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From cadets to colonels: Wingmen for life

U.S. Air Force Col. Douglas Thies, 20th Operations Group commander, prepares to fist bump Col. David Vaclavik, 20th Mission Support Group commander, prior to a familiarization flight at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 30, 2017. Thies flew Vaclavik, who has been his friend since college, on a familiarization flight training mission in an F-16D Fighting Falcon. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Destinee Sweeney)

Col. Douglas Thies, the 20th Operations Group commander, fist bumps Col. David Vaclavik, the 20th Mission Support Group commander, prior to a familiarization flight at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 30, 2017. Thies flew Vaclavik, who has been his friend since college, on a familiarization flight training mission in an F-16D Fighting Falcon. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Destinee Sweeney)

Texas A&M University cadets Douglas Thies, left, and David Vaclavik, stand for a picture in their uniforms at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas, circa 1992. The two cadets would eventually become U.S. Air Force colonels and take command of the 20th Operations Group and the 20th Mission Support Group, respectively, providing combat-ready F-16CM Fighting Falcon airpower and Airmen to suppress enemy air defenses and provide close air support in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. (Courtesy photo)

Texas A&M University cadets Douglas Thies, left, and David Vaclavik, stand for a picture in their uniforms at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, circa 1992. The two cadets would eventually become Air Force colonels and take command of the 20th Operations Group and the 20th Mission Support Group, respectively, providing combat-ready F-16CM Fighting Falcon airpower and Airmen to suppress enemy air defenses and provide close air support in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. (Courtesy photo)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C.(AFNS) --

Filing into a barber shop in 1989, a group of college freshmen prepare for the Cadet Corps program at Texas A&M University, College Station by receiving the traditional rites during their transition from civilian to military: a buzz cut.

Physical training, formations and university classrooms were all part of the daily lives of cadets assigned to A&M Squadron 7. As they marched toward graduation, the cadets gained more than knowledge and bearing from the program which attempted to shape them into the next generation of military leaders.

Stressful environments such as a college campus or military course have the potential to form life-long bonds, such as the bond between Col. David Vaclavik and Col. Douglas Thies, two friends who received their Air Force commissions from Texas A&M in 1994.

“What we were provided in school was an arduous experience that made us stronger by having to go through it together,” said Thies, who commissioned to become an F-16CM Fighting Falcon pilot and later took command of the 20th Operations Group in 2015. “When you go through basic military training or officer training school, or anything difficult with a group of people, it creates a bond because you realize that together you made each other stronger and you came out a better Airman and a better person at the end of that experience. That (bond is) what Colonel Vaclavik and I have.”

Throughout the years the two former classmates accomplished many things without losing touch with one another, thanks to personal values and hobbies keeping them linked.

As avid Texas A&M football fans, Vaclavik and Thies call each other to chat about games and catch up on life every season. Their friendship, however, runs deeper than sports.

Thies said Vaclavik is a great husband and father, whose example and counsel is appreciated.

Vaclavik said Thies’ values of faith, family and service to his nation keep them close as best friends. Thies was the only other person from their A&M squadron to wear the uniform, and both were able to serve for a number of years.

After approximately 21 years of service apart, Thies found out his wingman would be stationed with him for the first time and take charge of the 20th Mission Support Group as a fellow group commander at Shaw Air Force Base.

“I was really excited because I knew we’d be working closely together,” said Thies. “There’s some risk having a friend who’s also a peer because there may be times where we have issues that may be contentious, but Vaclavik is a man who has absolute integrity and represents the best of the Air Force core values.”

Vaclavik was also thrilled with the opportunity to live so close to his colleague and to have the next generation of their families connect while allowing the two men to reminisce about their college days.

Since being stationed at Shaw AFB, the two have used the opportunity to grow as wingmen and leaders.

A wingman is somebody who looks out for others and holds others accountable to personal values, the Air Force values and their decisions, said Thies.

“Vaclavik is the quintessential wingman for life,” said Thies. “As we’ve gotten older, if we’ve had an issue professionally with dealing with an Airman or a difficult subject matter, we definitely lean on each other.”

The two initiated programs to help the 20th MSG and the 20th OG Airmen understand their individual roles in the 20th Fighter Wing mission.

Vaclavik also said Thies himself took time to talk to mission support Airmen about how the 20th MSG enables operations Airmen to succeed at home and while deployed.

Recently, Thies had the opportunity to show Vaclavik a glimpse of his Air Force experience during a familiarization flight in a two-seat F-16D Fighting Falcon. Familiarization flights provide Airmen the opportunity to see a training mission up close.

“It would’ve been cool to fly with any of the pilots,” said Vaclavik, “but to do it with one of your best friends makes it much more special. I have a lot of respect getting to see what he and our pilots do each and every day to train for a mission and go out and fly. It’s a very complex (mission) that (the 20th FW does) and I gained that much more respect for him and what everybody does over in the operations group.”

Although their chapter at Shaw AFB is coming to an end, the two know their friendship will continue to thrive as time goes on, even after Thies passes the 20th OG guidon to an incoming commander June 30.