Veteran Spotlight: Senior Airman Chris Clarkson
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — My Veteran Spotlight guest this week served his country in the New Hampshire National Guard from 2013 to 2019, leaving as a senior airman.
Growing up in Nashua, N.H., Chris Clarkson had always wanted to be a pilot and had big shoes to fill. Both his grandfathers had military careers — one as an Army Air Forces instructor pilot at the end of World War II and the other as an Air National Guard pilot in the late '50s and early '60s.
Clarkson did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
"I celebrated by 21st birthday there, well, let's say I turned 21 there. I didn't enjoy my birthday too much. My drill instructor grew up two towns over from me. Once he found that out, I didn't get any special treatment. He was extremely hard on me," he said.
His first assignment brought him to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss., where he did five months of Air Traffic Controller School. It was challenging, he said, "It was difficult adjusting to the military style — up at 5 a.m., school, study time, afternoon PT, more study time plus all the other stuff that was rolled into your day."
After completing Air Traffic Controller School, he was assigned to Pease AFB in his home state for more extensive training.
"There were three positions in the facility that you went through — assist, arrival and finals [approach]. These were the building blocks of air traffic control," he continued, "you had to pass a checklist, written test and an 'over the shoulder' with a supervisor. Then, you're cleared to be a fully certified air traffic controller in the Air Force."
Clarkson volunteered to deploy to Iraq in 2017, and from March to November of that year was part of Operation Resolve in the fight against Isis. He spoke about his mindset prior to being assigned overseas.
"I was excited ... nervous excitement. I had friends deployed before I went and they prepared me pretty good. I was ready to tackle a new adventure!" he recalled. Upon his arrival, he had to be ready to hit the ground running. "When we first landed, I was like 'holy (expletive) it's hot!' But we had to get right to work as there was a lot of stuff to adapt to."
While in Iraq, he worked in a radar air traffic facility, which he said came with a great deal of pressure.
"If there was an air strike called, you had to keep other military aircraft away from the initial strike to avoid friendly fire. The pressure gets up there. Keeping air planes separated from each other, it can get busy and hectic pretty fast, especially with this being a 24-7 operation," Clarkson said.
He said air traffic controllers are required to only work eight hours.
When asked about a mentor he responded without hesitation, "Joe Yahnian. Really good guy ... was my supervisor. Our personalities really clicked and he helped me get into a workout routine to keep in shape. Very important. He was very dedicated and kept things running smoothly."
Thoughts on service? "I made lifelong friends. So grateful to have that opportunity. Getting to be deployed with other members of different nations was really cool. It's a very proud feeling for me to continue the tradition of serving in my family," he said.
He is currently a pilot for Lyon Aviation of Pittsfield. Airman Chris Clarkson, thank you for your service to our great country.
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