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A man of honor

After being awarded the Legion of Merit medal, Gustafson stands with Brig. Gen. Gruver as his official retirement orders are being read. Photo by Lucas Anderson

When Col. Jeffrey Gustafson was a little boy, he knew he wanted to fly. His father was a helicopter mechanic whose friends often took Jeffrey up for rides in the sky. Gustafson was immediately hooked.

“Watching the ground and the people and the buildings grow smaller and smaller,” he said, “I just knew I wanted to do something in the air.”

In 1982, an 18-year-old Gustafson, at the urging of his father, enrolled in the Air Force Academy. Initially, he struggled with the academics.

“High school wasn’t that difficult for me,” Gustafson said. “But when I went to the academy, I was a little fish in a big pond, and I didn’t have very good study habits.”

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Cadet Marty Bouma, one of Gustafson's students, holds an American flag later formally folded and presented to Gustafson as part of his retirement ceremony.

After he “powered through” and graduated in four years, Gustafson attended pilot training in Columbus, Miss., armed with the goal to fly an F-15 fighter jet, known as an Eagle.

His love for the F-15 was evident whenever anyone mentioned a certain quirk of Gustafson’s.

“It’s never just the F-15,” said Shauna Johnson, a UW senior and a cadet in the UW Air Force ROTC (AFROTC). “Every time he says F-15, it’s ‘F-15, the world’s greatest air superiority fighter,’ and he continues on with whatever he’s saying.”

But to Gustafson’s disappointment, no F-15s were available upon his graduation of flight school. So he chose the F-16.

And after five years, during which he “hung around” despite large-scale military downsizing, Gustafson finally fulfilled his dream of flying an F-15.

For the next 16 years, he worked his way up the ranks, serving stints in Saudi Arabia and Japan. He saw the world, from Korea to Australia and more.

Then in 2009, Gustafson arrived at the UW where he assumed command of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Detachment 910. On Friday, Feb. 3, the UW AFROTC held a ceremony in honor of Gustafson’s retirement, which will take effect May 31.

Gustafson does not look back at his life or career as a linear timeline but rather holds dear a collection of powerful memories.

“Life is a bunch of snapshots,” he said. “And the majority of snapshots in my 30-year career are of people.”

One “snapshot” that stood out to Gustafson came at the conclusion of one particular deployment.

“I was coming back from a mission, a three-week deployment to Thailand,” he said. “And my wife was standing there with my little baby daughter for the first time.”

It is his family — his wife Bobbie and their four children — that he places above all else.

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Bobbie Gustafson, the commander's wife, tears up as Brig. Gen. Gruver speaks about Gustafson's achievements academically, militarily and personally.

“My family always gave me reason to come home,” he said. “They make it worth living.”

And it’s that strong love that wouldn’t allow Gustafson to ramble on about his family during his retirement speech.

“I’ve seen it — as soon as a person starts talking about a family member too long, the tears start flowing,” he said. “And no self-respecting fighter pilot is going to have tears flowing at his retirement ceremony, especially an eagle driver.”

His connections with and impact on people, though, do not end with his family. For example, when asked what the most exciting part about his 26 years in the Air Force was, Gustafson did not reply with anything about flying the F-15, his beloved jet, nor did he reply with traveling the globe. He said getting people recognition and seeing those with whom he has worked or trained earn accolades was the most exciting part of his career.

Gustafson’s cadets at the UW made evident the impact he can have on people.

“He’s a beacon, a guide for the cadets,” said junior Zachary Barry. “He helped me find that balance in what I wanted to do for a career and as a student. He pointed me in the right direction.”

Senior Kyle Whittier echoed his fellow cadet’s sentiments.

“Not only did he not hold me back,” he said, “but Col. Gustafson pushed me forward to get to where I wanted to be.”

Though he cited moments and interactions with the people whom he cares about as his prevailing “snapshots,” Gustafson has had experiences in the Air Force etched into his memory for other reasons.

Once, for instance, Col. Gustafson was flying a “benign” mission in his F-15 when disaster struck.

“Usually in an F-15, you lose one engine, it’s no big deal, you’ve got another one,” he said. “I lost one and then lost another due to a myriad of different things that happened in the aircraft.”

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The Legion of Merit Medal awaits its attachment to Gustafson's breast, adding to his other various awards and accommodations.

His jet was headed straight toward Okinawa — a large Japanese city that, at the time, had a population of more than 2 million people — with two dead engines. What followed, he said, was something he will never forget.

“My hands started moving as if I was on autopilot,” he said. “It was an out-of-body experience. My body was saying, ‘OK, you need to pull this back and turn that boost pump off. Vent the cabin. Turn the switch on.’ And somehow, I ended up starting my first engine back up.”

He credited his “autopilot” survival to 20 years of studying emergency situations. One other factor made the near-death scare unforgettable.

“My dad had died a few years earlier, and that incident happened on his birthday, April 29, 2003. I’ll never forget it,” he said.

Gustafson has had a decorated career in the Air Force to which his rank and various awards can attest, including an Aerial Achievement Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, and an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor. Such success did not stop when Gustafson arrived at the UW.

His impact on Detachment 910 can be seen, Maj. James Cunningham said, by looking at the numbers the UW AFROTC has produced.

“He’s led our detachment to be named No. 1 in many different categories,” said Cunningham, who will occupy Gustafson’s post as commander of the UW AFROTC detachment until a successor is brought in.

“We’re the only detachment in the country that ranks in top 10 in physical fitness and cumulative GPA.”

And this impact, Cunningham said, is a reflection of Gustafson.

“It’s all because of his leadership,” he said. “He’s all about having fun but expects the job to get done properly.”

Gustafson, though, hoped that his impact on his cadets would not be confined to statistical success. He aimed to teach them lessons that his 26 years of enlistment have left him with. One pearl of wisdom, which he made clear was not exclusive to his cadets, revolved around a driving force in his life: passion.

“Whatever your passion is, you’ve got to realize that that’s who you are, and that’s the most important thing,” Gustafson said. “If you can hit that passion with vengeance and do the best you can at it, do it. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

Regret is something that Gustafson knows nothing of, for reasons that come back to the most important aspect of his life.

“If I could start over, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “Sure, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little. But if I would not have been at Columbus Air Base when I was, I would not have met my wife and I wouldn’t have the four beautiful children I have.”

Reach reporter Holden Taylor at features@dailyuw.com.

View the full photo gallery of Gustafson's retirement ceremony here.

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