The F-117 Nighthawk looks more like a flying black triangle than an airplane.
Its flat bottom and angular body make the plan extraordinarily difficult to detect with radar; its black paint makes it difficult to see from the ground. For nearly a decade, the existence of the plane, the first stealth aircraft on earth, was among the best kept secrets in the world.
It’s also what John Stroud calls the highlight of his career — a career that included 21 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, and recently included a promotion to become Senior Vice-Commander in Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Stroud comes from a military family and joined the Air Force in 1976 as soon as he turned 18. He was two years too young to fight in the Vietnam War, although both of his brothers served there.
Stroud is tall and thin with grey hair. He sips coffee out of a Denver Broncos mug and cups an electronic cigarette in one hand. About once every half an hour he takes a short, satisfying drag off the cigarette and keeps speaking.
Stroud’s military service has taken him around the world, but after years with the Air Force, he calls Hawthorne home.
Stroud said he knew he was going to join the Air Force when he was in sixth-grade during a school field trip to a Florida base.
“I’ve always been an aviation buff, and when you get to your B-52 bombers and your KC-15 tankers, it really sparked my interest,” Stroud said.
Stroud said he’ll “never forget” the first time he was scolded in basic training for committing a minor offense.
“From then on out, I knew I was going to be Air Force,” he said.
Stroud said basic training in the Air Force focused more on academics than basic training in other branches — a typical day was about 60 percent classroom training, 20 percent physical conditioning, and 20 percent marching and military customs.
After basic training Stroud became a flight operations specialist.
“I briefed pilots on their missions before they went to go fly,” Stroud said. “Similar to an air traffic controller. An air traffic controller keeps airplanes away from each other, I drew them together. The good guy go get the bad guy kind of thing.”
Stroud said joining the military in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War wasn’t very popular. In addition to harsh anti-military public sentiment, the armed forces were transitioning from a war footing to what Stroud called a “training environment.”
His first duty posting was in Tampa, Fla.
“I was proud to serve my country,” Stroud remembers of his early days in the military. “I loved everything about it. I didn’t mind following orders, I didn’t mind wearing a uniform.”
While he was serving in Tampa, Stroud said he watched the first of several historic changes in the Air Force — his squadron was upgraded from the Vietnam-era F-4 Phantoms to the modern F-16 Fighting Falcons.
The Air Force maintains a fleet of F-16s and expects to do so until about 2025.
“As an operations specialist, there was no significant training other than adapting to the new weapon system, not like it was for our air crews,” Stroud said.
Stroud said his crews took pride in being associated with an airplane that was, at the time, the most advanced plane in the sky.
“To be a part of ensuring that our national security is the best, and best equipped, and best trained on the planet,” Stroud said. “At the time, with our biggest threat being the Soviet Union, the main thing that kept the conflict from happening was our ability to deter them because of our significant response force.
“We kept the peace through deterrents.”
In 1984, four years after he left Tampa, Stroud was transferred to Tonopah to take part in the F-117 project. Much of the work he did with the project is still classified, Stroud said.
He can’t, for instance, talk about what he was doing during the first Persian Gulf War—that information, he said, is classified, and may or may not be related to the Nighthawk. Nor can he be very specific about his role in the project. Stroud said he was still working in flight operations, but can’t be more specific.
By the time Stroud joined the squadron the Nighthawk had already made its maiden flight, and the Air Force was still taking delivery of new airplanes. Of the 58 that were eventually produced, Stroud said there were only 12 in Tonopah when he started with the project.
For Stroud, part of the excitement was the secrecy of the project.
“You couldn’t tell anybody about anything that you did,” Stroud said. “I couldn’t tell my family. I would leave home on a Monday and come home on a Friday. I couldn’t tell them where I worked, where I’d been, or what I’d been doing.”
Stroud said the only thing he could tell his family about his work was he was doing something important for the country, and he couldn’t talk about it.
But, he said, the most remarkable part of the project was the first time he laid eyes on the Nighthawk.
“Once your clearance gets there and you get to your location and they take you into a hanger and you see this aircraft for the first time and are just in awe,” Stroud said. “This thing doesn’t look like it will fly.
The first time Stroud watched the plane take off, he said, he was almost unaware it had gone past. It was nearly silent and, other than the taxi lights, completely black.
“I can’t believe it’s retired now,” he said, referring to the plane’s 2008 exit from active duty.
Stroud left the top secret program in 1992.
After he left the program Stroud spent a year deployed in South Korea. He was stationed 37 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, a thin strip of land between North Korea and South Korea that was established as part of a peacekeeping mission after the Korean War ended in 1958.
“When you fly a training mission there, it very closely simulates a real combat mission,” he said.
After returning from Korea, Stroud was eventually sent to Nellis Air Force Base, where he eventually retired as a 1st Sgt. in 1997.
Even before he left the service, Stroud said he joined the VFW.
“As a 1st Sgt. my job, my last three years in the Air Force, my job was taking care of people, looking out for their needs,” Stroud said. “I was out of the flying business. And I quickly learned when I became exposed to the VFW, that’s exactly what the VFW did. They took care of all veterans.”
Within three months of joining, Stroud said his rise through the organization’s ranks began when he was elected Junior Vice-Commander of his post.
His career with the VFW is on the verge of reaching its apex. In July 2014, Stroud expects to be elected Commander-in-Chief of the organization.
The VFW’s senior leadership is elected, although Stroud said only the competition for Junior Vice-Commander-in-Chief is competitive. Once a person has been elected to that post, they have a straight shot to the top position, serving for a year as Junior Vice-Commander and Senior Vice-Commander before taking the reins of the organization.
After that, Stroud said, he gets to rest.
“I come home and visit my family and friends here in Hawthorne for a while,” he said, laughing.
Among Stroud’s priorities will be lobbying the Veterans Administration to reduce its legendary backlog of cases and better serve veterans, he said.
“We stay in close contact with our senators, congressmen, officials in the VA. In September I’m going to be in Washington, D.C., we’re going to have some meetings with [VA secretary Eric K. Shinseki] and his senior leadership. We have a very good rapport with them,” Stroud said. “And we let our voices be heard on what our concerns are about the claims backlog and so forth, and we’ve got a great relationship with them, and they listen to us.”
Stroud said one of his hopes for his term is to keep political pressure on Shinseki to continue to reduce the backlog.
Several senior senators work very closely with the VFW to ensure veterans have a voice in lawmaking.
And, Stroud said, while the VA has a bad reputation for its backlog of claims, which he said emerged because of the huge numbers of veterans returning from the wars in the Middle East, there are some people in the administration who are doing yeoman’s work to connect veterans and their benefits.
“They are making progress,” he said. “Yes, they have a long way to go. Of course they do. A lot of veterans have been waiting for claims adjudication have a right to complain. Dog gone it, they should get their claims processed if they can.”
Advances in battlefield medicine also contribute to the size of the VA’s backlog, Stroud said. 97 percent of wounded servicemen and servicewomen who receive treatment in the first five minutes after they are wounded survive, Stroud said.
“That’s incredible. That’s why we don’t have 58,000 names on a wall,” Stroud said, referring to the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. “But the drawback to that is now these folks need a lifetime of medical care for their missing limbs and so forth.
“And one of the things the VFW does is to make darn sure they get it.”