Our Stories Every Service Member Has Unique Story to Tell

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
David Pond (center) in Darfur with a group of African Union peacekeepers from the Republic of the Gambia.

Thousands of U.S. and Canadian men and women who serve or have served in their country’s military make up ALPA’s membership ranks—including F/O David Pond (United), ALPA’s Veterans Affairs chair. While Pond has flown for United Airlines for more than 20 years, he also served either full-time or in the reserve of the U.S. Air Force from 1985 until 2014, when he retired as a colonel. And like those thousands of other ALPA members, Pond has a unique story to tell.

The Gallatin, Tenn., resident held a variety of military posts, taking him from the corridors of the Pentagon to the ancient Silk Road of Central Asia, and numerous destinations in between. During this time, Pond served as the U.S. Africa Command political military officer for a three-year tour, working with African regional security organizations to neutralize transnational threats and promote stability. He was also vice commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing in Kyrgyzstan, helping to manage a unit of KC-135 Stratotankers that provided air refueling and troop transport in Afghanistan.

The Los Angeles, Calif.-based B-787 first officer had many assignments, but his most memorable duty was his six-month deployment to war-torn Sudan. “I commanded a U.S. military advisory team in 2006 that was supporting a peace agreement to end the genocide taking place in Darfur,” observed Pond. “The African Union had deployed a peacekeeping force to Darfur to try to help stop the fighting, and my team was assigned as advisors.” However, he observed, “When we got there, we quickly discovered that no one got the memo that the fighting was supposed to be over.” Unfortunately, the civil war in Darfur continues to this day.

What made this particular duty so unforgettable was his team’s collective efforts to secure the release of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Paul Salopek, who was on assignment for National Geographic. Salopek had been secretly arrested by the Sudanese government for espionage. On a tip from the rebel forces, Pond went to the attorney general’s office in Al-Fashir to see if he could find the reporter.

Pushing past some guards at the doorway, Pond called out, “Paul Salopek?” Someone fitting his description looked up, and Pond knew he had his man. “Once I laid eyes on Paul, I knew it would be hard for the government to claim it didn’t have him or to make him disappear,” Pond remarked.

The U.S. government negotiated a deal with the Sudanese authorities in which the local judge would declare a recess during Salopek’s trial. As part of the arrangement, Pond and his team would then quickly escort the journalist out the courthouse back door to the nearby airport for a hasty departure. “I had healthy skepticism it would go that way, but it did,” he commented in a United Airlines video, showcasing Pond as part of the carrier’s Veterans Day celebration last year.

Pond described the event as both terrifying and life-changing “mostly in a good way.” He and the other members of his team received some notoriety for the challenging assignment, but Pond maintains that many of ALPA’s vets face their own set of challenges, including simply learning to balance the rigors of the military reserve lifestyle.

“You have three masters to serve: your family; your airline job, which you want to protect because you worked hard to get it; and the military,” acknowledged Pond. “And even though you may be part-time, you serve at the military’s will. If you’re needed, you’ve got to be there.”

Through education, resources, and peer support, Pond and other ALPA Veterans Affairs volunteers are working to improve the lives of the Association’s current and retired military members. He stressed that ALPA’s vets deserve support and a great deal of gratitude for the duties they perform and the sacrifices they make in service to the military and their respective nations.

From left, U.S. Marine Maj. Rob Williams; Paul Salopek; Paul’s wife, Linda Lynch; and David Pond in Al-Fashir, Sudan, the day Salopek was released in September 2006.

Veteran Rights and Resources Visit ALPA’s Veterans Affairs webpage or contact VeteransInfo@alpa.org to learn more about veteran rights and the various resources available to the Association’s military members.

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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