News: Small town friend leaves big impact on Air Force career
Story by 1st Lt. Holli Nelson
SOUTHWEST ASIA - Throughout life, there are people who inevitably leave lasting impressions. An imprint on our consciousness. They are examples, mentors, and friends. They help us strive to be better, push harder, and reach for higher goals.
For Lt. Col. Elizabeth Clay, 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 wing commander of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing. She as deputy commander of the 386th Expeditionary Maintenance Group.
Clay and Hoagland grew up in the nearby 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 which was in the same grade as Clay.
Both Clay and Hoagland were very 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.
During the end of the year in 1986, Clay was attending the end of the 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 about the prestige and honor that accompanies attending the AF Academy to the small audience. 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 AF 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 lie ahead.
In 1989, Clay had received a congressional nomination to West Point but did not receive the appointment. Disappointed, but resolute in her desire to attend the AF Academy, she began classes at her local community college, waiting for her opportunity to apply to the academy. The next year, Clay received another nomination, this time to the AF Academy where she was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy preparatory school where she completed her academics and played volleyball.
Yet again, Clay’s hopes of attending the AF Academy and gaining success in her college dreams were high until she injured her knee playing volleyball in 1990. Because of the injury, she received the worst news yet. She was medically discharged from the Air Force and disqualified for admission into the AF Academy.
Once she finished out her year of USAFA preparatory school, she moved back to her hometown of Oberlin where she rehabilitated her knee and again took classes at the local community college. As she worked through her injury and the multiple setbacks she had faced, Clay never let her goal out of sight.
The following year, with her knee rehabilitated enough to be medically cleared; she reapplied to the AF 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,” said Clay.
Her dreams had become her reality. 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 Col. 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.”
Coming from a small Ohio town, Hoagland stated, many people didn’t aspire to join the military or attend a service academy. He was one of only a handful of people at the time to have ever been appointed to and graduate from the AF Academy from Elyria.
The two grads found themselves deployed together for the past year.
“Here I am today, 28 years after Col. 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 1700 Airmen of the 386th AEW 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 Col. Hoagland.”
Upon leaving "The Rock" at the completion of their tours, Hoagland will be assuming command of the 11th Wing, Joint Base-Andrews, Maryland, and Clay will return to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois to work at Headquarters, Air Mobility Command.
“I can’t think of a more rewarding profession than serving in the armed forces and leading people to accomplish great things,” said Clay. “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.”
Clay tries to make time every year to return back to her roots in her small community in Ohio, visiting friends and relatives there. A career officer in the U.S. Air Force she undoubtedly is leaving a profound impact on someone else’s life.