Rose Shepperd’s Story – Welcome to the Fighter World, Mrs. Shepperd!

Welcome to the Fighter World, Mrs. Shepperd!

I was told fighter pilots’ wives are attracted to men of action. Ah, but learning to LIVE with them is the rub, and also the reward. I have learned one must be flexible, independent, and have a sense of humor to make life in the “fighter lane” work.

All was fun and camaraderie with USAFA classmates and wives at Willie where we invented “tubing” on the Salt River and later at Luke, eight bachelors shared a house and ran up the party flag weekly. It was fun. Life was good! We were young and the wide world awaited us…in “the Real Air Force.”

From Luke, Don got his long dreamed assignment to the 417 th “Red Dorks” at Ramstein. Whoo-Hoo…Livin’ the Dream. Life was good! At Rhein-Main we entered the “Real” Air Force. “Not so fast, Lt. Shepperd, The Air Force has reassigned you to Hahn.” (Wha’ ? Where?) Gary Tompkins, from the 81 st , TFS met us in his VW bug band off we went to Hahn in the Eifel. Already at Hahn were Mike Major and Pete Robinson, USAFA classmates and Rudy Bow was to arrive in the next weeks. We quickly put the disappointment of Ramstein behind us as we rejoined old friends.

At Hahn’s BOQ the first morning after arrival, the loud speakers and horns blared with a, “THIS IS A CUT BAIT ALERT.” (Wha’? Who?) “Welcome to VICTOR ALERT, Lt. Shepperd” – oh you too, Mrs. Shepperd. You can go back to sleep once he leaves and your heart stops pounding – and by the way folks, the Air Force needs you to vacate the BOQ right away as we have a bunch of TDYers inbound this week. As cadets and student pilots the men always spoke eagerly of “the Real Air Force.”

Now, “CUT BAIT ALERT and move out NOW!” – I wasn’t so sure.

But, we were flexible and settled in with old friends and made new ones. I learned to be independent as the squadron deployed and sat alerts in far off places, Italy, Turkey, Wheelus – on holidays and anniversaries – you know the drill. I even learned to go back to sleep after the sirens wailed atop our base housing buildings – causing every child and dog to add to the cacophony in the stairwells; sirens wailing, boots thumping down the steps, babies crying and dogs barking…life in the fighter lane. You have to have that sense of humor. Oh, and, “By the way, Shepperds, your building is being designated for NCOs, and NO you can’t stay anyway. You will have to move, but only across the street. You’ll hardly notice the disruption.” Yeah, right.

“The Real Air Force” says F-4s are coming to Hahn! – YEAY! “Not so fast Lt. Shepperd. Those of you who don’t have one year’s retainability in USAFE won’t be going to F-4s. We moved again from flying fighters at Hahn to Augsburg, Germany and the 2d Bde, 24 th ID where Lt. Shepperd, was now an ALO. He controlled air strikes and kept the Red Hordes at bay. Not one Russian soldier got past Augsburg.

“The Real Air Force” can’t control everything. I gave birth to our son, Tyler, and we were living in a beautiful area of Germany. Life was good, but we learned the Army doesn’t live as well as the Air Force.

Uh-Oh – the “Dogs of War” had begun to bay and Don had to decide whether to accept an Olmstead Scholarship (in PARIS) or volunteer for Vietnam. Don always lets me vote, but doesn’t always count my vote. He requested Vietnam. What was wrong with this man? Life was not looking so good. We would lose many friends in that far away war, and our country would lose its way for years to come.

We had six weeks back in the U.S. before Don had to leave. In that time we bought a house “back home” in Denver. I wanted to be as anchored as possible if something awful happened. He left on Friday, Oct 13, on Flight #113, and sat in row 13. Two of those in his row were killed, two were killed in the row in front and another was a POW for five and one-half years. Life was definitely NOT good.

Other fighter pilot wives lived in Denver, and we leaned on one another and shared phone calls, good and bad news, children’s outings and meals. Thank goodness we had each other. There was no organized “Family Support” in those days. To wit…our furniture had been damaged in transit across the Atlantic. I had to complete the claims process after Don left for Vietnam. At Lowry I stood in line, balancing seven- month -old Tyler on one hip, doing my best “mama sway” to soothe him. I finally reached the window and presented the paperwork. The non-com behind the window looked over the documents and pushed them back towards me, saying, “The service member must sign all these.”  I explained he was in Vietnam, and, “I have a full Power of Attorney.“ He retorted, “Doesn’t matter,” in a final tone. I protested again, citing time and distance, and, “He has a lot of other things going on.” I was defensive and angered and the fretful baby on my hip wasn’t happy either.

Thankfully, help was about to roll-in. Standing behind and within earshot, was a grizzled colonel who leaned around me and intervened with the bureaucratic NCO. “Sergeant, process the damn papers, she’s got the POA and her husband is getting his ass shot at while you argue a moot point.” THAT was “family support” in the Vietnam era, and I was grateful for it. The only other family support came from a civilian furnace repairman who, upon learning Don was in Vietnam, wrote “NO CHARGE” on the bill and said it was the least he could do. Not everyone was opposed to the war. I was near tears of gratitude as I thanked him that cold winter morning.

Don and I faithfully exchanged daily letters and tapes to discuss life and ask and answer questions about the mundane things in life. I noticed he wasn’t responding to questions and seemed not to remark on things I told him about Tyler. Hmmmmmm.

Christmas came, and Ty played with the boxes and ribbons from his toys. We shared the day with our families, but I felt Don’s absence acutely. Tyler didn’t know his father, only the picture he “night-nighted” before bedtime. The ever painful, silent question: Would he ever know him, would Don come home?

After the holidays, I learned why there weren’t answers to my question, nor comments about Ty. Don was a Misty, and before Christmas, had moved to Phu Cat, flying in NORTH Vietnam. Oh, Dear God. . . NO! I’d heard about Misty from another wife…Misty was very a dangerous, high loss mission. Risky, too risky. What was he thinking?

Life was NOT GOOD; sense of humor exhausted; forget flexible; I was independent out of necessity, but did not like it. There go the “musts” of being a fighter pilot’s wife. I vacillated between being a news junkie – soaking up each detail of the previous day’s raids and aircraft losses or avoiding all news of the war. Neither worked, I was a nervous Nellie, not a stoic fighter pilot’s wife. I once misplaced my USAFA engagement ring, a miniature of Don’s class ring. I nearly panicked since I told myself as long as I had it on my finger he would be safe.  No logic, but anything to get me through the night…until I remembered our nights and days were opposite, or something like that…round and round my mind worried. One of the worst times was the shoot down of one of our best friends, Jim Brinkman. I spoke to his parents and his sister, and I drove down to his funeral and burial at USAFA. A truly awful day – one in a year of anxious days and weeks and months.

The longest year in recorded history finally ended when Don called from California, saying, “I’m back in the U.S.” A few hours later, I picked him up at the Denver airport and we went home where my parents had awakened Tyler because they wanted to witness father and son seeing one another. I had been telling Ty that, “Daddy was coming HOME soon,” for a week. When he looked at Don’s picture, he had seen nightly, then at Don, he said, “Daddy home.” No dry eyes among us.


We had an assignment to Luke again, and were even sure of on-base housing our friends had “heads-upped” about. Don was happy about 104s at Luke, even though he had been selectively, by name, retained and his thoughts about the airlines scuttled. It was OK … we were going to be at Luke again with a boatload of friends. Let the good times roll. On the way home from the airport Don said he had just heard there may not be a Luke assignment.

Uh-Oh. “The Real Air Force” learned Capt. Shepperd was fluent in French and so instead of Luke, they needed him to teach South Vietnamese pilots gunnery in the A-37…. England…. Louisiana. Really? Yes. This change thing was not going in our favor. We decided together that maybe it was time to leave the Air Force Mother Ship for the airlines life. Don put in his resignation, but the Air Force wanted to talk about it, and invited him to AF Personnel in TX. “Stay in, we have big plans for you and many promises,” they said. But by then, we’d been there, done that, and decided to make the change.

TWA here we come…Life would be good. Don was selected as Flight Engineer of the year by the company and was awarded a trip with hotels etc to Europe at company expense. Whoopie. OR Whoops-ie. Furlough came before we could take the trip. Life was not so good. Sense of humor needed.

Don was offered a new job as regional manager with American Aviation, a company that had offered a job before he went with TWA. He was lucky and had NO days of unemployment. Yep, Life was good. We even had use of an airplane. Lemons into Lemonade, flexible, and our senses of humor soared too, as we tooled around in that airplane. Hard work, and challenging, but good. Oh, we moved again, to Aurora Ohio. when he was made National Sales Manager.

On a west coast business trip, Don stopped by Tucson International Airport, and visited with some Misty friends who were in the Air National Guard flying F- 100s with the Tucson Guard. Knowing there was an opening for a pilot, they strongly encouraged Don to apply. When he called me to say “thinking about this”, I replied if it’s in Arizona, I’ll start packing. Of course he got the job, became a leader in the unit, went to Air War College, and ultimately rose to become the Director of the Air National Guard at the Pentagon. I worked on the U-2 program for Raytheon while we were in the DC area. Life was good, but in a different way.

We were taxed to the max by duties and obligations of our jobs, during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We got to see how Washington works — interesting, but often not pretty. We enjoyed, thrived and survived our years “inside-the-beltway.”

We were still there on 9-11. The view of the Pentagon burning is etched in our memories. The day the American view of the world was forever changed. I was at work, and concerned as I tried to reach Don by phone, and was thankful to hear he was NOT in the building at a meeting as he often was.

He had started his own consulting business. CNN had called and made a strong case for him joining their coverage of the war. He reluctantly became an on- air CNN Military analyst. He was good at it, and they liked him, and he enjoyed seeing how the media worked. You did need a sense of humor and flexibility for that. Life was pretty good

But it was about to get better. We moved back to Arizona, CNN paid for lots of extras on our FINAL house…Life is Good, very Good.

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