Commander's journey on the less traveled road

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Of all the poems written by American Poet Laureate Robert Frost, his most prevalent, "The Road Not Taken," describes, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." For Richard W. Wedan, this choice has made for the adventure of a lifetime.

"There have been a few 'fork-in-the-road' moments in my life, but the desire to change careers and join the Air Force has been, by far, the most rewarding," said Wedan, retiring commander of the 142nd Fighter Wing in Portland, Oregon.  

He was raised, and later managed two restaurants in Duluth, Minnesota, but a series of events in a very short period of time changed the direction of his career forever. 

"I knew nothing about the military, but my soon-to-be brother-in-law was pursuing a flying career in the National Guard; at about the same time, a few of the owners of the restaurant I was managing walked in one day in these funny [flight] suits and one thing quickly led to another," he said.

That trail of events soon had Wedan touring the local Air Guard base; becoming engrossed with watching the F-4 Phantom II jets in action flown by the 148th Fighter Wing. Within a few months, Wedan enlisted in the Minnesota Air National Guard. 

With blonde hair and fresh-faced looks, Wedan's passion for even the smallest details on any project or endeavor is contagious. After graduating as the distinguished graduate from basic training, Wedan' s star continued to rise as he earned a commission and then attended flight school. During his early flying days, he was given the call sign "Buzz" by his peers in reference to Buzz Lightyear of "Toy Story" fame.

"At the time, people said I reminded them of him; bold, brash and annoying," Wedan said with a laugh.

Yet his passion for flying and an appetite for new challenges took him from his native Minnesota roots to the 173rd Fighter Wing at Kingsley Field, Klamath Falls, Oregon, in 1997, where he seemed well suited to teach young pilots how to fly the F-15 Eagle.

Now married with two children, the Wedan family has enjoyed one of rare benefits of military life: - being able to settle into a community for an extended period of time.

"This was one of the better aspects of being full time in the Guard. I was able to coach my son's football team for eight years and help coach my daughter's volleyball team while doing volunteer work in the community," said Wedan.

Wedan said there were tradeoffs with the move across country, but it allowed him the flexibility to concentrate on his instructor duties while establishing a routine with his immediate family. His wife, Liz Wedan, recalled the moment she knew they made the right decision: "I asked our son [Steven] one day how he was doing with the move and he said, 'Dad's home every night and I really like that.'" 

In 2012, Wedan found himself at another intersection in life. Oregon Air National Guard Commander Brig. Gen. Steven Gregg tapped him for a new position as the vice commander for the 142nd Fighter Wing in Portland, Oregon. It meant another move and a new set of challenges, but the opportunity allowed him to help guide an Aerospace Control Alert (ACA) unit while remaining a part of the Oregon Guard family. 

"Within a couple of weeks, I knew he was the right guy for this organization," recalled Brig. Gen. Michael Stencel, then the 142nd Fighter Wing commander. "Buzz has an incredible work ethic and I don't think I have ever met anyone who worked harder and took on each new task with more enthusiasm," he said.

Within a year, Wedan followed in Stencel's footsteps as the commander of the fighter wing.  He simultaneously took on the lead role for the national Weapons System Council and quickly realized the cost-effectiveness for maintaining the U.S.'s fleet of F-15 jets. The council reported their suggestions to Air Force, Air National Guard, and other military political leaders.

When breaking down the math, Wedan said, the cost savings would not be offset by the Department of Defense proposal. As part of this proposal, the 142nd Fighter Wing and other ACA units would not keep their existing number of aircraft and the staff to maintain the Eagle's. His efforts on the council, however, resulted in a presidential budget that includes funding to support the existing number of aircraft and military personnel to maintain them. 

"His proactive approach with the Weapons System Council was just another example of him seeing a need and a solution within the same concern," said Stencel.

Within the military, mentorship has become a central focus for developing tomorrow's leaders today.  Reflecting on the people who have made a difference during his military career, Wedan said that "unscripted and informal" approaches helped shape him along the way.

"I found that watching how successful people worked was important, but so was having someone pull me aside to offer examples," said Wedan.

One of those informal mentorship experiences, recalled Wedan, happened a few weeks after he took command in early 2012. Col. Brad Applegate, a retired 142nd Fighter Wing commander, stopped by his office to see how the new job was going.

"During our conversation, he said something that resonated and I thought it was really sage advice. He said, "Never underestimate the extraordinary responsibility you're entrusted with - when every decision you make can affect the lives of 1,100 men and women," Wedan said.

Those decisions - or as Wedan likes to say, 'fork-in-the-road-moments' - have been the catalyst for his career.

As Wedan approached retirement from the Air National Guard, he reflected on the highlights of his 27 years in uniform, ranging from helping others with issues at home or working on their next primary military education goal. 

"Teaching young kids how to fly the jet; when I think about it, I've probably help shape over 450 Airmen as an instructor pilot," he said. 

One Airman Wedan has influenced is his own son, 2nd Lt. Steven Wedan, a 2013 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy who is beginning his own career flying the C-17 Globemaster III.  

Born at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, Lt. Wedan came into the world with flying in his veins. But, he said, his decision to pursue an Air Force career path was never pushed by his father.

"One of my dad's best pieces of advice was, "Never close any doors and be open to new possibilities," Lt. Wedan said. "That being said, I never wanted to do anything else [but be in the Air Force] he said.

The Midas touch shared by Col. and Liz Wedan has not been lost on their daughter, Autumn, either. After graduating from the University of Portland last year, she now plays professional volleyball in Europe. 

The journey along the less traveled path has apparently been worth it for the entire family.

"I wouldn't do anything different," said Liz Wedan. "The military was a perfect fit for Rick; the routine, discipline, community and camaraderie just worked in every way for him," she said.

On Feb. 7, 2015 - his final day as an active-duty pilot - Col. Wedan was able to fly in formation alongside his son, Lt. Wedan. Riding in the back seat of an F-15D Eagle, piloted by 142nd Fighter Wing vice commander, Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, Lt. Wedan was able to see his dad's office space from 30,000 feet pushing MACH 2.0. Following the flight, Col. Fitzgerald assumed command of the wing during a formal ceremony held later here in the day.

For Lt. Wedan, his father didn't need a supersonic sendoff for his dad, Col. Wedan, to leave a lasting impression about their unique bond, he said. "My dad does everything with passion but really, having a catch in the back yard is still the most meaningful time I still have with him."