I was born in Washington D.C., but I spent nine out of the first thirteen years of my life on a U.S. military base in Germany. I was the youngest child in a large and close-knit family, and we traveled throughout Europe and experienced many wonderful people and cultures.
From my earliest memories as a child living on an U.S. Army base in Zweibrucken, Germany, the military community was filled with camaraderie, fellowship, common objectives and a sense of purpose.
In the 1960s and 1970s, I felt no sense of the social, racial or class strife in the military community that characterized civilian society during that time period. When I served as an adult in the U.S. Army, more than twenty years later, I felt that same sense of community and patriotism. It was a wonderful childhood, and I feel very blessed to come from such a close and supportive family.
Upon returning to the states in 1979, I attended middle and high school in the Washington D.C. area and excelled in football, baseball and indoor track. This is when I first experienced the difficulty of the transition from military to civilian life, because my father retired from government service and we lived in a civilian community for the first time in my life.
After high school, I attended Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where I earned a B.S. in Business Management in May 1988. During my time at “Ship U”, I was selected as team captain and earned All-Conference and Honorable Mention All-American football honors, before sustaining a major knee surgery in the fall of my junior year. This injury turned out to erase any hope I had of playing professional football, but it inspired me to undergo an amazing personal journey of rehabilitation that left me mentally tougher and absolutely goal oriented.
Because I was on an R.O.T.C. scholarship from U.S. Army, and had signed a commitment to serve the nation upon graduation, I had obligations to attend to besides football. The extensive knee surgery delayed my attendance of “Advanced Camp” at Fort Bragg, NC (for ROTC students in the summer between their junior and senior years of college), and dampened my focus and enthusiasm for an active duty career. The delay also pushed back my commissioning ceremony.
So, after graduation, I attended Advanced Camp, and received my first thrilling ride in a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter as part of the capstone field exercise at the conclusion of the camp. My interest level in aviation went off the charts, and I resolved that I would find a way to become a pilot, although it was very late in the process (my knee injury delay) to gain an active duty slot in a coveted job. So, I received a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the National Guard/Reserve, and began to look for a unit in the Maryland area. I eventually gravitated to an Aviation unit in Edgewood, Maryland.
Over the next year, I sold fax machines door to door on 100% commission for the Harris/3M Corporation, while attending National Guard Duty as a Second Lieutenant. I quickly became frustrated after learning that the unit had a long backlog of aviators-to-be. We were clearly identified by our lack of flight suits and silver wings, and our bad habit of commiserated with each other about our low-value positions in the unit, and the long waiting period before flight school.
One day, I walked into a building in Herndon, Virginia trying to find a buyer of a new fax machine. Instead, I bumped into Don Hess, retired Warrant Officer CW5, and Executive Director of the Warrant Officers Association. After a one hour discussion with Don, I learned that he was a very experienced helicopter pilot with service in Vietnam. I mentioned to him my goal to become a pilot, and that my National Guard unit was full of young second lieutenants waiting for their flight school assignment (over one year). He then suggested that if I truly wanted to become an active duty pilot, there may be another option through the Warrant Officer flight training program.
The rub was that I would have to resign my commission, and enter into active duty as an E-3 rank (Private First Class) with a direct assignment to Warrant Officer Candidate School, followed by flight training to become an aviator. The risk was if I washed-out, I would have forfeited my officer status, and be required to serve at the junior enlisted level. If I made it through the training, I would be assigned to fly the best aircraft in the Army’s fleet. It was risky, but I leapt at the chance, because I was focused on becoming an active duty pilot, and much more impatient and risk tolerant than my group of wingless peers. They were astounded when I shared with them my plan to make it to flight school, and mostly thought that I was crazy or stupid (maybe both).
So in 1989, I entered into the active duty U.S. Army and completed the rigorous Warrant Officer Candidate School, then the flight training program at Fort Rucker, Alabama, earning my silver U.S. Army aviator’s wings. Over the next six years, I served as a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot stationed throughout Central America, Europe, the Middle East and the USA, flying a variety of difficult missions on behalf of our nation. It was a dream come true. I often wondered how long my former peers sat in that flight hangar complaining about the insurmountable obstacles…
Upon exiting the service in 1996, I entered into the Kenan-Flagler business school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned an MBA. From 1998 until present, I have been employed at Wells Fargo in the Investment Banking and Fixed-Income Sales & Trading groups. I currently reside on a farm in North Carolina with my family, and multiple dogs and cats.
Frank Van Buren