related goals for 2016.
My goals were simple:  Write more stories, strengthen my photography skills and make Senior Airman Below the Zone.  In order to work towards my goal of improving my photography, I made an effort to take more portraits.

What began as a single cold-call interview formed into a personal project taking portraits of veterans, and in turn learning about my heritage - a heritage more personal than something I could ever find in the Air Force Professional Development Guide.

I drove a little more than two hours to Mandan, North Dakota, to meet with a man named Wilbur Pleets. Airman 2nd Class (Sep.) Pleets served in Europe as an aircraft missile accessory repairman during the Vietnam War era.

Pleets and I sat at a small table in his living room. He sipped his coffee and reminisced about his time in the service, and I tried to catch every word with my pen and notepad.

"I remember the little pots of coffee on the flightline, that Airmen sat around talking about being home," said Pleets with a chuckle as he took another drink from his own cup.

We sat for hours as he told me stories of his time in France, Holland, Ireland, North Africa, Spain, Germany and Iceland.

"Airman 2nd Class Pleets reporting," said Wilbur, recalling his first moments overseas as he reported to his barracks chief. "He said, 'where you from chief,' he must have known I was Indian."

Pleets, who is Standing Rock Sioux, told me about his experience as  one of the few Native Americans, whom he knew of, at his air base.

Pleets also spoke of his visit to the American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France and seeing the remnants of WWII.

"My uncle, Herbert Buffaloboy, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and was in the invasion of Normandy," said  Pleets proudly. Then after a long pause of contemplation, he continued in a more somber tone.

"We saw some of those places, where they kept Jews. It made you upset how people died there."

There was a certain light in his eyes as he spoke about his time in the Air Force, remembering old friends and long forgotten memories.

It was that moment when it hit me. This is my heritage.

Pleets is just one of many Airmen that served their country before me and paved the way to make us the world's greatest Air Force.