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One question reveals three Sharks were once Rams

Colonels Shawn Fairhurst, 45th Space Wing vice commander, Daniel Gottrich, 45th SW chief of safety,Shannon Klug, 45th Weather Squadron commander, pose with one of their high school's yearbook and the inserted photos in the graphic show photos of them as students of James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., in the late 1980s. Fairhurst’s senior photo is in Klug’s 1986 yearbook where she was featured as a junior. She graduated in 1987 and Gottrich graduated in 1988. The yearbook pages prove the three former Robinson Rams who were once strangers are now Air Force Wingmen, leading extraordinary missions from the nation’s gateway to space.(U.S. Air Force photo by Matthew Jurgens/released)

Colonels Shawn Fairhurst, 45th Space Wing vice commander, Daniel Gottrich, 45th SW chief of safety,Shannon Klug, 45th Weather Squadron commander, pose with one of their high school's yearbook and the inserted photos in the graphic show photos of them as students of James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., in the late 1980s. Fairhurst’s senior photo is in Klug’s 1986 yearbook where she was featured as a junior. She graduated in 1987 and Gottrich graduated in 1988. The yearbook pages prove the three former Robinson Rams who were once strangers are now Air Force Wingmen, leading extraordinary missions from the nation’s gateway to space.(U.S. Air Force photo by Matthew Jurgens/released)

Colonels Daniel Gottrich, 45th SW chief of  safety, Shannon Klug, 45th Weather Squadron commander, and Shawn Fairhurst, 45th Space Wing vice commander, look over their high school's yearbook and share memories of attending James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., in the late 1980s. Fairhurst’s senior photo is in Klug’s 1986 yearbook where she was featured as a junior. She graduated in 1987 and Gottrich graduated in 1988. The yearbook pages prove the three former Robinson Rams who were once strangers are now Air Force Wingmen, leading extraordinary missions from the nation’s gateway to space. (U.S. Air Force photo by Matthew Jurgens/released)

Colonels Daniel Gottrich, 45th SW chief of safety, Shannon Klug, 45th Weather Squadron commander, and Shawn Fairhurst, 45th Space Wing vice commander, look over their high school's yearbook and share memories of attending James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., in the late 1980s. Fairhurst’s senior photo is in Klug’s 1986 yearbook where she was featured as a junior. She graduated in 1987 and Gottrich graduated in 1988. The yearbook pages prove the three former Robinson Rams who were once strangers are now Air Force Wingmen, leading extraordinary missions from the nation’s gateway to space. (U.S. Air Force photo by Matthew Jurgens/released)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Three leaders in space operations didn't have to travel to the moon to look back and see the Earth can seem like a small place.

Colonels Shawn Fairhurst, 45th Space Wing vice commander, Shannon Klug, 45th Weather Squadron commander,and Daniel Gottrich, 45th SW chief of safety, recently discovered they passed each other in the hallways of James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., in the late 1980s.

According to Gottrich, when Klug asked an aircraft commander visiting Patrick a casual question she learned he was from the same state. So the natural transition in the introduction was to let him know she graduated from Robinson in 1987. That's when the three colonels knew it wasn't the first time they were in the same place at the same time.

Fairhurst's senior photo is in Klug's 1986 yearbook where she was featured as a junior. She graduated in 1987 and Gottrich graduated in 1988. The yearbook pages prove the three former Robinson Rams who were once strangers are now Air Force Wingmen, leading extraordinary missions from the nation's gateway to space.

Although, in hindsight, Klug remembers Fairhurst's name mentioned through friends that ran on the cross-country team with him, perhaps Klug didn't meet the two other colonels sooner because they started Robinson Secondary School in their junior year. She didn't even know that it was Gottrich sitting in the top row of their Marching Band photo on page 149 of the 1987 yearbook.

The colonels were military brats following their fathers' career paths. Gottrich's father moved the family from his duty assignment in England. Fairhurst transitioned to Fairfax, following his father's retirement from the Air Force in Olympia, Wash. They shared the same story of needing sponsors to help them navigate the larger population and campus when they transitioned to Robinson in their junior years.

"(Robinson) was huge; in fact it's a combined middle and high school with over 5,000 students attending," said Fairhurst. "The school was a melting pot of society:  races, beliefs, social-economic backgrounds."

"The school had a culture of 'tolerance,' providing me a strong foundation as I transitioned to the Air Force, accepting everyone, understanding that everyone can contribute and appreciating what each individual brings to the team," he said. "With this common foundation, all three of us look to find the best in our Airmen and ensure they are encouraged and given the resources to meet their fullest potential."

The three colonels came from families where members served the nation before them so they were familiar with the lifestyle of being a military brat. Living near America's capital city, where many other kids had parents working for the government in some capacity, also helped their transition to military life.

Military service wasn't a given for the three colonels.  Fairhurst thought he might end up at an Ivy League school and Gottrich joked about being a Chicago Cubs second baseman.  Klug didn't consider the Air Force seriously until she bonded closely with her ROTC unit at Penn State University. 

Things changed for Fairhurst when his father unfortunately passed away prior to his junior year, and after attending a college fair, he decided he would follow in his father's footsteps at the U.S. Air Force Academy, extending a family tradition of military service.

"My maternal grandfather was in the Army Signal Corps in WWI," said Fairhurst. "Both my dad and his twin brother graduated from the Academy (1963 and 1964 respectively) and they retired after 20 years. Another uncle also served first in the U.S. Army then in the U.S. Navy Reserves, retiring in the mid-90s."

Fairhurst said he would lean on the wisdom of his father and those who served with him to mentor him through the career choices the Air Force gave him. Gottrich agreed the right jobs and the right supervisors allowed him to keep putting the uniform on for 23 years.

"My father retired as a major, with 27 years in the Air Force and prior enlisted service, when I was already in college," said Gottrich, who followed a childhood friend to Indiana University and joined the Air Force ROTC detachment there. "I remember wanting to follow him in the service as early as third grade."  

The impact on the people they lead is at the forefront of each colonel's mind more than two decades after walking the stage at Robinson. They even share the hard experiences of disciplining the force to keep their teams up to standard and meeting the mission.

"Today's Air Force is very different from my father's Air Force, and it will continue to evolve," Klug said. "The future is bright!  I am motivated to make tomorrow a reality today. I am in my element when I'm given the resources and talented people to envision the future and chart a path towards it."

In the near future, the three colonels will launch into different career paths away from Patrick Air Force Base as they did from Robinson, but this time they will not leave as strangers.

Gottrich looks forward to the possibility of an overseas assignment while Fairhurst said he also isn't ready to stop serving.

"No matter what the future holds, I'll always bleed 'Air Force Blue'," Fairhurst said.

Meanwhile, Klug is confident she gave it her all and is ready to pass on the baton, maybe with a Robinson Ram twirl, to the next generation.

If their paths should cross again, it will be more like a family reunion and won't require a question and flips through yearbook pages to connect the dots.  They'll always share the memories of being both Rams and Sharks.