Can you tell me about your early life and what led you to apply to and attend the Naval Academy?
I grew up in Southern California, originally from Los Angeles. I think there’s a lot of people for whom 9/11 served as an impetus for them to join the military; I was not really one of those people actually. I had wanted to be a combat pilot since I can possibly remember, probably seeing Top Gun and Star Wars had something to do with it.
I had always wanted to be a pilot; it was the only thing I ever wanted to do in my life. So I applied to the Naval Academy, I was accepted, and I went there right after graduating high school in the summer of 2003.
Was there anything different you had to do to get that slot to become a helicopter pilot?
The process is a combination. So it basically depends on what the needs of the Navy and the Marine Corps are when you are graduating from flight school- that’s the primary consideration. The secondary consideration is what your preference is. For me, I wanted to fly Cobras, which is an attack helicopter, and I was lucky enough that when I graduated from flight school I was able to get a slot both flying Cobras and on the West Coast out of Camp Pendleton, San Diego.
Can you give me a brief synopsis of your time in service post Naval Academy?
All Marines go through about a seven-month course called The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. That’s where you learn how to be an infantry platoon commander; everyone from pilots to administration, infantry, tank drivers, and logisticians has to attend, and that’s so we all have the same baseline of basic infantry knowledge and leadership. So I did that, and then I went to flight school in Pensacola, Florida and Corpus Christi, Texas for two years. I got my wings in August of 2009 and reported to Camp Pendleton, California, to learn how to fly the Cobra.
From 2009 to 2015, I was stationed at Camp Pendleton. I did three deployments including time on the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) where I lived on the USS Boxer (LHD-4) for a WESTPAC deployment to the Middle East. I did an Afghanistan deployment to support Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). And I also did a little bit of time in Japan on the Unit Deployment Program (UDP) in Eastern Asia.
In that time as a pilot you start off being a co-pilot and then you become a signer so that means you’re the attack helicopter commander, and then you work your way up through the qualifications and designations system. Eventually I became a Weapons and Tactics Instructor, which is the Marine Corps equivalent of Top Gun, as well as an Air Mission Commander which is the highest qualification for flight leadership that you can attain. So I was very fortunate in my career to have gone through all the different types of deployments that you can do in the Marine Corps as well as get every designation and qualification that was available to me.
Was there any one of those jobs or deployments that you preferred over the other?
That’s a tough question. Obviously, going to war has a very profound impact on somebody, and so the guys that I deployed to Afghanistan with and fought with- those guys will always stick out to me as brothers for a very specific reason. It was a very meaningful deployment, I think, because I arrived at the squadron as a combat replacement. It was February 2012, right before their deployment in April; their squadron HMLA-469 “Vengeance,” had a mid-air collision with two aircraft, and seven Marines died. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Budrejko and Major Nate Anderson were the aircraft commanders. “Bull” Budrejko was the executive officer and second in charge of the squadron and he was flying with Lieutenant Ben Cerniglia. “Gangsta” Anderson, was flying with Captain Mike “Tommy” Quin. We also lost Sgt Justin Everett, LCpl Corey Little, and LCpl Nickoulas Elliott. So the squadron is about to deploy and it loses seven of their guys in a crash and two of their aircraft right before going to war. That was a really big deal obviously, and myself and a couple of other Marines joined the squadron as replacements to go to combat, and that was very meaningful to me.
The other deployments were so vastly different that it’s difficult to compare them. A MEU where you get on a boat in San Diego, sail through most of the world, and then end up in the Middle East is extremely interesting for a completely different set of reasons.
Was the midair collision you mentioned before (Vengeance 97/98) the impetus for you to create the foundation in the first place?
To be honest, in Naval Aviation you probably lose about fifteen to twenty aircraft a year, and probably the same number of individuals in fatalities. I think this year we’re up to twenty-five. And through flight school, the instructors would say “Look to your left, and look to your right: one of you is going to be involved in an aircraft mishap.” And we didn’t really think that was true. It seemed so far off. Fast forward a few years into the fleet and sure enough everybody I know has been affected by a mishap in some way, shape, or form. Aviation is just a dangerous business. The mishap, Vengeance 97/98, that happened in February of 2012, that was the impetus for me to go to that squadron and join it, which then become my home in the Marine Corps, but it was not the impetus for us to start The Wingman Foundation. That was from a mishap that occurred on October 1st of 2014, where an Osprey from VMM-163 “Evil Eyes,” had a controlled water landing that was unintended. They were able to save the aircraft, but one of the crew chiefs ended up drowning. Myself, and two of my really good friends, Ken “Bronco” Hampshire, and Phil “Donger” Duong, decided that this was something we wanted to do and support the families in a way that was not just passing a hat around the ready room to buy a bouquet of flowers.
How do you operate with such low overhead?
Everybody who works at The Wingman Foundation is an unpaid volunteer. Most overhead actually turns out to be payroll, so by removing that we’ve actually gotten down to about three-percent overhead, which is pretty phenomenal if you ask me. For every dollar that comes in, about ninety-seven cents of it goes back out to the families and to the squadron.
The way we’re able to do that, I think, is that most of the people that join The Wingman Foundation do so out of a passion for helping out because they’ve lost somebody themselves. So they don’t have to be motivated by a paycheck. Everybody here can rattle off a dozen names of individuals that they’ve lost through the years and the families that either were not helped because that was before The Wingman Foundation existed, or increasingly, it is people who have seen what the foundation has done, and want to be a part of it. And so that’s how we are able to sustain growth without paying people.
How are you able help with a mishap of such size and scale where sixteen people are killed, like VMGR-452?
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, this wasn’t the first mishap of that scale that we were dealing with. There was a crash in January of 2016, from a squadron called HMH-463 “Pegasus”. In that mishap there were twelve Marines lost, when two CH-53Es collided off the coast of Hawaii. So for that mishap we raised close to $100,000 and we were helping families work through travel, since most of the families were based state-side and we were flying them to and from Hawaii.
A very good friend of mine, Brian Kennedy, who was a classmate from the Naval Academy and throughout flight school, was one of the pilots. And so that had a very deep impact for me personally as well as many of the staff who also knew Brian personally. That happened in January of 2016. In July of 2017 is when this mishap occurred with VMGR-452. It was sixteen individuals killed; fifteen Marines and one Navy Sailor, a corpsman. One of the things we did here was partner with the MARSOC Foundation and Sarah Christian, who is their Director of Operations. They were taking care of some of the families that were from Second Raider Battalion. And so doing that, partnering with the MARSOC Foundation, which is a phenomenal organization, helped us to partition and scale what our impact had to be, because we didn’t have to serve every single family. We did have an agreement in place that if some of the families from MARSOC needed aid, that we could provide that and vice-versa. But that didn’t end up turning out to be the case. And we ended up, for Yankee 72, which was the callsign of the aircraft, raising about $150,000 for that mishap, and we still have a lot of it left over even after paying out whatever we could for those sixteen families.
the wingman foundation's mission and oath
To honor the sacrifices of our fallen air warriors and support the families they've left behind.
Regardless of whether you are a Pilot, Administrative Clerk, Intelligence Analyst, Mechanic, or Terminal Attack Controller, if you are associated with the Navy and Marine Corps aviation community, we will never leave you or your family behind.