Transcending Tragedy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf
  • 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

At a stage in life that many would consider to be over the hill, Ronald Ball hardly fit the profile of an Air Force recruit. Starting over, a middle-aged man, no one would have blamed him for giving up.

Ball had spent the past 17 years being a single father, and had never quit on his two sons. The option to fail did not exist.

In 2012, as he signed his name and took an oath, second thoughts were only natural. Watching his eldest son, Matthew, enlist in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard had an unexpected effect on him. Ball, so overcome with pride in his young son, volunteered his own service to the military. He was ready to resurrect a profession of arms that had been placed on hold nearly two decades before.

In many ways Ball, now a 50-year-old staff sergeant, looks every bit his part. The signs of middle age are readily apparent. Physically, he is now a step slower than most of his peers. His brown hair has begun to thin and gray, but the most telling are his arresting eyes. They unintentionally betray a collected presence, revealing a man who refused to succumb to a life spent witness to violence and tragedy.

From an early age, Ball had wanted to be a cop. The Philadelphia native proudly announced that decision to his mother at the age of 5, eventually making it official in 1986. Upon graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Ball landed a job with the Philadelphia Police Department. He worked his way up through the ranks, ascending to the rank of lieutenant.

While pursuing his education, Ball simultaneously began his career in the military. In 1983, he enlisted as an infantryman in the Army National Guard and later moved on to higher positions within tactical units.

"I enjoyed watching the higher ups control the exercises," Ball said. "I knew then that I wanted to be an officer someday. It happened in the police department and not in the military. Still, I loved being in the military."

In 1990, Ball married and was living a relatively typical life. His wife, Corrine, gave birth to two boys, and he was working within the narcotics unit of the police department. Each day brought with it the potential for death and disorder, but he believed that the job he was doing was important. The family lived knowing a day may come when the phone would ring and Ronald would not come home.

On April 7, 1995, a call finally came, but it was Ball who was unexpectedly on the receiving end. The police notified him that Corrine had been killed in a triple murder.

"I was notified by a phone call that my wife was dead," Ball said. "I fell to my knees and cried, it's horrible, you can't even imagine. I was in disbelief. I had to get back on my feet though. I had two little faces looking up at me and I had to keep going for my sons' sake."

It was at that point Ball received his release from the Army. He was honorably discharged in order to be able to better care for his children.

"After the murder, every day, thoughts of being killed would wear on my mind," Ball said. "I was never afraid, I was just afraid my kids would become orphans. Cops are special people. Most people run away, but we run to danger. I saw on average two or three homicides a week in Philadelphia. I had to notify families of their sons or daughters being killed. You had to look them in the eye, you cried with them and you would counsel them."

The work of a single father was demanding. Ball was thankful for the help of family and friends as he found his footing as a father. At work, he was moved into positions that allowed him to remain on the police force, and over time he began to heal. It was his love for his young boys that Ball credits for helping him pull through difficult times.

"It was pretty much just me and my in-laws raising them," Ball said. "They are tremendous people and they helped me raise my kids. Packing two diaper bags, cooking, cleaning, taking them to daycare, picking them up and then starting all over again -- I couldn't have made it without them. It was hard for the boys; I was overprotective. I was making decisions on my own and couldn't confer with somebody. It's hard enough with two parents, raising kids, but raising two of them alone was very difficult."

Ball eventually re-married, but Patrick and Matthew remained the driving force in his life. He was fully committed to ensuring their success and made it a priority to teach them about treating others with dignity and respect. He gave them the tools that would help them overcome their misfortune and succeed.

His tireless efforts through the years eventually paid off. Ball's young sons are now grown, and have started accomplishing goals of their own.

Patrick is following in his father's footsteps. He studies criminal justice at Kutztown University, near Philadelphia.

Matthew, a business management student at Penn State University, is a frequent member of the dean's list. He also serves in the 201st Red Horse Squadron at Fort Indiantown Gap., Pennsylvania.

At 47, Ball underwent a metamorphosis. He exchanged his duties as a provider and protector for those of a defender. His boys were now men and his charge to raise them had been answered. He was ready to move on to the next phase of his life. He was inspired by Matthew to join the Air Guard and was granted time away from work to complete technical school and became part of the 111th Security Forces Squadron at Horsham Air Base, Willow Grove, Pennsylvania.

"(Technical) school was great," Ball said. "I had to do all of the same things as the younger Airmen, and it was humbling. I kept up most of the time, but I felt 47 a few times also."

On Jan. 24, Ball retired from the police department. After 28 years of mentoring Philadelphia's finest, he seized the opportunity to deploy to Southwest Asia and begin sharing his many years of experience with the Airmen of the 380th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron.

"When I first arrived here I was working the entry control point for the first two months and it kicked my tail," Ball said. "I really wanted my leadership to know what I did in the outside world, to maybe better use my 20 years of investigative experience. I was a 49-year-old out there with the kids. I was trying, but they eventually pulled me off and I appreciated that they did."

Eventually Ball was reassigned to a new position, enabling him to put his vast experience to use. He was selected to fill a new position overseeing the interviews and investigations of contraband violators.

"The amount of experience Staff Sgt. Ball has was definitely something we wanted to utilize and harness," said Capt. Samuel Murray, the 380th Expeditionary Security Forces operations officer. "He was the best fit from within the unit, that's why he was selected for the position, not because he was too old to be an entry controller. He was really good at it; he took it on and enjoyed it. He was eager for it, he came up to me and asked me for the extra responsibility and sometimes it can be hard to find people like that."

The end of Ball's deployment brings yet another transformation. Set to begin a new career back in Pennsylvania, he remains committed to reshaping the lives around him and returning the kindness others once showed him. Time and again he has shown an uncanny ability to adapt to adversity, all the while strengthening the bonds that unite his family. As he leaves for home, Staff Sgt. Ball carries with him a wisdom that long ago eclipsed the bounds of any chevron.