WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — In the summer of 2001, John Ruch started attending a community college in Knoxville, Tennessee. He had just graduated from high school and said, at the time, he wasn’t sure if he was quite ready for college. Then, on the morning of 9/11, his direction in life would forever change as he witnessed the horrors of that fateful day unfold.

“Everybody can remember where they were at on 9/11,” Ruch said. “I had woken up that day, and the news was on my little apartment, on my 13-inch TV, and I kinda saw what was happening .. .and it just really, really truly affected me, and I was down at the recruiter’s office within two weeks of signing up for the Air Force.”

John Ruch’s Veteran Salute (KSN Photo)

From 2002 to 2006, Ruch would deploy four times from McConnell Air Force Base to Al Dhafra Base in the United Arab Emirates.

“We were supporting the Operation Enduring Freedom,” Ruch said. “I was a crew chief on the KC-135s.”

Working in what’s known as “Aero Repair,” Ruch specialized in KC-135 landing gear and flight controls.

“There was about 35 of them stationed at McConnell AFB, overseas, we had about 12 of them at that base, so everything was kind of rotated out,” Ruch said.

Ruch says the KC-135s he serviced were almost as old as the Air Force itself—each plane was built in the 50s or early 60s. 

“Everything was cable and linkage, and you know, rigging flight controls, rebuilding landing gear,” Ruch said.

Ruch says keeping the aging planes airworthy proved no walk in the park.

“They built the parking spots, they were so small where the planes to park, that … they’d be so heavy with fuel that they would pop a landing gear strut … and then, hydraulic fluid would start coming out,” Ruch said.

Adding to the danger of the job: the extremely harsh elements. The average temperature on a given day could reach up to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“You had to wear gloves to touch any part of the airplane, or it was going to burn you,” Ruch said. “If you had to leave your tent or really do anything, you had to have sunglasses on, or it’d burn your eyes.”

The KC-135s Ruch maintained would fly 24/7 around the perimeter of the war and refuel jets heading in and out of the war zone. 

“A lot of lives are at hand,” Ruch said. “You have to protect the pilot. You have to make sure that there’s other pilots that are relying on you to get fuel. You have a mission that you have to go out there and do.”

Ruch says the added pressure of keeping the aging planes in the air around the clock was ever-present. 

“There’d be an aircraft down, and there’d be shift after shift after shift that just couldn’t figure out the problem (and you were on part of those shifts, too), and then you would kind of wake up at night with a light bulb in your head, and you say, ‘I know what it is!’, and you go in and you figure it out, and for everybody to say, ‘Wow! we’ve been on this thing for four days, so glad that you could figure it out!’ … oh, it was a very fulfilling job,” Ruch said.

In 2005, Army General John Abizaid (at the time in charge of Central Command) would personally congratulate Ruch on a job well done. 

“He flew into UAE, and at that time, there was all of us standing out there—I’d probably say 250 troops,” Ruch said. “He made an announcement, and he asked for eight people to step forward, and he called my name, and I was really nervous…and then he shook my hand with this coin, and I saluted him, and he said, ‘Thank you very much for your service.'”

Ruch would spend four years in the Air Force. He was honorably discharged and retired as a Senior Airman. 

“That was a time in my life where I finally, you know, became a man. I guess you could say. It was just a great time.”

Ruch would go on to earn a degree in logistics from the University of Tennessee and now works for a truck sales and service company. He says the best part of being in the military was meeting his wife. The couple has been together for 20 years and has two daughters. 

If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at hannah.adamson@ksn.com.