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Florida Pilot’s Homecoming a Fitting end to Storied Career

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Chelsea Smith,
  • 125th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

JACKSONVILLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Fla. – Florida Air National Guard Lt. Col. Daniel Schiller’s last tour of duty couldn’t be a more satisfying final act in his two-decade military career. Just months before his retirement, the fighter pilot and chief of safety at the 125th Fighter Wing returns to Colombia — the country where he was born and placed for adoption more than four decades ago.

Schiller will participate in exercises Angel de los Andes and Relampago with about 130 Florida Air National Guard members. The Colombian-led exercises focus on building integrated, multidomain, synchronized combined operations to increase hemispheric security and regional stability.

Born to a Colombian mother and raised in the United States, Schiller grew up the oldest of four children with one other adopted sibling. From an early age, he said his adoption status was never a secret, and his parents’ transparency made navigating tough topics a little less complicated.

“It was always a part of the conversation growing up,” he said. “I always had an interest in who my birth parents were and if they were alive, but I never actively pursued a search for them.”

That is until he married and became a parent himself. His wife, Tanya, felt it important for him to learn about his genealogy and paint a more complete picture of his early life.

“My mother has always been interested in family genealogy, and that got me thinking about Dan’s family tree,” she said. “That’s when I started asking questions that I would want to know the answer to if I were in his shoes.”

As a father to four children unaware of their paternal family’s medical history, the impetus to find his biological family kindled.

In 2017, he joined a Facebook group connecting Colombian adoptees to their biological families. Within four hours of submitting his adoption paperwork, the Facebook moderators confirmed his biological mother was alive.

“I was stunned,” he said. “They were also able to tell me I had a brother and a sister. I figured it would take months or years before they would get back to me, but it was kind of a whirlwind from the time that I knew they were alive.”

After revealing the news to his wife and parents, he contacted his older half-brother, Juan, who still lives in Colombia. 

Juan, who was four years Schiller’s senior, was raised by his father but had enough of a relationship with their mother to shed light on the circumstances around his birth. Juan also revealed they had a younger half-sister who was adopted by another family and lives in Spain. A year after initially connecting, Schiller traveled to the country where he had roots, but no memories, to meet his mother and brother for the first time.

During his four-day trip, he visited the orphanage where he was placed before coming to the United States and toured Bogota. Mostly, he spent time getting to know his biological family. His birth mother was only fluent in Spanish, but the language barrier didn’t prevent him from forming a meaningful connection. Unfortunately, it was his last in-person meeting with her, as she died in 2020.

“I’m extremely grateful to have spent those few days getting to know her and meeting the woman who gave me life,” he said. “The opportunity to have a glimpse into who she was, where I was from and make lifelong bonds with my brother Juan was priceless.”

Five years later, Schiller’s return to Colombia for military exercises represents a full circle moment.

“It’s one of those stories that couldn’t have been written better,” he said. “If I stayed in Colombia, I might have gone on to become a Colombian Air Force pilot instead of a U.S. pilot. The chances of me having the life I had are probably one in a million just based on the sequence of events that had to happen. To be adopted by the right family, given the right education and to have the spark to want to become an Air Force pilot all led me here, and the opportunity to go back to Colombia.”

For Tanya, the 17-year “military rollercoaster” alongside her husband is decelerating, but the final stretch presents an opportunity to gain perspective.

“I think it’s a great chance for him to learn about his past, observe a different culture and experience what his life could have been like had he not been adopted,” she said. “I think that kind of perspective can really help a person embrace the path their life has taken.”

Whether fate or fortune, Schiller’s final mission in the Florida Air National Guard offers two reasons to celebrate as he closes this chapter of life — a poetic homecoming and end to a storied career.