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From enlisted marine to 100th ARW commander

U.S. Air Force Col. Troy Pananon, 100th Air Refueling Wing commander, poses for a photo at RAF Mildenhall, England, July 9, 2019. Pananon served five years as an enlisted Marine prior to receiving his commission from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1996. He was initially assigned as a maintenance officer at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and then attended Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper)

U.S. Air Force Col. Troy Pananon, 100th Air Refueling Wing commander, poses for a photo at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, July 9, 2019. Pananon served five years as an enlisted U.S. Marine Corps prior to receiving his commission from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1996. He was initially assigned as a maintenance officer at Hurlburt Field, Fla., then attended Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper)

U.S. Air Force Col. Troy Pananon, 100th Air Refueling Wing commander, shakes hands with a 100th ARW Airman at RAF Mildenhall, England, July 9, 2019. Pananon began his military career in the United States Marine Corps, after leaving the USMC he completed his education and earned his commission in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper)

U.S. Air Force Col. Troy Pananon, 100th Air Refueling Wing commander, greets Airmen at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, July 9, 2019. Pananon began his military career in the U.S. Marine Corps. After leaving the USMC, he completed his education and earned his commission in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper)

RAF MILDENHALL, England (AFNS) -- At first glance, U.S. Air Force Col. Troy Pananon, 100th Air Refueling Wing commander, seems to be what many Airmen would expect a wing commander to be. What might not be apparent are the struggles he faced in his quest to become the Airman he is today.

The son of immigrant parents from Thailand, Pananon didn’t have a long family military tradition to lean on, so he made his own instead.

“My father was conscripted in the Thai military, but it was only for about a year,” he said. “Afterwards, he emigrated to the United States for school where he later met my mother who was on scholarship from the Thai royal family.”

As a boy, Pananon made many family trips to his parent’s country of origin.

“Every two years, my family and I would return to Thailand, but we would take the longest route possible which enabled me to see many different countries in the process,” the colonel said. “Perhaps the travels of my youth, experiencing other cultures and countries, contributed to the appeal of military service.”

Though he knew from an early age he wanted to become a pilot, it did not come easily.

“In high school I was a poor student,” Pananon recalled. “I had dreams and aspirations, but I didn’t do the things that I was supposed to do… such as be responsible and get good grades. However, had I been a stellar student, I’m not sure I would be where I am today.”

After high school he found himself working as a pizza deliveryman, but a visit from a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter changed his life forever.

“I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for those five years in the Marine Corps and seeing things through their lens,” Pananon explained. “I was in the aviation side of the Marines, and it reignited my love for it -- that desire to fly was pivotal in providing me the fire I needed to finish my education and reach my goal.”

After he left the Marine Corps, Pananon began his march toward becoming a pilot.

“I sought out Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University because they had Air Force ROTC and an aviation program,” Pananon said. “I was going to get my degree and fly while I was doing it. Then as soon as I got that diploma, my future would be assured. It was going to be perfect. I did everything I was told to become a pilot, but when it came time for selection, they told me that I was too old to go to training.”

Pananon continued his journey as a maintenance officer, but he never forgot about flying.

“I remember feeling disappointed, like I was losing my dream, but I said to myself, ‘If I can’t fly them, I want to fix them,’” he explained. “Later, I found out that if you were on active duty, you could apply for an age waiver. So, I applied for the waiver and received a one-time opportunity to go to pilot training, and the rest is history.”

During his flying career, Pananon had a realization that put everything in perspective.

“I remember during Desert Shield, as a young Marine, taking apart our helicopters and loading them onto a C-5 Galaxy headed for Saudi Arabia,” Pananon said. “It came full circle for me years later in Iraq; at that time I was flying C-5’s, my aircraft was carrying the same type of helicopters I worked on as a Marine back to the United States. That was when I realized how far I’d come in my military career.”

From Marine to aircraft commander, and now commander of the 100th ARW, Pananon isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

“We are good right now, but I am sure we can be better,” he said. “The second you think you’ve reached the summit is the moment that you are probably failing. This piece of advice has stuck with me for a long time. Whenever I walk into an organization, I’m looking and asking myself, ‘what do I need to do to make the organization better?’ I know I’m not the only one thinking this, and I don’t want to be.”

As a commander, Pananon is passionate, not only about the success of his unit, but also the Airmen in it.

“I want to make sure Airmen and their families are taken care of and know they’re valued,” he said. “As long as we do that, then I think they’re going to be more able to execute the mission and do it with some zeal. If we give them the resources they need and set the conditions for their success, they are going to make it.”

While his plans for the wing may only be known to him, one thing is for certain, he will not be resting on his laurels.

“My goal is to continue to ensure that the legacy that has been built remains untarnished, and to build upon the incredible foundation that we already have which was fortified by all my predecessors,” Pananon said.

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