KEVIN LEININGER: For Fort Wayne’s new Air Guard commander, it’s all about service, community — and family

Col. Michael Stohler commands the "Blacksnakes" of the 122nd Fighter Wing. (News-Sentinel.com file photo photo by Kevin Leininger.)
Kevin Leininger

“It was 33 years ago tomorrow I was sworn in by my dad in this room,” Col. Michael Stohler mused this week as he sat in his office at Fort Wayne International Airport this week and pondered the pride Vice Wing Commander David Stohler surely would have felt had he lived to see his son assume command of the 122nd Fighter Wing in March.

“I’m super proud of taking over (for previous commander Col Patrick Renwick). I’ve been part of this wing for 33 years, and want to continue with its great legacy,” said Stohler, whose family introduction to aviation has produced the sort of local-boy-makes-good story that is rare in the often-itinerant world of the military.

“Almost once a month we would come up to (what was then known as Baer Field), and (Dad and I) would talk about flying,” remembered Stohler, 50, who joined the Indiana Air National Guard when he was just a 17-year-old student at Norwell High and has now reached a pinnacle that eluded even his father, who retired in 1989 and died in 2016. It’s an achievement the former crew chief-turned pilot said will help him strengthen the bond between his 1,000-member command and the community that often seems unaware of the base’s importance to national security or the local economy.

“We provide two services: to respond to state or national natural disasters and civil disturbances or for national defense. We deploy about every two years,” said Stohler, who has logged more than 833 hours during 161 combat missions in hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria while also serving as a commercial airline pilot.

The “Blacksnakes’ ” current weapon of choice is the A-10 Thunderbolt, a rugged ground-attack twin-engine jet that was introduced in the Jimmy Carter era but in updated versions is projected to remain in service until 2030 or so. The plane became a legend during the war in Iraq, obliterating tanks and other vehicles with bombs, rockets and the huge 30mm rotary cannon in its nose. And if the “Warthog” isn’t as fast, sleek or sexy as the F-16 fighter the wing previously flew — and may fly again — Stohler and other pilots appreciate both its ruggedness and longevity. Twenty-one of the jets are stationed in Fort Wayne and can often be heard buzzing overhead during drills designed to keep the pilots and planes ready for action.

No matter what plane the unit flies, Stohler loves the freedom that comes with soaring high above the Earth, and the sense of accomplishment a successful mission brings. As commander, he’s also appreciative of how effectively a well-organized unit can do a very important and complex job. And although previous budget cuts have at times made the Fort Wayne base’s existence uncertain, Stohler insists the future is now bright.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions (about that). We’re waiting to see what the Air Force decides about (a return to) the F-16, but we will be here for the foreseeable future,” he said. With the 122nd pumping about $75 million into the local economy every year, that’s good news indeed. That confidence is based in part of pure economics: The Air Guard, he said, costs about 40 percent less than the active-duty Air Force, in part because only one-third of the local unit’s members serve full-time.

Stohler knows commanding officers come and go every few years, but for now he’s enjoying the comforts of home, using his knowledge of the community in which he grew up to build trust, recruitment and retention while wife Michelle works as an attorney and son Carson attends high school.

He’s 17 — the same age Stohler was when his fascination with aviation sparked a career. Whether he follows in Dad’s footsteps, or soars past them, remains to be seen.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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