For 2nd Lieutenant Richard Van Leeuwen, suiting up to fly an air force T-6 is something he’s always dreamed of doing.
He told us, “I always wanted to join the air force since I was young. I’ve had a few struggles, first, I rejected because I had some kind of light hay fever.”
But with a second chance at his dream, he found himself at Sheppard Air Force Base, in Wichita Falls, Texas, prepping for his next flight.
He continued to tell us, “I didn’t know anything about Wichita Falls. I heard it was a small city but life was good here and I knew I was going to bring my wife so, I was really excited about coming here.”
Natives from the Netherlands, Van Leeuwen and his wife Maaike packed up for life in the U.S., something she said she would have never done without the Air Force.
“I can’t imagine doing this without it, without the program because it is a really big thing to move to another country and you really need other people to fall back on,” Maaike said, people like those involved with the country sponsor program.
Danish Senior National Representative, Lt. Col. Nick Hansen told us, “Wichita Falls is the place that was chosen many years ago to host this program so we’re grateful for being here but it’s very important that everybody gets to work together at an early stage in your training so once we start going into war and fighting together, we have this network and we know each other.”
This program does not only focus on training pilots on how to fight together, it helps international airmen and their families, like the Van Leeuwen’s, feel at home right here in Wichita Falls, thanks to the help of sponsored families like the Martins.
DeeAnn and Noros Martin said, “We have a passion about this city and this area and our state and we want to share that with them and we want them to learn because it is about giving them what we are all about in this part of the world.”
They open their doors to families like the Van Leeuwen’s and teach them the American way of doing things.
“It’s really cool that they let us experience the American culture,” Maaike said. “We were talking about it earlier, Thanksgiving, we don’t have that, they share that with us, they open their homes and it’s really nice.”
The Martin’s added, “We found it very difficult to at the time we were in Germany to get into German homes like the people do here, so we wanted to open our doors when we returned and through the Junior League in which I became a member, we were able to be involved with international friendship.”
Since 1979, the Martins have hosted many families from the Netherlands, something 80th Flying Training Wing Commander Colonel Andrea Themely said she’s thankful for. “We’re so lucky here in the 80th Flying Training Wing to have the Country Sponsor Program that we have, where we partner local families from the community with our international personnel from these NATO nations.”
Lt. Col. Hansen added, “Wichita Falls itself is like a home away from home because all the country sponsors here, they welcome the different nations into Wichita Falls.”
Sheppard Air Force Base is home to 14 NATO nations, from the U.K and Italy to Canada and the U.S. all training together to be some of the best air force pilots in the world.
Lt. Col. Hansen told us, “All the training is taken care of by the ENJJPT school house but we’re ensuring that they have that comfort level that everything is taken care of so that they feel welcome here and that they can focus on their training.”
Col. Themely continued to say, “As a commander, I feel very blessed and lucky to know that all our people here in the 80th Flying Training Wing are well taken care of and that the morale and welfare are being well looked after by our local community and our country sponsors.”
The Martin’s added, “We’ve learned so much but what we give back to this program, we reap so many more benefits because of the relationships in which we build and we feel that it is helping these people to fall in love with this area and with Texas.”
Maaike said she’s already fallen in love with the city, while devoting her time to doing one thing she loves the most. “They help us integrate in the, how do you say, the community. I do theater and volunteer work and if I have questions, I can always fall back on DeeAnn or Noros to help me with that or connections,” all as Richard perfects his craft, in their new home away from home, one that no longer feels foreign.
Sheppard Air Force Base is the only military base with the Euro Nation Joint Jet Pilot program and the only one with a Country Sponsor Program of this magnitude, and there is a sponsor family for every NATO nation.