Commanders Share Wing Missions, Kidney Donation


WASHINGTON -- While total force integration has spawned many resource-sharing initiatives, two wing commanders at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, have taken it to a whole new, and very personal, level.

When Air Force Reserve Col. Keith Knudson, 419th Fighter Wing commander, was diagnosed with kidney failure last year, his active duty counterpart, Col. Scott Long, 388th FW commander, volunteered to donate a kidney of his own.

"He is truly an amazing person," Knudson said of Long.

In early 2011, Knudson went in for his annual flight physical and wound up spending five days in the hospital where he was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, or Berger's disease, which occurs when too many antibodies build up in the kidneys. Worse, the Berger's disease had led to end-stage kidney failure. Knudson learned that he would need either dialysis or a transplant. He was put on the donor recipient list and adopted a low-salt, low-potassium diet to stabilize his kidneys while the search for a donor commenced. Several family members were tested but none met the necessary criteria.

Later that spring, Long took over the 388th FW, which under total force integration shares resources with Knudson's 419th FW. He and Knudson had never met before, but they worked closely on ways to bring their wings together in a shared partnership. One day about six months into Long's assignment, he asked Knudson about his health issues. Knudson explained the situation. Long said he'd like to be tested. Knudson politely agreed to get him some information, but he didn't expect him to follow through.

"A lot of people say that," Knudson said. "It seems like the right thing to say, whereas when people really peel it back, taking that step is something entirely different."

Long kept his word, but the preliminary tests showed that Long's kidneys were not functioning at the high level of capacity required to be a donor.

"I was tenacious," Long said. "I figured there had to be something I could do."

He asked Knudson for advice. Knudson said that put him in an odd position. While he knew Long could boost his kidney function by restricting his diet, he hesitated to encourage Long to take on such an ordeal on his behalf. But Long was determined. He immediately made changes to his diet, and his next test showed his kidneys functioning perfectly. Yet that wasn't the end. He still had to endure a lengthy and rigorous testing process, all while keeping up his responsibilities as wing commander.

Three months ago, the tests came back with spectacular results. It was as though the two were siblings. The doctors told Knudson they didn't believe they could ever find a better match for him. Both Long and Knudson said they were overjoyed.

"It's a no brainer," Long said. "He's a friend in need. I'm extending his life, and I only need one (kidney) to lead a normal life. It's a win-win."

Long's generosity is even more courageous than it sounds. Not only will he lose a kidney, but if he incurs complications from the surgery, he could face medical retirement and obstacles in receiving military benefits. On the other hand, he will buy time on Knudson's life. Patients who undergo transplant surgery can live 10 to 15 years longer than those remaining on dialysis.

"This isn't about me," Long said. "There are thousands of people who have a critical need for organ donation."

Long stressed that his leaders support his decision fully.

"They've given me nothing but solid encouragement," he said.

Because the 419th FW is a classic associate Reserve unit tied to the 388th FW, Long and Knudson have worked closely on how best to capitalize on their shared equipment and facilities. Under total force integration, active duty, Guard and Reserve components combine resources around a common mission to achieve maximum capability. Both colonels feel they've made progress, but the irony hasn't escaped them.

"We're taking TFI to a different level," Long joked. "We're talking total organ integration."

"Think about it," Knudson said. "We're both Academy grads, F-16 pilots, wing commanders. We both work TFI. ... I have hair; he doesn't. That's the difference, I guess."

With medication and his restricted diet, Knudson has stabilized his kidneys just above the cutoff line for surgery. This means the transplant likely won't happen until next year.

"It's simple for me," Long said. "I'm excited to do it. When they call, that's it. I'm there."

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