By Angeljean Chiaramida
Hampton Union, Tuesday, September 14, 2004
HAMPTON - The first flight Hampton's Dick Martell ever took was the one that carried him to McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Tennessee to begin his career as a pilot with New Hampshire's Air National Guard in 1981.
According to the 48-year-old Martell, when he started that trip he wasn't sure he was going to like flying. Decades later, however, not only is Martell still flying and loving it, he's a colonel and the commander of the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the New Hampshire Air National Guard based at Pease.
Recently honored by the Portsmouth Rotary Club, Martell was given the organization's highest honor for consistently placing service above self.
His 23-year career as a pilot, officer and commander illustrates his commitment to service to his nation and state. But, it's when speaking to Martell personally that one can see how his dedication to family and the men and women with whom he serves affects everything his does and the joy he finds in doing it.
"I've been so lucky," Martell said of his career. "So blessed. I would do it all again."
Growing up in Kittery, a star track and football athlete and student at Traip Academy, Martell gave no thought to a life as a soldier. When his high school counselor told him an occupational preference test showed he had a predilection to military service, Martell scoffed.
"I said, 'No way!'" he remembered.
Martell headed instead to the University of Maine because he had another life planned for himself.
"I always wanted to teach math and coach football," Martell said.
He was on his way to realizing that dream when a year after graduation Martell landed a job teaching math and coaching track at Exeter High School. But, in what little spare time he had left, Martell was working in the office at Seabrook Greyhound, trying to make ends meet as a young family man. Working three jobs, Martell started thinking it might be nice to find one occupation that would allow him the income needed to support his family.
"I knew that airline pilots earned a really good income," Martell said, "and a friend told me the best way to become a pilot was to join the New Hampshire Air National Guard and have them teach me to fly."
Even after passing the qualifying tests and earning a slot aboard that first flight to Tennessee, Martell hadn't planned on being a career military man. He imagined he'd be a part-time Guard pilot and eventually gain enough experience to become a commercial airline pilot. Fate had different plans.
After his training was complete and he was back in the Granite State, Martell was working at Liberty Mutual and flying with the 157th Refueling Wing part time. His plane of choice, the huge KC-135 tanker, refuels other planes in a delicate mid-air adagio that can rattle the nerves of the most experienced pilot. For Martell, however, the difficulty and risk of the complex maneuvers are minimized when excellent training is coupled with the premise of "practice makes perfect."
"Once you know how to fly," Martell said, "once you know what you're doing, you develop a certain kind of confidence."
Martell's confidence must have spoken to those under whose command he served, for within a short time he left Liberty Mutual and the dream of flying commercially behind for a full-time career in New Hampshire's Air National Guard. Success in his military assignments distinguished Martell and put him on the road to command positions. He never looked back; the adventure and opportunity the Guard presented fulfilled him.
All the while, perhaps the strongest pull the Guard had on Martell is that he could serve his nation, fly, grow in a career he loved, and still stay in New Hampshire with his family.
One glance around Martell's office indicates the importance he places on family and friends, because pictures of those he loves are everywhere. A progression of gifts from his now 19-year-old daughter, Lindsey, add uniquely to the decor as well. There's the terrific pen-and-ink drawing of his beloved Beatles that she gave him, there's a tennis-racket-shaped clock she carved for him on the wall across from his desk, and over on the window sill, there's her hand-made ceramic whale piggy bank, complete with coins. Years after receiving them, Lindsey's gifts bring smiles that grow in magnitude as Martell explains the significance of each.
One other gift, this time from his wife Pam, also makes Martell's face light up. Last Christmas, Martell said, Pam surprised him by satisfying his yearning for a motorcycle.
"Christmas morning we'd opened all the presents," Martell said. "And my wife told me we were going to our friends for mimosas. I thought that was great, and I got a bottle of champagne and some orange juice. We were walking over and their garage door opened. There was a beautiful, blue BMW motorcycle with a ribbon on it that said, 'Merry Christmas Dick!'"
With a leadership position in a job he believes in, a group of men and women under his command of whom he's so proud, a loving wife and daughter and that beautiful, blue BMW motorcycle, what's next for Dick Martell?
Retirement is mandatory at 56 in the Guard, he said, and he has given some thought to what comes next.
He could follow in the footsteps of his first commanding officer, retired Maj. Gen. Joseph Simeone, the National Guard's deputy adjutant general. Or, he could return to a former dream and teach high school math and coach football. The thought of further service, working with kids, still excites him.