After serving 23 years in the U.S. Air Force – flying as a navigator during the Gulf War and as a pilot during Operation Iraqi Freedom, traveling across Europe and working in the Pentagon – Lt. Col. Bob Krueger retired from military service May 22, 2011, and is starting a new chapter of his life.
“That’s always the question with me, ‘What’s next?’ You only have one life to live, and I’ve been in the unique situation where I have been able to try a variety of things,” Krueger said.
Krueger’s decision to join the Air Force was not happenstance nor a surprise to those who knew him growing up.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I knew what I wanted to do – be a pilot. So the goal-setting literally started when I was eight or nine years old,” Krueger said. “But I didn’t just join the military to fly and be a pilot. A big reason I joined is I’m very patriotic and I love my country. I wanted to protect our freedoms and our Constitution here in the U.S.”
Since his retirement, Krueger has been helping out with the family business, Fox Fire Campground – and at the same time starting his own, Zero Point Fitness, a gym located on the campground premises.
“I believe that small business is going to be the crucial factor and the key to restoring our economy in this country,” Krueger said. “I believe it is a worthwhile goal and effort for anyone.”
Joining the Air Force
After graduating from Lakeland Union High School in 1984, Krueger attended University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), earning a degree in earth science with a minor in aerospace studies.
“The whole reason for going to UMD was that it was the closest place with an ROTC unit. ROTC is one way besides the Air Force Academy to get commissioned as an officer,” Krueger said. “The same day I graduated from UMD – May 22, 1988 – I was commissioned as a second lieutenant.”
Though the original plan was to become a pilot, “the needs of the Air Force come first and you don’t always get what you want,” Krueger explained.
Instead of learning how to pilot a plane, he went to navigator school at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. After learning the trade of navigating, he received his first assignment as a second lieutenant.
“I originally had my first duty assignment at Beale Air Force Base, California, which I was excited about,” Krueger said, “But then two weeks later, I was given an assignment change. They said, ‘You’re going to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.’ My mouth just dropped.”
Two words to describe Krueger’s transition to Japan: culture shock.
“I was probably around 24 years old and thrown into living overseas right off the bat. I’ll never forget descending out of the clouds on that airline flight into Tokyo, seeing all the Japanese-style homes and cities. It was like a dream,” he said. “If that wasn’t hard enough to deal with, I also couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese.”
He didn’t have much time to learn the language, either. A few months after landing in Japan, Krueger was deployed to Saudi Arabia – the Gulf War was about to begin.
“Three months after I hit the ground running in Japan, I’m hopping in a plane and flying to Saudi Arabia for who knows how long,” he said. “I didn’t even get a chance to enjoy Japan before I was gone and flying around the Saudi Arabian desert.
The Gulf War
Krueger’s deployment to the desert had even more cultural adjustments in store.
“If Japan was a culture shock, Saudi Arabia was a turbo shock. When I first got there I remember feeling like we landed on Mars because the landscape feels like that. It’s nothing but sand,” he said.
The desert’s intense heat only added to the desolate surroundings.
“It was 120 degrees in the summer – but it’s a dry heat as they say. You feel like you’re baking in an oven, but it gets worse,” Krueger said. “The [aircraft] didn’t have any ground-based air condition. So if you can imagine inside an aluminum can in 120-degree heat, it gets hotter still. We’d have thermometers inside the cockpit that would read over 140 degrees.”
But it wasn’t just the environment – it was also the atmosphere. Krueger would experience war first-hand as a navigator for a KC-135 air refueling tanker, which supplied additional fuel to fighter planes mid-air to increase their amount of flight time flying.
As Krueger described it, the first day of war was “an eye-opener and a shocker.”
“The one thing that sticks in my mind is we were told that 60 percent of us might not be coming home,” Krueger said. “I have to admit, at the time I was not planning on coming home. I was planning on a one-way mission, and that it was a non-stop flight with no landing – at least not a good one. As fate would have it, we made it through the first day despite the challenges and every day since then has been a blessing.”
The tanker Krueger flew in did have at least one close call. After a few weeks into the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein ordered his remaining aircraft to be flown into Iran, which is where Krueger had his brush with a surface-to-air missile (SAM).
“The government decided to intercept those planes trying to flee. But to do that, these F-15s had to cross enemy air space in Iraq and needed a tanker to go with them because they couldn’t stay airborne for more than a couple of hours by themselves.”
Since the tankers didn’t have an early warning system, they were completely dependent on warning messages of incoming missiles from nearby aircraft.
“When we crossed over the border into Iraq, we had our parachutes and full gear on, ready to rock and roll. The whole way going up to our track we were getting vectored around to avoid known surface-to-air missile sites. It was kind of like picking your way through a mine field.
“We get a call from our people – it was a very short warning call that went something like this: ‘Turn north now, immediately. SAM launch your position 20 miles.’ Once a missile launches at you, you have about 30 seconds to a minute before impact. We weren’t air refueling at the time, thank goodness, and we were getting ready for the possibility of bailing out of the aircraft over enemy territory as we turned north towards Bagdad. In my mind, I was already preparing myself for being down on the ground.”
As it was, Krueger and the rest of the crew did not end up grounded in enemy territory.
“Thank goodness nothing happened. We don’t know for sure if the missile was ever launched; however, we don’t know that it wasn’t. We never did see it coming,” he said.
Enemy threats were not the only concern. “Friendly aircraft” – the threat of an aircraft collision with an ally – was a very real danger.
“Our airport had many of the B-52s and KC-135s based there. You could be out on the flight line and see tankers for almost as far as the eye can see – rows and rows of KC-135s. Then you look the other way and there’s rows and rows of B-52s. We were parked wing tip to wing tip, so even getting out of your parking space was challenging.”
If maneuvering on ground level presented a challenge, flying in a crowded air space was even more dangerous and demanded increased focus.
“There was an immense amount of aircraft in the air at the same time going to the same destination,” Krueger said. “One time this aircraft got so close we could literally hear his engines outside of our aircraft. That was probably the worst one. Others are threatening, but you usually have plenty of time to react and correct.”
From navigator to pilot
After the Gulf War came to an end, Krueger was sent back to Japan for nearly three years, and then finally stationed in the United States at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. He was deployed to Europe several times while based at Robins, allowing him the opportunity to spend time in England, France, Germany and Italy.
But after nearly a decade in the Air Force, Krueger still had not attained a pilot position. Tragedy struck his family in 1996 when his father, Walter “Wally” Krueger, passed away, and Krueger took a step back and re-evaluated his career.
“Up to this point I had tried to reapply for pilot training three more times and was turned down every time because they just didn’t need the pilots,” he said. He also had reached the highest level he could as an instructor and evaluator for other navigators.
So, Krueger made the decision to leave active duty and join the Air Force Reserve, and was then stationed at Seymour Johnson Base in North Carolina.
What he didn’t know was that he would soon be fulfilling his dreams of becoming a pilot. Krueger was hired as a navigator for two years, and then went on to be the senior ranking officer in his pilot training class from 1999-2000.
“The moral of this story is never give up on your dreams, never give up on your goals, and most importantly never, ever quit. It took me 15 years of my Air Force career to become a pilot,” he said. “There is no failing if you never quit.”
Soon after Krueger began flying as a pilot, the unthinkable happened – the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
“After 9-11 all commercial aircraft were grounded – instantly. I was one of just a handful of military aircraft flying over the Pentagon and over New York. Our job was to refuel F-16s and keep them airborne for as long as we could to maintain a 24-hour vigil over the sites that took hits,” he said. “I saw the Twin Towers burning. I saw the smoke plume being picked up by the headwinds and carried out over the ocean for miles and miles. It was very surreal – like being in a Tom Clancy novel.”
Flying a desk
After Krueger’s time as a pilot was up, he went from flying a plane to “flying a desk” in the Pentagon for his last five years of service in the Air Force.
“About the worst thing you can do is take the pilot out of an airplane,” he said. “It was certainly a privilege and an honor working at the Pentagon, but after five years I think burn out is common.”
While working at the Pentagon, Krueger worked for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
“I would almost say that some of my most stressful battles were at the Pentagon. Flying into combat is stressful enough but I don’t think you could ever prepare enough for briefing the Chief of Staff or his upper level staff.”
Twenty-three years after he joined the Air Force – receiving 13 medals and 19 ribbons for his service – Krueger decided he was ready for a change in his life.
“I certainly appreciate everything that I experienced. Would I ever want to experience them again? Not all of them, perhaps. But am I glad I had them? Absolutely, because it made me who I am.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com