True Wingmanship: the Tough and Inspiring Plight of Colonel Shawn Pederson

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Once in a while, we get a stark reminder that no one is bulletproof. Not even the strongest among us. In those moments, we realize that everyone eventually needs a wingman. Not in the faddish sense embraced by the contemporary Air Force, but in the truest sense. 

This true meaning of wingmanship is still alive in some corners of our Air Force community. It can be seen in the inspirational way retired Colonel Shawn “Norm” Pederson’s teammates are rallying to his cause when he needs them most.

Just after he retired from active duty in the fall of 2014, Norm suffered a traumatic cerebral aneurysm. He barely survived. Since then, he’s been in a fight to recover. After being airlifted to a hospital, he spent eight weeks in an ICU, beating back pneumonia and other infections. After stabilizing, he was moved to Walter Reed, where he spent another eight weeks recovering before he was moved to a VA facility in Richmond. After a period of time there, VA officials consigned him to convalescent care, forcing his family to move him again.

Norm Pederson's situation is a stark reminder of just how quickly any of us can go from larger than life to fighting for life. He's got a tough road ahead, but he'll do it with the help of many wingmen.

Norm’s parents moved him to a place in Prophetstown, Illinois called Winning Wheels, a non-profit foundation that gives younger victims of traumatic brain injury a place to live as they recover and hopefully transition to improved functionality. Winning Wheels has agreed to keep Norm as long as he needs to stay there, and the unbelievably gracious help the foundation has provided is the reason he has been able to keep fighting so hard to this point. But Norm’s parents and his support network are pushing hard to get him treatment that stands the best chance of maximizing his recovery.

This kind of treatment is available at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), which agreed to take Norm earlier this year. Unfortunately, the VA has thus far not approved Norm’s transfer to the RIC program. His mother is working with the VA to gain approval, and is optimistic it will eventually be granted. Assuming that happens, the fight will shift to one of securing the resources to pay for Norm’s care. Tricare will only cover 8-10 days of treatment, and he’ll need many more than that to fully leverage what the RIC treatment specialists can do for him.

This is the reason Norm’s wingmen have established a fund in his name. The proceeds they hope to raise will facilitate his treatment, secure a wheelchair-compatible van to ease strain on his elderly parents as they care for him, and pay for home modifications when Norm is eventually able to leave full-time hospitalization.

The people whose lives Norm touched in his 24 years of superbly rendered Air Force service have rolled into his personal fight, lending him the mutual support he needs to keep that fight going. It’s clear this is a man who enjoys a deep well of hard-earned respect and admiration from people who don’t extend such things cheaply. I’ve lost count of the number of heartfelt testimonials rendered by sterling colleagues I hold in high esteem, all attesting to the leadership, personal involvement, and example Norm gave to them in one way or another.

Norm inspired and earned the loyalty of many airmen in his years as a fighter pilot and combat leader. That's evident in the response to his plight.
Norm inspired and earned the loyalty of many airmen in his years as a fighter pilot and combat leader. That’s evident in the response to his plight.

Norm is in many ways the quintessential airman. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 1990 and dominated pilot training before getting the bad news that he’d have to delay his flying career a few years due to overmanning. He didn’t waste time complaining. Instead, he earned a masters degree from the University of Texas and did key advisory work in the Pentagon, impressing everyone he met along the way.

Norm is a proud member of USAFA's Class of 1990. His fellow grads in "Mighty 90" have turned out in strong numbers to support his recovery.
Norm is a proud member of USAFA’s Class of 1990. His fellow grads in “Mighty 90” have turned out in strong numbers to support his recovery.

In 1995, he finally got his chance to push up the throttles, joining Lakenheath’s 494th Fighter Squadron “Panthers” as a Strike Eagle pilot. Norm flew the F-15E in combat operations over Bosnia and Iraq and was, by all accounts, a superior operator. So good, in fact, that he was later selected to fly a tour with the Thunderbirds before graduating with distinction from Air Command and Staff College and working in the prestigious Checkmate division of the Air Staff.

Norm later returned to the 494th as its operations officer and commander, leading the squadron on a record-breaking combat deployment to Afghanistan. He went on to serve as the Vice Commander of the 4th Fighter Wing before choosing to leave the service in lieu of wing command, in part due to the health problems that precipitated the burst aneurysm he suffered just after making his retirement official.

Norm flew with the Panthers as a new pilot and later led them to combat as their commander. Along the way, he made a name for himself as a solid Strike Eagle operator and a wingman par excellence.
Norm flew with the Panthers as a new pilot and later led them to combat as their commander. Along the way, he made a name for himself as a solid Strike Eagle operator and a leader among the service’s best.

Norm was, by all accounts, an exemplary leader who constantly found the right balance between driving people hard and taking care of them. He knew his people and he used his authority and influence to help them. He shredded bureaucracy and burned red tape. He eschewed that which didn’t make sense and inspired his people to do the same. Most of all, he led with intelligence and clarity, expecting smart and substantial solutions from himself and his teammates.

Norm made a career out of fighting for his wingmen. Whether it was working the phones with AFPC to secure the right assignment for someone with family issues, working the chain of command to secure training time for his crews to keep them ready, compelling the right response to a family health issue for one of his people when the system failed, or simply showing up in the workcenter to register an authentic note of thanks for good work, he was a relentless provider of mutual support. He understood that to be the definition of Air Force leadership: cultivating a team climate where no one goes solo against an adversary, and everyone prevails together.

Looking over to check on his's largely what Norm's career as an airman stood for.
Looking over to check on his wingman…it’s largely what Norm’s career as an airman stood for.

In many ways, it’s a tough time to serve in our Air Force. There’s plenty to lament and plenty to question. But there are some things that still work the way they should, and that’s reason for optimism that beneath all of the politics, dysfunction, and pretense, we still understand that relationships between airmen are what matter. The common bond of being in a fight together … that’s what endures. It’s the thing Norm Pederson understood that allowed so many of his wingmen to survive, recover, and thrive professionally and personally. And it’s the quality he built into them that they’re now exemplifying.

Through the strength of the very wingmen Norm created, he is now able to fight harder for his own recovery. People he inspired, led, mentored, pushed, sponsored, motivated, and fought alongside are now giving him that same mutual support he built into them. That’s a beautiful thing.

You can read more about Norm here, and make a donation if so inclined. Whether you’re a direct beneficiary of knowing him or simply looking to rejoin on a fellow airman in need, he and his family could use whatever help you can lend.

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