A Decorated Officer: Lt. Col. Tim Curry ’94
By Carey Quan Gelernter
The 20 medals that take up a good deal of real estate on Lt. Col. Tim Curry ’94’s uniform suggest the scope of his Air Force career: Afghanistan and Iraq campaign medals, Korea Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service and Armed Forces Expeditionary medals, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor, NATO Medal.
Ask him which is the most significant and he says the Presidential Unit Citation “was a very meaningful award, presented to our entire unit, on a particular mission, a special mission. That stands out.”
But he can’t disclose what it was about. As with most of his work, it’s a military secret.
His resume does tell us that he’s served three combat tours, in “Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), and Inherent Resolve (against Islamic State).” That “his aviation career includes more than 2,000 flying hours with combat experience in four major weapon systems” — including F-16CJs, MQ-9 Reapers, and MQ-1B Predators. That he’s been promoted to ever-greater responsibility, including aide-de-camp to the commander of Air Force Central Command, which oversees military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East and Southwest Asia from Qatar, and most recently to director of operations of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. He is responsible for the squadron of 225, above all the pilots, sensor operators, and intelligence professionals; and he is an instructor and evaluator pilot for the MQ-1B Predators, missile-armed Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) that they operate from Nevada for global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions and surgical strikes that support combat operations.
Another Lakesider had told Lakeside magazine: “Tim Curry is the great American hero.” How would Curry define “hero”? He says: “Being willing to live your life in the service of others.” He thinks a moment. “I sort of fit that description, but I wouldn’t classify myself as a hero.”
I’m thankful I got to play a role. You’re protecting guys on the ground, and protecting people back in the States, but also the rest of the resources that are there.-Tim Curry '94
One thing he knows: “When I left Lakeside in ’94, even when I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I had no concept really of service before self. Or the gravity of what I was going to go do. Even after I went to war the first time, I still didn’t really fully get it.”
What he gets now is a different view of what it means to be a warrior and a military leader. A different take on the meaning of serve and sacrifice.
Launch from Lakeside
He’d first come to Lakeside tagging along with an older sister in LEEP. He was the youngest of five in their Central Area family, supported by his mom, a postal worker; his dad was in a nursing home. Seeking more academic challenge, he transferred to Lakeside in grade 7. At first he was overwhelmed, but his mom said, “You can’t go running when things get tough.” Which became his theme. With support from many Lakeside mentors, he says, he grew to excel in both academics and athletics.
As a senior, Curry told his football coach, Bill McMahon, who he knew was former military, “I’m interested in flying or designing aircraft and I want to play football.” And he had a sense that, “I wanted to serve.” McMahon directed him to the Air Force Academy, where McMahon had friends.
While his grades were good, the academy deemed his SAT scores too low and required him to attend its Preparatory School. As its No. 1 graduate, he won the distinguished prep school award that recognized academic, military, and athletic accomplishments.
Freshman year he broke his back and lost his pilot qualification. A year later he was cleared to go back to football, but a worsening astigmatism impacted his depth perception and he had to get special permission to fly. At the academy, he was an All-American football player. He thought about going pro but, after he graduated the academy in 1999, he made the eight-year commitment to be a fighter pilot.
When I left Lakeside in ’94, even when I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I had no concept really of service before self. Or the gravity of what I was going to go do. Even after I went to war the first time, I still didn’t really fully get it.-Tim curry '94
“I finished No. 1 in that training,” which was to fly F-16s. “I didn’t start No. 1. I started on probation.” Again, that theme: Meet the tough challenges. Probation turned out to be a blessing, he says: “Because they had such an eye on me; I felt like I got really good training. All the guys I flew with had recent wartime experience. They put me through the wringer.”
But he didn’t think he’d stay after eight years. In combat over Iraq the first time, in 2003, that changed. “When you go to war, it definitely does one of two things: It either solidifies that you’re the right person to do that or it solidifies that you probably should find another profession. After I had less than 100 hours in the F-16, I knew.
“I was pretty calm. The guys I flew with said that is not normal” for a young pilot. “It was because I had great training and I knew — these are bad people trying to do bad things to our nation and to our allies. I felt like I was doing what I was called to do.
“The F16CJ — that model has a pretty unique mission: Your job is to get shot at. We call them ‘stimulators.’ You fly in a configuration, you get close enough for them to want to shoot at you so if they take that shot, you can respond to them. Your job is to be the escort to the guys coming behind to drop the bombs. We could drop bombs from that aircraft as well.”
Asked for a memory that stands out, he says, “A big question. I didn’t think I’d get emotional,” as a tear glistens, visible even over the less-than-crystal screen of Skype. “I would say, from the first deployment I had,” flying an F-16 over Iraq. “We lost people in that deployment. We lost pilots in that deployment. We took out Iraq’s aircraft quickly. Their ground systems was a tougher issue. They got lucky a few times. We had a crew get shot down and the pilot of that particular aircraft was recovered and lived. But a backseater did not live. That had a huge impact.
“I’m thankful I got to play a role.” He can’t get specific but, “You’re protecting guys on the ground, and protecting people back in the States, but also the rest of the resources that are there.”
By late 2004, early 2005, the Air Force began to rely more on the weaponized remotely piloted aircraft. He was trained to fly the Predator and Reaper and, because of the need, “you are immediately flying in combat.”
Piloting aircraft remotely from a base in the desert of Nevada is not the same as piloting them over the skies of Afghanistan. He’s aware of the criticism, whether you call them RPAs or drones, the more popular term that Curry dislikes. “I’m flying that thing, it’s not doing its own thing.” For the pilot, he says, “It involves the same airmanship, same understanding of 3-D space, the same need to realize other aircraft out there that are a hazard to you, and you to them.”
Continual training is part of the Air Force way; Curry has been chosen to attend highly selective elite training programs and has accrued master’s degrees in strategic intelligence and military strategy.
He also earned a master’s in pastoral counseling, an option he chose because he saw the need. “There are a lot of people hurting. We see war for sure. We see a lot of death. In my wing, just in the last six months, three guys died; two committed suicide, a third in motorcycle accident. There’s a lot of people grieving for a lot of reasons. I knew I would be in the Air Force a long time and I wanted to be able to offer them counseling and resources.”
He has risen at a great clip and is in line to be a full colonel. He’s told he’ll be a squadron commander by spring. Asked the greatest challenges he faces, he says:
“Most people talk about putting their families first. That is a challenge.” A father of three, he says: “They (the Air Force) literally own me any hour of day. They can call you any time of day. A lot of times they do."
Lt. Col. Tim Curry ’94 with wife Jenny and children. They’re sitting in an abandoned farmstead in Jenny’s hometown of Buxton, N.D.
“My daughter Trinity is 5 years old. Trinity has moved every year of her life. She asked me one day, ‘Dad, you root for the Seahawks, who am I supposed to root for?’ My son is 3. His whole first year of life, I was gone to the Middle East; I left when he was 3 weeks old.”
And secondly, “We have good training on how to make good decisions but the reality is, this is life and death. You have to have a good idea of how that will impact you now and in the future.” Which leads back to what he’s learned over time about what it means, or should mean, to be a warrior and a military leader.
“My goal is to give my leadership an opportunity to slow the process down, instead of rushing into war or rushing to employ weapons,” he says. “My goal — and I think this comes only after being around now 16 years — is to give them ammunition diplomatically to keep them out of war. To give them time and space to work out the issues we have.”
We see war for sure. We see a lot of death. There’s a lot of people grieving for a lot of reasons. I knew I would be in the Air Force a long time and I wanted to be able to offer them counseling and resources.-TIM CURRY '94
Providing intelligence is one way, building relations is another, he says. The year he spent in the Middle East, “We also had an Air Force van that traveled around, and these countries were just as attracted to our people playing music both in their native language as well as English, as they were to our aircraft.
“I’m not the guy for sure I was as a lieutenant that was ready to go to war and was sort of chomping to do it. Now I’m the guy that looks at my young lieutenants and I tell them, good job, I need you to be the tip of the spear — sharp and ready for combat — but I also need you to think critically about what you’re about to do. I didn’t necessarily have a bunch of leaders doing that for me when I was a lieutenant."
“I think our country is a little bit more sensitive and more open now to listening to how to stay out.”
Carey Quan Gelernter is a communications associate at Lakeside School. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.