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Fitzgerald remembers flying and leadership challenges upon retirement

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael E. Stencel, The Adjutant General of Oregon, left, presents The Legion of Merit certificate to Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, the outgoing 142nd Fighter Wing commander, right, during the 142nd Fighter Wing change of command ceremony, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore., Nov. 6, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael E. Stencel, The Adjutant General of Oregon, left, presents The Legion of Merit certificate to Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, the outgoing 142nd Fighter Wing commander, right, during the 142nd Fighter Wing change of command ceremony, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore., Nov. 6, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Members of the Oregon Air National Guard Change of Command Party enjoy a lighter moment during the ceremony as Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, (center) hands the command to Col. Duke A. Pirak, (fourth from left), Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore., Nov. 6, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs).

Members of the Oregon Air National Guard Change of Command Party enjoy a lighter moment during the ceremony as Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, (center) hands the command to Col. Duke A. Pirak, (fourth from left), Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore., Nov. 6, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs).

Oregon Air National Guard Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, 142nd Fighter Wing Commander pauses for a photograph with his family after his Fini Flight in the F-15 Eagle, Nov. 5, 2016, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Oregon Air National Guard Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, 142nd Fighter Wing Commander pauses for a photograph with his family after his Fini Flight in the F-15 Eagle, Nov. 5, 2016, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

U.S. Air Force Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, 142nd Fighter Wing commander hangs his photograph on the wall of retired wing commanders prior to his official retirement, Nov. 6, 2016, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs).

U.S. Air Force Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, 142nd Fighter Wing commander hangs his photograph on the wall of retired wing commanders prior to his official retirement, Nov. 6, 2016, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs).

PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- Most fighter pilots can trace their aspirations to fly from an experience early in life. Often the stimulus comes from a family connection or the rush of seeing and hearing a jet performance in person. For Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, a trip with a classmate to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona cast the die for a career in the cockpit.

"I was about 9-10 at the time, and I tagged along with a friend from school and his dad to watch F-15's take off and land around the Air Base." Fitzgerald recalled. "That lit a spark with me and after that I started researching and asking questions about what I needed to do to fly."

Part of Fitzgerald's pursuit involved building a plan: from taking the right classes and making the grades, to getting involved with extracurricular activities and playing on athletic teams.

This allowed him to avoid some of the pitfalls that many high school kids often fall into he said. "In a way it was like a carrot I set up for myself as I was able to say, 'no thanks, I am trying to get into the Air Force Academy.'"

The coursework and expectations at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, presented a new set of challenges for him. The rigors and demands on cadets can be intense in the moment, yet rewarding in the long run.

"I struggled nearly every day, but was able to scrap together the grades, during all four years of school," Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "Nobody before, nor anyone since has thrown their hat up higher (than me) on graduation day."

Upon graduation in 1990, he went on to complete Undergraduate Pilot Training in 1991 at Reese Air Force Base, Texas. He was later assigned as a Civil Engineer back where his flying aspirations began at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Eventually he finished Fighter Lead-in Training at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas in 1994, and then following his dream, began flying the F-15 Eagle during Initial Training at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida in 1995.

It was during his first assignment at Kadena Air Force Base, Japan that Fitzgerald met his wife Vanessa. She was visiting her sister, an Intelligence officer on base who was married to a friend of Fitzgerald's.

"It was one of those things where I knew right away that she was the one."

In 1997, the Fitzgerald's moved to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, where he served in various capacities as a flight commander, a mission commander, and a functional check pilot until becoming a member of the Oregon Air National Guard in February of 2000.

"I really didn't know much about the Air Guard," he said. "What appealed to me about making the move from active duty was the ability to still fly the Eagle and begin a commercial aviation career at the same time."

As a Captain with nearly 10 years of military experience, the move across country to Oregon allowed time for them to put down roots and build a family. After a one-year obligatory active duty period with the wing, he applied and was hired by a commercial airline, but the transition was interrupted by a bigger global incident.

"It wasn't the alert horn going off that woke me during my alert status on Sept. 11, it was a phone call from my wife where she told me to turn on the TV news," he said.

Within a short period of time, Airmen on duty became a razor-sharp force as the events of the day transpired and alert status rapidly multiplied.

"It was a quiet and determined atmosphere, I stayed on duty after my shift changed as each Redhawk assigned to the mission, loaded missiles and bullets on every airplane that could fly that day," he said. "We like America, coalesced immediately - and we knew our job."

"There isn't anyone that has a higher work ethic than Paul Fitzgerald," said longtime comrade and coworker, (ret.) Col. Jeremy Baenen, who first met Fitzgerald in 2002 when he joined the 142nd Fighter wing. The two shared a common background as graduates of the Air Force Academy and flying the F-15 aircraft on active duty. 

Their experience and leadership style formed a natural friendship. Baenen said that monthly interactions often turned into daily and sometimes hourly conversations.

This collaborative approach, Baenen described, allowed Fitzgerald to build consensus, while still maintaining core principles of operational integrity and job safety.

"He would seek out a wide perspective of viewpoints, everyone from senior leaders to young Airmen, to get a sense of their expertise on how to perform the mission and make the unit more proficient," said Baenen.

Recalling a lighter instance from their past, Baenen described Fitzgerald's focus on safety, even 'off the clock.'

"He asked me to come over to help with some yard equipment one weekend. When I arrived, he was up on the roof with protective gear and ropes all over the garage to include wearing a bike helmet," Baenen said laughing. "It was the 'full-meal-deal;' he had every base covered!"

Thoroughness, Baenen said, is a trait that has allowed Fitzgerald to focus on the mission but more importantly, understanding the people behind the mission.

"He is keenly aware that if you take care of your people, the job always gets done."

That compassion for people was never more evident than the recent promotion ceremony for Col. Christopher Lantagne, 142nd Fighter Wing Maintenance Group commander.

Prior to Lantagne assuming his current position, he discovered that his mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. The trip from Massachusetts for his family to attend his promotion ceremony in Portland would be impossible, so plans were made to have the ceremony at the hospital.

"I started to inquire about someone back east that could officiate my promotion," Lantagne said. "My parents missed my Change of Command ceremony so there was no way they were going to miss my promotion ceremony too."

After Lantagne was able to secure The Adjutant General for the Massachusetts National Guard, Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe to officiate his ceremony, Fitzgerald stepped in to make the trip and be the presiding officer for Lantagne's promotion to Colonel on Oct. 5.

"He (Fitzgerald) felt so strongly that this was his responsibly and his job, that he flew across the country on his own time and dime to promote me," said Lantagne. "I will always be extremely grateful to him."

Fitzgerald is scheduled to relinquish command of the 142nd Fighter Wing to Col. Duke A. Pirak, ending his 26-year military career during a formal change of command ceremony on Nov. 6, 2016.

In addition to his U.S. Air Force Academy bachelor's degree, Fitzgerald holds a master's degree in Management and Organizational Leadership, Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon. Upon retirement he plans to return to the commercial airline profession and spend more time with Vanessa and their three children.

Though he will miss the people, the military and flying the F-15 Eagle, Fitzgerald said he is also looking forward to the next challenge in life.

"Personally I know I am ready and the organization will be in good hands with Col. Pirak's leadership," he said. "When I look at the younger generation behind me, they are clearly ready as well."