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Airman reaches 41 years of service

Leaders cite loadmaster’s integrity and experience

Published: 03:34PM March 28th, 2013
Airman  reaches 41 years of service

U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jake Chappelle

Senior Master Sgt. Terry Philon, the 313th Airlift Squadron chief loadmaster out of McChord Field, entered the military in 1972.

Like other years, 1972 was full of cultural highlights.

Bobby Fischer became the World Chess Champion. Disco lights and lava lamps sold for just under $27. “The Godfather” and “Dirty Harry” were released in movie theaters. John Lennon, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin rocked the house ... and 18-year-old Terry Philon arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas for basic training — and pledged himself to the Air Force.

Little did Philon know that he would end up volunteering nearly 70 percent of his life to the Air Force and Air Force Reserve.

Now, a senior master sergeant and chief loadmaster with the 313th Airlift Squadron at JBLM’s McChord Field, he has spent the last 41 years as a dedicated Reservist and Airman.

“In my 25-plus years in the Air Force, Terry Philon is one of, if not, the finest individual I have had the honor of serving with,” said Col. Rick Grayson, 446th Airlift Wing vice commander, and former 313th AS commander. “In my mind, he is the consummate senior NCO, and there is no one who has served with more honor and integrity than Terry. He is truly one of the best people, and best Airmen, I know.”

Philon said, he’s grateful for his extensive military career.

“It doesn’t seem like 41 years,” Philon, a Graham, Wash. resident, said. “As the old saying goes, ‘time flies when you’re having fun’.”

If his parents had their way, his life would have been different.

“My parents wanted me to go to college,” he said. “I preferred the college funds be spent on my little sister. But I wanted to do something different.”

Different indeed. Philon spent his first four years on active duty as a life support specialist at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. But he wanted to travel more, so he pursued other options.

“A friend of mine talked to me about the loadmaster field,” he said. “After some investigating, I decided that was the job for me. I cross-trained in 1976.”

Becoming a loadmaster meant moving from the Midwest to the Northwest, so he could fly on the C-141A Starlifter aircraft at McChord Air Force Base. Once he found his way around Western Washington, he called it his new home.

With 10 years turning into the next 30, Philon said it didn’t all come easily. He even once considered a discharge.

“One of my mentors convinced me to give it a little more time, so I decided to stay in. It was the best decision of my life.”

That decision led to twice earning 446th AW Senior NCO of the Quarter and receiving top scores on exercises, such as operational readiness inspections. Philon’s decision also led to several trials of will and strength.

“The most difficult time in my career was waking up in Germany the morning of 9/11 and having to fly missions in-country a few days later,” he said.

“We are given a multi-million dollar aircraft to take out on a mission and return it home safely,” he said. “We are constantly faced with situations where we have to rely on our training, knowledge, and judgment to safely accomplish the mission.”

As the chief of the Standardization unit in the 313th AS, Philon is also responsible for ensuring the other loadmasters are up to par with their training. If one of them messes up, then all fingers point back at him.

“I have to be sure of my decisions on whether an Airman is capable of taking an aircraft out, completing the mission, and bringing that aircraft home safely,” he said.

More than 9,200 flying hours after becoming a loadmaster, Philon has traveled to many countries, supported many missions and contingencies, from the evacuation of the American hostages in Iran to Operation Enduring Freedom. But the hardest part of his job, he said, is dropping troops off in a war zone. The best part — bringing them home.

“The looks on those youngsters’ faces of not knowing the outcome is very moving,” Philon said. “But when you pick them up from the war zone, and drop them off on U.S. soil, the look in their eyes is indescribable.”

Even though Philon’s retirement clock is ticking, he shows no signs of slowing down. He has “excellent” fitness assessment scores and mud on his mountain bike tires to prove it; however, the grandfather of three plans on devoting more time to his family and community.

“I will probably do a lot of volunteer work,” he said. “I would like to find something where I can use my experience to mentor others.”

Seeing his grown children make achieve milestones puts things in perspective for him.

“When my son retired after 20 years of active duty Air Force, I said, ‘it’s time for me to go.’”

In retrospect of his four-decade career, Philon admitted he was content with the way his life and career turned out.

“I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Philon is set to retire from the Air Force Reserve in December – right before his 60th birthday.