Where Are They Now?

Airman looks back at some of the people profiled in its 54-year history

Story by Randy Roughton

Airman’s predecessors had several different names and bore little resemblance to the full-color feature magazine it has been in recent years. The early versions of this publication began before the Air Force was even formed. The Air Service Weekly Newsletter was first published Sept. 21, 1918. It would become the Air Corps, Air Force and eventually Air Forces Weekly Newsletter before it was discontinued in 1946.

Airman’s direct predecessor was called The Airman. That magazine’s first issue in August 1957 featured a painting by the late NASA artist Robert McCall on its cover, a photograph of a 3-cent postage stamp in a section called “Airman’s World” and lengthy articles written by leaders like then-Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas D. White and retired Col. Francis S. Gabreski, a World War II and Korean War fighter ace. Not long after the magazine dropped “the” from its title, Airman developed the personality of the everyday Air Force member.

Through the years, Airman has covered important issues facing Airmen and introduced readers to some of the Air Force’s most interesting people, from POWs and wounded veterans to Airmen doing their jobs. Recently, we caught up with a handful of featured individuals to learn where their careers took them after they appeared in Airman.

Retired Senior Airman Brian Kolfage

In July 2005, Airman was one of the first print publications to feature retired Senior Airman Brian Kolfage as he began rehabilitation from severe injuries sustained in a mortar attack at Balad Air Base, Iraq on Sept. 11, 2004. The attack happened exactly three years after his first day on duty as a gate guard at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, on Sept. 11, 2001.

The 23-year-old Airman was walking through tent city to the morale tent when a 107-mm mortar shell landed about five feet away and knocked him nearly six feet in the air. He landed face-first on a wall of sandbags, where he was found by Senior Airman Valentin Cortez, his tent-mate and friend. Kolfage lost both legs and his right hand. He eventually endured 16 surgeries, mostly to remove debris and shrapnel from his body.

“In the first two months, I was so heavily medicated that I was pretty zoned out,” he said. “As they started weaning me off, I began noticing people who still had their limbs, but were mentally disabled. I remember seeing a kid my age, and doctors were showing him his mom. He didn’t remember her. Seeing that made it easy to get over what happened to me. I still had my brain. That put it into perspective for me.”

The Airman story on Kolfage showed a photo of him receiving his Air Force Commendation, Global War on Terrorism Service and Expeditionary medals at his retirement ceremony and a photo taken after his first ski run in Aspen, Colo.

After the story was published and his media appearances became less frequent, Kolfage’s struggle was far from over. He was still dealing with stinging pain from his prosthetic limbs. Eventually, Irish prosthetist Kevin Carroll found the answer in a gel-like cushion he’d invented for a baby bottlenose dolphin with an amputated tail.

Kolfage now compares putting on his prosthetics with “putting on your shoes.” He worked as the base security manager at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., for nearly two years and is currently in architectural school at the University of Arizona. He expects to graduate in 2014.

More than six years after he appeared in Airman, Kolfage recalls a little embarrassment at the media coverage his story attracted. Suddenly, he’s finding himself back in the news. An upcoming 60 Minutes special will include a comparison of his rehabilitation to that of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot outside a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. He will also be a part of a Purple Heart documentary scheduled for February.

The late retired Master Sgt. John “Jake” Schuffert

Even today, the Airman staff receives occasional phone calls and emails from long-time readers who want to see another “Here’s Jake” cartoon. Retired Master Sgt. John “Jake” Schuffert’s cartoons, which lampooned characters at the Pentagon and the fictional Boondock Air Force Base, were a regular feature in many of Airman’s 50-plus years. Schuffert, a retired Department of Defense graphics supervisor who died of cancer on Nov. 2, 1998, served 23 years in the Air Force. He flew 50 missions during World War II, including the famous bombing raids on the Ploesti, Romania, oil fields.

“I think the reason the cartoons are popular is because I was in the Air Force and understand the life of the blue-suiter,” Schuffert once said in an interview with Airman.

 

 

 

Capt. Kristina Belcourt

In 2004, 20-year-old Kristina Belcourt was a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet while the school was trying to recover from a decade of sexual abuse allegations. Belcourt, now an intelligence training chief at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, was featured in two Airman stories in 2004, including “A Time for Healing,” which was published just as she arrived for intelligence technical training at Goodfellow.

At that time, Belcourt found herself at the forefront of the topic, not only because she appeared in Airman, but also due to other coverage on Public Broadcasting Service and in The Chicago Tribune.

“I didn’t mind,” she said. “I know that I wasn’t embarrassed by it. In that particular instance at the academy, it was a big deal trying to revamp the sexual assault program. So if my explanation of what was going on could help, I was OK with sharing it.”

The academy responded to the highest number of reported sexual assaults in its history with sweeping changes in training and reporting procedures. Belcourt went on to complete weapons school at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., to earn her intelligence weapons officer Air Force specialty and deployed four times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Retired Col. Eileen Collins

Many Air Force members who made history were profiled in Airman, including one of its most groundbreaking astronauts. Retired Col. Eileen Collins made the first of her five Airman appearances in “Two of a Kind” in 1994.  The story also featured current 14th Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, who became the first military woman in space on Space Shuttle Endeavor a year earlier.

In the summer of 2005, Collins was the first female shuttle pilot and commander. She retired after completing NASA’s “Return to Flight,” the first mission after the Columbia explosion. Since her retirement, Collins has served as chairperson of the NASA Advisory Council Space Operations Committee and has also remained busy on the consulting and speaking circuit.

“I miss flying airplanes,” she said. “I miss being in the airplane, smelling the gasoline, putting on my gloves, talking on the radio, the instruments and flying in formation. I don’t miss the acrobatics as much. I think my body got a little older for pulling G’s.

“I do miss being in space, but you just can’t go fly in space. I flew four times, and all four missions were very busy because you’re constantly working and under stress. You have a mission; your boss is the people of the country and you don’t want to disappoint the people. Usually toward the end of the mission, you can let your hair down a little bit because the primary mission’s done and everything is put away. That was when you could put your face against the glass, stretch out your arms, and you don’t even see the ship around you, just the Earth below, and you feel like you’re flying over the planet.”

Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen

In Airman’s June 1998 issue, the man known worldwide as “The Berlin Candy Bomber” demonstrated how he and his fellow pilots attached candy to parachutes before they dropped them to German children during the Berlin Airlift. Then-1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen was one of the American pilots flying round-the-clock missions from Rhein-Main Air Base to Templehof. He flew 126 missions between July 1948 and February 1949. One day, he combined his candy rations with those of his co-pilot and engineer and made the first parachutes with handkerchiefs and strings. He tied the parachutes to the chocolate and gum and made the first “Operation Little Vittles” drop from his C-54 Skymaster on July 18, 1948. By the end of the airlift, American pilots had dropped 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy.

“The way I saw it was from one of the U.S. Air Force’s core values: service before self,” Halvorsen said. “That’s so magic, with integrity and excellence, in saying we’re not going to give up and how those core values were so inherent in the success of the airlift.

“It made us appear like we were telling them, ‘You’re a former enemy, but we love you and we’re killing ourselves to keep you alive.’ The reward you got was seeing the gratitude and synergy of service before self melding together as a woven blanket, and was the reason the whole attitude changed.”

Even at the age of 90, Halvorsen maintains a hectic schedule with appearances at veterans’ groups and active-duty Air Force units to events commemorating the Berlin Airlift.

Jason Szuminski

The Air Force’s most celebrated athletes have also made appearances in Airman through the years. Then-1st Lt. Jason Szuminski, who may be the only Air Force Reservist who played Major League Baseball, pitched briefly for the San Diego Padres in 2004. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship before he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs as the 27th-round draft pick in 2000. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander returned to the Cubs after a stint with the Padres before he suffered a career-ending shoulder injury while pitching for the team’s Triple A affiliate in Iowa. Szuminski’s career highlight was a scoreless inning against the San Francisco Giants when he recorded the final out against eventual home run king Barry Bonds.

“It was a big day for me, and [Bonds] wound up being the third hitter I faced,” Szuminski said. “I was never going to be the best guy, but I got to go up against the best. Everyone walked him in those days, but I got him to fly out.”

His Reserve job was as an individual mobilization augmentee with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Since his Air Force and baseball careers ended, Szuminski earned his master’s degree from Stanford University and now lives in Palo Alto, Calif., where he starts new technology companies.

Because he was part of the World Class Athlete Program, Szuminski was on active duty on the opening day of the 2004 season. He hoped to make the 2004 Summer Olympics, but the U.S. team didn’t qualify.

“I always felt guilty because we didn’t have better success,” Szuminski said. “Everyone else is out there working and so many are deployed, and I was out there playing sports. It added good pressure to try to succeed at it and deliver what I could for the Air Force, since I was getting this opportunity. I was frustrated I didn’t get to go to the Olympics. I would’ve turned down the major leagues to play for the U.S. Olympic baseball team.”

  • Dan Leray Leadlay

    Served in the Korean war flying missions.Fighter pilot.Ret. Wondering if there is anybody out there still alive like me & would like to stay in touch….God Bless all. I am 81 years young & have a caregiver that does all of my correspondence & email for me.

    • kbarnes

      Thank you so much for your service. I truly appreciate your commitment and dedication to all the people of the United States