From a distance, there wasn’t much out of the ordinary about the two young men standing in front of the KC-135 Stratotanker, just two guys having a good laugh over old times. However, any casual observer approaching the pair would most likely do a double take — the same tall, lanky frames, the same sandy-colored hair, the same nose, the same eyes, the same pale skin, and even down to the same mischievous smiles.
But for identical twins Brian and Scott Russell, their worlds couldn’t be more different. Brian is a senior airman and KC-135 Stratotanker crew chief with the 22nd Maintenance Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, while Scott is a Navy lieutenant junior grade and an EP-3E Aeries pilot with the Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.
The two came together this year at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Red Flag 15-2, where Brian kept the tankers in the air during the fast-paced exercise. On a Saturday break in training, Scott met up with Brian while on his way to his new duty station in Washington state, and retired Navy Commander Rob Russell, their father, flew in from Salt Lake City to tour the airframe his son had been maintaining for the past three years and to reminisce.
The twins both admitted, as kids, identical looks were about all they had in common.
“Brian and I were kind of at odds with each other for a good part of our lives,” Scott said. “I think it had to do with how we had the same room, we ended up with the same friends, participated in the same activities, and so I think … maybe it felt like we were competing with each other the entire time. It was probably a really petty reason to be mad at each other, but for whatever reason, we just never got along very well growing up.”
Brian mentioned it was his mother who ended taking the brunt of their bickering and fighting.
“I feel so bad for my mom,” he said. “We were monsters when we were little. (Scott and I were) at each other’s throats screaming at each other, you know hormones, girl problems, ‘she broke up with me, I’ll never love again,’ and all that 16-year-old bull. And you’ve got it in double. It was horrible!”
Their dad, Rob, a Navy Reserve pilot, as well as a commercial pilot, and their mom, Kristina, divorced when the twins were young, and both boys feel the split had a negative impact early on.
“It was tough, because you’re that young, and your parents are yelling at each other, and then they go separate ways, and you’re just kind of in the dark,” Brian said. “You don’t know how the relationships are grinding together and what not. I don’t think it was until we were about 22 when we actually sat down with our parents to discuss what happened.”
Not being able to voice their feelings about their parents’ divorce delayed their ability to accept it and eventually led to expressing their displeasure in other ways.
“We were pretty emotional for a while, or at least I was,” Scott said. “Like, I wouldn’t really lash out at anyone in particular, but I’d punch a hole in the wall every once in a while, and then I’d eventually end up having to patch it.
“The divorce was during a pivotal time in our lives and development, so that did affect things, but I think, if anything, it made me stronger. Eventually you come to terms with it.”
Though they were no longer an intact family in the traditional sense, Rob wanted to stress to his children that they would always have the support and love they needed, both from him and their mother. However, he hoped his kids would look out for each other as well, that they would get beyond their conflicts and realize family is more important.
Regardless of the fights and their different personalities, Rob believed the twins were more alike than they realized.
“Despite what they say about being separate and different to the point of not being compatible, I didn’t exactly see that,” said the twins’ father. “They argued all the time, but yet, they did everything together! They couldn’t leave each other – they were velcroed. They ended up in the same dormitory in college, on the same floor, and I said, ‘For two people that don’t get along, you guys spend a lot of effort trying to be at the same geographic reference point.’”
While in college, the boys had a few more big fights, but the separation between them proved to be just enough, and over time, their relationship eased into a friendly companionship. Years passed, and as the twins’ conflicts began to die down, Brian found himself having a crisis of another kind. He was struggling academically and unsure what he wanted to do with his life. Then he remembered his dad’s experience in the military.
“It’s kind of that feeling in your gut when you see a fighter jet fly overhead, or you see a bunch of guys in uniform; it’s that swelling of pride,” he said, stating he’d always seen military members as the epitome of Americans.
“My dad was a Navy pilot, and I always wanted to be a pilot growing up, because he was who I looked up to – he was kind of the pinnacle.”
When Brian told his family he was enlisting, it was a surprise they hadn’t seen coming.
“Out of the blue, he said, ‘I’m going to join the Air Force,’” Rob said. “And I was absolutely fully supportive, because I think nowhere else on this planet, generally speaking, can you find a place where you will learn more about yourself and stretch your horizons more than the military. There’s no handholding, there’s no babysitting. The whole idea is you stand on your two feet, and you make a career based on your own accomplishments and achievements. The only thing holding you back is you.”
Brian’s decision soon became the catalyst that set Scott’s Navy career into motion. Like his brother, Scott had also considered following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a pilot. Once Brian got serious about a military commitment, Scott revisited thoughts of enlisting himself. Three days after his twin left for basic training to become a crew chief, Scott found himself in a recruiter’s office discussing his options.
“Shortly after I actually started getting on the aircraft and putting in the maintenance and stuff, my brother put in his commission package for (Officer Candidate School) with the Navy, so I’m kind of living vicariously through him for the whole pilot experience now,” Brian said. “It’s good enough for me. I’m happy on the ground, I realized.”
With members of their family now scattered across several different states, the boys remain close and commit to see each other when they can.
“We still talk now, but being apart for two years, I think we’ve both changed a lot,” Scott said. “The military has kind of redefined who we are.”
Creating a bridge in conversation, the twins and their father find that they can now bond through shared military experiences.
“I’ve been in training for the past two years to become a pilot, “Scott said. “(Brian has) been in a little bit longer than I have, and he’s been deployed, so he has those kinds of experiences. So we’ll kind of swap stories … it’s definitely a lot of fun to compare notes.
“Last night we were talking about airframes, jet engines, ‘Oh, what’s the thrust ratio on that? How much gas does that hold, how long can you stay airborne?’” Scott said recalling a recent conversation. “It was a good time! We can celebrate and commiserate together when it comes to our military careers.”
While at Nellis AFB, the three sat together on the flight deck of a KC-135 and struck up an easy conversation, comparing the layout and systems between their prospective planes.
“It drives my wife insane because we’ll get together and talk about hardware, we’ll talk about flight mechanics … we’re bonding left and right like war buddies,” Brian laughed as he continued. “My wife can’t stand it. She’s so bored with this, like ‘Let me know when you guys are done talking about jets.”
Between the passing of time and new similarities gained as service members, the twins have been able to not only enhance their relationship with their father, but have also come a long way in repairing their brotherly bond.
“I think we are as brothers should be now,” Brian said. “We’ll still conflict over dumb little things like siblings do, but we definitely came a long way and found each other.”