Looking Back: Dustin Ireland still reaching for new heights with the Air Force

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U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dustin Ireland gives a thumbs-up from the cockpit of his A-10 (Warthog) Thunderbolt II at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Many of us work in professions where there is little or no danger, but for most of the past 18 years, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dustin Ireland has been serving his country from the cockpit of an A-10 (Warthog) Thunderbolt II — which entered service in 1976.

After he graduated from Mt. Blue High School in 1997, the sky was limit for Ireland, who finished No. 2 in his class and was a Fitzpatrick Trophy winner on the football field.

When the U.S. Air Force Academy came a courtin’, Ireland couldn’t pass up the honor — or the free tuition.

“I chose the Air Force Academy for four reasons: USAFA provides one of the best educations in our nation and it’s free,” Ireland, 39, said. “I was also fortunate enough to be asked to play football for the academy, and on top of all that, graduates from the Air Force Academy have a chance to fly.”

His military career has been soaring since he graduated from the academy in 2001 with a degree in biology.

Into the wild, blue yonder

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After graduating, he headed straight for flight school and was put through the rigors of flying a USAF aircraft.

“I attended pilot training at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas,” Ireland said. “I was fortunate to graduate from pilot training in 2003 as a Distinguished Graduate and earned my first choice of aircraft — the A-10.

“I then moved to Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, to attend A-10 initial flight training. In 2004, I graduated A-10 training as a Distinguished Graduate and was assigned to the 355 Fighter Squadron at Eielson AFB, Fairbanks, Alaska.”

Flying the A-10 demands that fighter pilots get up close and personal with the enemy to support ground troops as well as destroy armored vehicles and tanks. The Warthog, which received updates over the years, is built around a 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon. The aircraft is also armed with ordnance under its wings.

Ireland wouldn’t trade in the rugged Warthog, which is loaded with a variety of features such as a protective titanium tub that encircles the cockpit and a powerful gun that fires off shells at a rate 3,900 a minute, for another recent model to fly.

For him, going to work won’t be just another day at the office.

“I have been flying the A-10 my whole career. I just have a little stint where I have to go to school and stuff,” Ireland said. “Right now, I just left the A-10 last month. Now I am going to do another year of fellowship out of the cockpit, not flying. I am working in corporate industry. So the bottom line is I am out of the cockpit another year and I will go back and fly again.

“I am sticking with the A-10. We are designed to kill tanks, but it has evolved over the years and developed to do the close air support even better.”

It didn’t take long for the fighter pilot to see action in the Middle East after being checked out in the A-10.

“In 2006, I deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and flew over 50 combat sorties in support of our troops on the ground,” Ireland said. “Upon returning from deployment, I was reassigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron at Moody AFB, Valdosta, Georgia.

“Again in 2008, I deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and flew numerous combat sorties.”

Self sacrifice, along with danger, comes with the job, but Ireland uses his experiences on the playing field to keep his cool when he is in harm’s way.

“It comes down to training and preparation,” Ireland said. “When someone finds themselves in a high-stress situation, they pull from experience and training.

“Like a lot of examples of stress we all see in life, I compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand. To get caught up in the moment of some of these situations would be overwhelming. But if a person focuses on what they need to get done, all the fear and uncertainty melts away.

“Certainly, the framework of sports supports this concept. Participating in organized sports growing up created small pockets of similar situations of stress and uncertainty. As I experienced sports growing up, each stressful moment became a memory and learning point for success the next time around.”

After his second deployment and his mastery of the Thunderbolt II, the Air Force made him an instructor.

“I attended the United States Air Force Weapons School and returned to the school in 2010 as an instructor for the A-10 Division,” Ireland said. “In 2012, I attended the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and received a masters of arts in National Security and Strategic Studies.

“Upon receiving my degree, I was assigned to the Joint Staff, where I instructed our joint force on how to plan for and execute joint targeting.”

Ireland’s stunning career in the Air Force continued not only as a top-notch pilot but as a leader in the field.

“From 2016 to 2018, I commanded the 23 Operations Support Squadron at Moody AFB, Georgia,” he said. “During this assignment, I led over 200 airmen and presided over a $132-million, flying-hour program. During this command, I ensured the daily flight operations of Moody Air Force Base executed flawlessly.

“Beginning in July of 2018, I became a Secretary of Defense Executive Fellow. This year, I will partner with Pratt & Whitney, working along side this great company to strengthen innovation and competitive advantages for the Department of Defense.”

Ireland, who splits his time between Georgia and Connecticut, is not only a courageous pilot, he’s also a proud husband and father who met his wife at the academy.

“I met my beautiful wife Aubrie at USAFA,” Ireland said. “We graduated in 2001 and married in 2003. We have two amazing boys — Ethan, 10, and Everett, 8.”

Back in the day

Former Mt. Blue football coach Gary Parlin felt fortunate to coach such a talented athlete as Ireland, who didn’t start playing football until his freshman year.

“I played soccer my whole life growing up. I remember vividly them teaching me how to put the pad into the equipment my freshman year,” Ireland said. “Coach Parlin mentored me through the future years. He developed me. He put a lot of trust in a young quarterback who just started playing football his freshman year.

“Looking back, that really helped me as a person, character-wise. We had some rough years my sophomore and junior years. It wasn’t exactly successful, but he stuck with me. We didn’t win a state championship my senior year, but we were successful by bringing something back to the community. He shaped me, my football career.”

Parlin knew Ireland was a bright and talented athlete in basketball and soccer, but the former Mt. Blue coach decided to put Ireland through a test run during a baseball game at the high school.

“I knew his father, and he said (Dustin) was interested in playing football,” Parlin recalled. “We looked at our program and we knew we were a little short on quarterbacks coming through the system.

“There was a place where they threw the discus (at the field),” Parlin said. “It had a sign in the back of the cage that said stand back at x number of feet.”

In a scene right from “The Natural,” in which Roy Hobbs breaks a barn board with his strong arm while playing catch with his dad, Ireland stunned his coach with one throw of a football.

“I never seen him throw a football before and I said, ‘Just aim at that sign,’” Parlin said. “He aimed at the sign and he bent it right in half.”

Parlin was sold on Ireland, who became the Cougars’ starting quarterback his sophomore year.

“I knew the type of kid he was and the family he came from, and at that point, I knew we had something,” Parlin said. “Every coach had that one kid that, and I was fortunate (that) I had more than one through the years, but it was like coaching the All-American boy.

“By the time he was a senior, he would make a bad read or something like that, and on his way to the sidelines, he would tell me about it. Parlin told Ireland, ‘Will you let me pretend that I am coaching. Let me say that it was a bad read.’ He laughed.

“He was just the type of kid that, when your best player is your best leader and your best kid, that combination doesn’t come along very often. I had a couple of others in that same boat. For him to be all those things, and never ever blamed anybody but himself, it is the reason that you coach.”

In a way, Ireland’s inexperience turned out to be a good thing when he suited up to play high school football.

“Like some kids who played football before entering high school, they sometimes acquire bad habits,” Parlin said. “I had a legal pad and I had given it to him. It was like Quarterbacking 101. Throwing the ball off your last step, bringing the ball up to chest on the snap …

“We wrote that out, and when he was a senior after football season, he gave me back the paper, which I still have in my stuff. It was just all the basics of being a quarterback from my perspective. You take that with a coachable kid and that fact that he was very bright, but he didn’t have any bad habits.

“He didn’t have any bad habits and we were hoping the habits that we gave him were good.”

Ireland was always in demand in the three sports he played in high school.

“I played football, basketball and baseball during my time at Mt. Blue,” Ireland said. “Football rises to the top as my favorite because of the success that came from that sport and the opportunities in college it created.

“That being said, basketball is very much a close second. As I look back, though, it’s not so much the sports that we played as it was the friends and bonds that we formed on the field and court.

Parlin remembers the day Ireland’s acceptance to the Air Force Academy was announced throughout Mt. Blue High School.

“When he got his letter to go to the Air Force Academy, Maine was recruiting him at the time,” Parlin said. “One of the Maine coaches was walking in at the same time that the announcement was being made, and I told the Maine coach, ‘Dustin has been accepted to the Air Force Academy.’ Well, the coach, I can’t remember his name, said, ‘Well, he will never play there,’ and walked out.”

Parlin was stunned and the University of Maine coach was wrong about Ireland’s potential as a member of the Falcon football team.

“Two weeks after high school graduation, I was on a plane for Colorado Springs, Colorado, to start my career in the Air Force at USAFA,” Ireland said. “While my friends were preparing for the Lobster Bowl back home, I was working my way through basic training in the military.

“I played football all four years at USAFA as a receiver. I began my career at USAFA as a quarterback and transitioned to receiver midway through my freshman year. I missed a lot of my sophomore year due to a shoulder injury. I also missed a few weeks of my junior year for other injuries.

“My senior year was not one for the record books. I had three receptions for 29 yards … but I’m proud to say that over my four years at USAFA (each service academy does not redshirt athletes), I poured my heart and soul into my time in the college football arena. That experience strengthened my character and made me a better person.”

Ireland remembers that the academy had over 100 recruits and walk-ons beginning his freshman year.

“With each cut our numbers shrank and by the time we graduated we were down to the last 13 seniors on the team,” Ireland said.

Parlin remembers a call he received from Ireland at the Air Force Academy.

“He called and told me, ‘A wide receiver at the Air Force Academy is also known as the finesse tight end because all we do is block,’” Parlin said. “They didn’t throw the ball very much.”

No place like home

Despite a rewarding military career that has led him all over the globe, Ireland does indeed miss Farmington, Maine.

“Yes. I miss my home town tremendously. I left in the summer of 1997 and have always missed the community, beauty and values my hometown embodies,” Ireland said. “I also try to return home whenever I can.

“I miss the snow. I miss the cold winters. Low humidity.

“As my family has grown, my wife, Aubrie, has grown to love this area as well. With our boys getting older, we find ourselves being drawn back even more. The quality of life my family enjoys while in Maine is far above anything we’ve experienced anywhere else.”

Ireland’s success and dedication says a lot about his family, coaches, teachers and a community that encouraged a young man to realize his dreams and serve his country.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dustin Ireland gives a salute at his change-of-command ceremony at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. “I’m saluting my crew chief after he revealed my name on the side of my jet. We still paint our names on the side of them,” Ireland said. (U.S. Air Force photo)

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