SOUTHWEST ASIA – Throughout life, there are people who inevitably leave lasting impressions -- an imprint on our consciousness. As examples, mentors and friends, they help us strive to be better, push harder and reach for higher goals.
For Air Force Lt. Col. Elizabeth Clay, Air Force Col. Brad Hoagland made a difference in her life and career more than 28 years ago, when the two were in high school. Today, they find themselves serving together halfway around the world -- he as the vice commander of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing and she as deputy commander of the 386th Expeditionary Maintenance Group.
Clay and Hoagland grew up in the neighboring small towns of Elyria and Oberlin, Ohio, where they attended the same elementary and high schools. Hoagland, three years ahead of Clay in school, had three younger brothers, one of whom was in the same grade as Clay.
Both were active in their high school athletics programs, with Clay playing volleyball, basketball and running track, and Hoagland winning two state championships in football during his high school years. It was during this time that the two learned the importance of working as a team, dedication and setting high goals for themselves. It was this foundation that would propel both forward in their Air Force careers.
In 1986, Clay was attending the end-of-year awards ceremony for her high school and witnessed a special moment in Hoagland’s life. He had been called onto the stage at Elyria Catholic High School to be presented with his appointment to the Air Force Academy. An Air Force major presented the appointment letter and spoke to the audience about the prestige and honor that accompanies attending the academy. It had a profound impact on Clay.
“At that moment,” Clay said, “I knew that’s where I wanted to go to college. Over the next few years, I set my focus on getting good grades and participating in the extracurricular activities I needed to get into the academy.”
With the bar set high, Clay dedicated herself to preparing for the journey ahead. Every summer, when Hoagland would come home from school, Clay spoke to him about his experiences, eager for knowledge and insight into the life of an Air Force cadet. Ever the mentor, Hoagland presented Clay with her first cadet “Contrails” book so she could begin studying for her freshman year, helping to ensure she was as prepared as could be for what was ahead.
In 1989, Clay received a congressional nomination to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, but did not receive the appointment. Disappointed, but resolute in her desire to attend the Air Force Academy, she began classes at her local community college, waiting for her opportunity to apply. The next year, Clay received another nomination, this time to the Air Force Academy. She was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy preparatory school, where she completed her academics and played volleyball.
Her hopes of attending the academy and gaining success in her college dreams were high until she injured her knee playing volleyball in 1990. Because of the injury, she was medically discharged from the Air Force and disqualified for admission into the academy.
Once she finished out her year of the preparatory school, Clay moved back to her hometown of Oberlin, where she rehabilitated her knee and again took classes at the community college. As she worked through her injury and the multiple setbacks she had faced, she never let her goal out of sight.
The following year, with her knee rehabilitated enough to be medically cleared, she reapplied to the Air Force Academy and received her appointment to the freshman class of 1992.
“It took me awhile, but three years after graduating high school, I was finally accepted into the freshman class,” she said.
She pursued her degree in general studies with a concentration in biology, played for two years on the academy’s volleyball team, and graduated in 1996 with a bachelor of science degree.
In the course of all the ups and downs in Clay’s life, Hoagland’s career and success had been a beacon for her. He graduated in 1990 with a degree in civil engineering and set off for his life in the Air Force, not truly knowing how much his example and mentorship had inspired this young woman.
“If it wasn’t for Colonel Hoagland, I would not have known about the academy,” Clay said. “He encouraged me through my high school years and beyond to continue to pursue it.”
In small-town Ohio, Hoagland said, not many people aspired to join the military or attend a service academy. At the time, he added, he was one of only a handful of people from Elyria ever to have ever been appointed to and graduate from the Air Force Academy.
The two academy graduates found themselves deployed together for the past year.
“Here I am today, 28 years after Colonel Hoagland sparked my interest in the academy,” Clay reflected. “I’m serving side by side with him in a foreign country that was once devastated by a brutal enemy.”
Since 2013, Hoagland has been leading more than 1,700 airmen as the vice wing commander, and Clay ensures all flightline operations run smoothly as the deputy maintenance commander.
“It means a lot to me to be sharing in the same mission accomplishment at a deployed location with the person responsible for sparking my interest [in the academy] during high school and, ultimately, for me serving in the Air Force,” Clay said. “I’m honored to be serving under such a phenomenal leader as Colonel Hoagland.”
After they complete their tours here, Hoagland will assume command of the 11th Wing at Joint Base-Andrews, Maryland, and Clay will return to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, to work at Air Mobility Command headquarters.
“I can’t think of a more rewarding profession than serving in the armed forces and leading people to accomplish great things,” Clay said. “I have grown as a leader and am a better person now than I was 20 years ago because of what I’ve learned from the people I’ve worked with through the years.”