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Face of Defense: Airman Lives Family Legacy

By Air Force Airman 1st Class Tom Brading
Joint Base Charleston

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C., April 26, 2012 – A member of the Skvarna family has served in the skies to defend the United States since World War II.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Skvarna, an instructor loadmaster, holds his father's and grandfather's aircrew wings as well as his grandfather's World War II aircrew diary. Skvarna is a third-generation aircrew member and carries these items with him on every mission. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Mickle

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Skvarna, an instructor loadmaster with the 17th Airlift Squadron, 437th Airlift Wing here, said pinning on his aircrew wings, lacing up his combat boots and boarding a military aircraft is a family legacy.

The story begins in 1942, with a 17-year-old Czechoslovakian-born teenager, Edward M. Skvarna, Matthew's grandfather. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Edward M. enlisted in the Army Air Corps, hoping to become a pilot.

"My father joined the military for two reasons," said Edward B. Skvarna, Matthew's father. "He wanted to see the world, and he didn't want to be stuck working in the steel mills of Pittsburgh his whole life. For him, being an aircrew member during World War II was everything he dreamed it would be. He loved the dangerous aspects of flight missions and the adventurous skies of combat."

During the Pacific campaign, Skvarna and his aircrew soared through the darkness of enemy-infested skies and gathered photo intelligence in a B-29 Superfortress, one of the heaviest long-range bomber aircraft flown during the war.

On one mission, the eldest Skvarna was preparing for battle as a right gunner on the B-29. He was colorblind, and even though that disqualified him from becoming a pilot, he did qualify for other jobs to the advantage of the Allied forces.

"Being colorblind didn't slow my grandpa down," Matthew said. "It was during that flight over the Japanese harbor when he proved that."

While gathering intelligence from a bird's-eye view, the eldest Skvarna spotted something in the harbor that didn't look right. He spotted the outline of an Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier that was camouflaged to blend in with the colors of the sea.

For everyone on the Superfortress, the carrier was virtually invisible. However, Edward M. noticed the ship immediately because of how differently his vision interpreted the colors.

"He kept telling the crew he saw a Japanese warship in the water," grandson Matthew said. "At first, they thought he was crazy -- nobody else in the air could see anything. He stuck to his guns, though. A U.S. Navy submarine confirmed the Japanese aircraft carrier, Shinano, was in the harbor. The USS Archer Fish sunk the carrier in November 1944. My grandfather's disadvantage may not have allowed him to become a pilot but it ended up saving countless lives by sinking one of the largest Japanese ships during the war."

The eldest Skvarna received an Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during the Pacific campaign. He became a school teacher in California after leaving the military.

That’s where Matthew's father, Edward B., grew up, listening to his dad's heroic war stories and enlisting in the Air Force after high school. He went on to retire as a captain in the Air Force Reserve. During every mission, Edward B. wore his dad’s old flight wings,battered from use during World War II.

"Being a loadmaster was an amazing experience," he said. "I've always had pride in my military experience. Even after the Vietnam War, when some people didn't have pride, I'd proudly wear my uniform in front of them."

Today, Matthew's father is chief of police at the Bob Hope International Airport in Burbank, Calif. He makes it part of his job to approach every uniformed service member and thank them for their service to the country.

One of his greatest accomplishments in the military came years after he retired from military service.

Matthew was able to give his father, Edward B., a tour inside the C-17 Globemaster III shortly after it landed in Long Beach, Calif. It was during that tour that Matthew's father noticed the impact his generation had on today's loadmasters.

The original design engineers of the C-17 flew multiple flights around the world with various aircrew members, including Matthew's father, while they were brainstorming the internal design of the new C-17. It was on those flights that Matthew's father suggested design changes that were made on upcoming aircraft.

"I sat the design engineers down and told them exactly what loadmasters needed to be safer and to do their job better, such as fixing troop seats, loadmaster's crew positions on the plane and having a weight balance computer for loadmasters," said Matthew's father. "When Matt gave me a tour of the plane he flies all over the world in, I noticed the designers made every adjustment I suggested years ago. It's rewarding for me because not only did I take part in helping future loadmasters stay safe and do their job more efficiently, one of those loadmasters is my son."

Although the youngest Skvarna came from a military family, he didn't join the Air Force right after high school.

"My grandfather knew I'd join the military before I ever considered it," Matthew said. "One of the proudest moments he had was when I became a loadmaster, because not only was I doing a similar job as my father did in the military, but also a similar job to what he once did."

Joining the Air Force also gives Matthew a deeper understanding of both his father and grandfather. The C-17 he flies in soars thousands of feet above the same foreign lands as his father and grandfather's planes did years ago. His grandfather's flight wings, he said, are worn from age and the years of wear from his father wearing them. Today, the same wings are proudly displayed on Matthew's flight suit.

"Wherever I deploy, there is always a bond that I share with generations of air crew members before me," Matthew said. "It is an unspoken bond shared among my grandpa, dad, myself and countless veterans all over the world. Having such a powerful commonality bridges my family's history with the Air Force's history. As the Air Force has changed, so have I."

"Matt didn't know it at the time," said Matthew's father. "But I influenced him at an early age to be a loadmaster. He's always had the perfect attitude; he is a flexible person that thinks outside the box. I would have been proud no matter what he did in life, but carrying on the air crew legacy of his grandfather and me as successfully as he has, has made his grandfather and me very proud."

Matthew's grandfather passed away in 2010, shortly after Matthew's third deployment as a loadmaster.

Today, Matthew still brings his father and grandfather's flight wings on missions all over the world.


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