Philip Kiernan was an Air Force fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. Last year, his grandson, Streator Bates, interviewed him as part of the Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress.
Bates, then a junior tight end/kicker at Phoenix Brophy Preparatory, listened as Kiernan told him stories about the war and his missions as a fighter pilot. One in particular resonated. Jennifer Kiernan, Bates’ mom, said her father told Bates that one of his proudest moments came when he was off-duty and in a bar with another pilot when they heard that more than 1,000 people from a small Vietnamese village nearby needed to be evacuated.
“My dad said, ‘Let’s do it,'” Jennifer said. “He told Streator, ‘It was the people that I saved that made the difference in my life.'”
Right then and there, Bates knew he wanted to enlist in the military. He made it official Wednesday, signing a letter of intent to play football at the Air Force Academy.
“It’s everything I wanted,” said Bates, who was nominated for appointment by U.S. Rep. David Schweikert. “I fell in love with the place.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Bates had 28 receptions for 337 yards and five touchdowns for Brophy this past season. He also made 7 of 11 field goal attempts, including a long of 48 yards. But in announcing his decision on Twitter last October, Bates made it very clear where football ranks on his list of future priorities.
“I am honored to announce that I have committed to serve my country and play football at the U.S. Air Force Academy,” he wrote.
Those are not empty words. Bates could have played college football at any number of schools that would not have required him to make a five-year commitment after his athletic career was over. But he is his grandfather’s grandson and he considers it a privilege to serve.
“If they’re going to give me the opportunity to get a free education, I’m honored to be able to owe my country five years,” said Bates, who hopes to work in the intelligence community. “I’m excited about it.”
Bates wasn’t always so gung-ho. He grew up wanting to enlist in the Air Force but said “that kind of deteriorated in grade school.” Two events re-directed him. Interviewing his grandfather renewed his love and appreciation for the military. Then, last October, he was in Colorado Springs, Colo., to watch Air Force’s game against Navy.
He went home convinced Air Force was the place for him.
“It’s a brotherhood there,” he said. “You feel that the second you walk onto the campus. It’s something that’s hard to get. I was lucky enough to have that at Brophy, and the Air Force-Navy game was probably one of the greatest events I’ve ever been a part of. That sold me.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Bates is the kind of young man you want your daughter to marry. He calls reporters “sir.” He sits in the front row of the government class taught by Brophy’s coach, Scooter Molander, and not only has all the answers but comes prepared with questions. He was a skinny kid as a freshman at Brophy but decided he wanted to play football, so he began exercising and went on a program to gain weight. He did whatever the coaches asked, without reservation.
Even now, when he could relax and enjoy life, Bates is full speed ahead. He sets his alarm for 5 a.m. every day so he can go running and prepare for the physical rigors of being an Air Force cadet.
“He’s an amazing boy,” Jennifer said. “He’s dedicated, he’s a hard worker and a leader. He’s extremely disciplined. I’ve never had to tell him to do anything. He keeps me on task. That’s his way. It’s wonderful.”
Bates considers himself lucky to have the chance to play football for Air Force and then give five years of his life to the academy.
I’d say the Air Force is lucky to have him.
Reach Bordow at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow
Photos: National Signing Day
Jackie Peart, mother of Caleb Peart of Hamilton High School, takes a video of him while he was on the podium during National Letter of Intent signing day at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort as seen in Scottsdale on Feb., 2, 2015