Love and War: A romance story on the Plains

Love and War: A romance story on the Plains

A love begun on the Plains outlasts the Cold War, and then some

Auburn 1980 graduates Jim and Jan Holt met on the Plains.

The only thing that’s lasted longer than Jim Holt’s career as a Navy submarine hunter is his marriage to his wife, Jan. Both are equally as important and inextricably linked.

Junior year, Holt ‘80 was introduced to Jan “by my dorm neighbor Jim Richardson. He was like Clint Eastwood — he had girls all over the place,” Jim said. They went to the Capri Dormitory, next to Mama Goldberg’s, which is long since torn down. “I go in the dorm and see her sitting there. There’s eight of them in this small room and I walked over to her and introduced myself.”

“I was knee-deep in engineering, trying to pass my classes and, of course, I had an attraction to her, and she to me,” he said. The two began to spend more time together, even attending the ROTC Midshipman Ball. Holt was nominated as Fleet Admiral, so “the boys” made him shoulder boards with 5 stars on them.

Another night, Jan taught him how to ‘spark’. “She said to me, ‘Take this spearmint Lifesaver and put it in your mouth and I’ll put one in my mouth.’ We got underneath a bush where it was really dark and she told me to crunch down on my Lifesaver. She did hers and I did mine and sparks flew.”

While courting her, Holt said, “I went over one night and she came to the door. I looked at her and asked, ‘Can I kiss you?’ She said yes.”

Senior year, Holt flew out to California to visit Jan, engagement ring in tow. “My mom sewed the ring on the inside of my shirt so I wouldn’t lose it. I went into her room one day and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ We were in the bedroom that she grew up in when I gave her the ring and she cried. Here we are 35 years later.”
The couple was engaged while he went to flight school in Pensacola, Fla., beginning his military career in a T-34 — a single engine trainer. From there he learned how to fly a twin engine airplane at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. “Once you finish that training, you get your ‘wings of gold’ — your pilot wings,” Holt said. In May 1981, he was winged. Seven days later they were married in Birmingham; Jim Richardson was their best man

Moving to Moffett, Calif., Holt became proficient in the P-3 Orion — a land-based, anti-submarine aircraft. He would serve the U.. Navy in six-month deployments for the next 20 years.

Holt, a crew of 3 or 4 pilots and a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) would hunt submarines with “sonobuoys” dropped in the water with transducers on them to pick up noise.

“If we fly over a submarine, the NFO’s gear will blink, so he’ll say, ‘Madman, madman’ and that means we’re in the fighting stage, we’re getting ready to drop a torpedo on the sub,” Holt said.
“You’re searching at 8,000 ft. and then you get closer to the ocean as you get closer to where you know he is until you hover on top of him — it’s like riding a rodeo horse.

During the Cold War, he would “passively track” – gathering reconnaissance and information – Russian submarines and constantly trained, doing touch-and-go landing and simulated attacks. “We didn’t do active tracking on Russian subs or ay other foreign sub because that shows an aggressiveness that we didn’t want. They don’t know we’re there unless we get real low to the water and they can hear us. If they’re at periscope depth, they can see us,” Holt said.

When he became senior of his crew, he would train the newest P-3 pilot up. “I’m bringing him under my wing because someone brought me under his,” Holt said.

Jim and Jan Holt dance at the NTORC ball in 1979

Once retired from the military, he became a commercial pilot where he now flies for Delta Airlines. His wife returned to the place of their love story where she now works as a Supply Tech for Auburn’s Naval ROTC.

“I’m very proud of what our military does and the sacrifices that are made,” Jim said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life [and] even though I’m doing something different now, it was very satisfying.”

“I’m very proud of what our military does and the sacrifices that are made,” Jim said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life [and] even though I’m doing something different now, it was very satisfying.”

Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

A veteran uses his retirement to bridge to further the West’s understanding of Islam 

Jason Howk '00

When Jason Howk ’00 retired from the military, all he wanted to do was go fishing.

But when he was asked to speak at a local library about his two tours in Afghanistan, all 30 minutes of the question-and-answer segment centered around his understanding of Islam. He was asked to come speak at the library again, this time just about the religion. Then he was asked to speak by another group. Then another. And another.

Shortly after retirement, Howk became one of the most notable Christian-American experts on Islam and the Quran in the world. Since, he’s taught college-level courses, written an award-winning book and even tempered the rhetoric in a speech President Donald Trump gave to a collection of 55 Muslim-majority nations.

Prior to attending Auburn, Howk spent time in the United Arab Emirates training with special forces. But his understanding of Islamic culture and history didn’t come until he was recruited by Gen. Karl Eikenberry to serve in Afghanistan after 9/11. Essentially, they were assisting the Afghani government in building an army from scratch.

“It makes you think of the time of George Washington at Valley Forge,” Howk said. “There was no army, there was no infrastructure – there was nothing. That was a fascinating assignment. I got to learn more in that year than I ever did in my whole life.”

Working with the president of Afghanistan, generals, diplomats and representatives from the United Nations, the year was extremely transformative for Howk. Totally immersed, he lived with Muslims, ate their food and gained an intimate understanding of the culture.

“As a Baptist kid from Vermont and Florida, that wasn’t something that was normal. You don’t just run into somebody who’s Muslim. That really helped me to learn a lot about the religion and culture – the similarities, the differences. You walk away from it with a better understanding of it and a lot of friends in Afghanistan.”

After leaving in 2003, Howk went to graduate school to study Arabic and Farsi. He earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies and South Asia studies before Gen. Stanley McChrystal recruited Howk back to Afghanistan for a year to initiate a reintegration process for a peace plan and help form a review for President Barack Obama.

“I’m considered a ‘half-ghan,’ he said with a laugh. “It’s when you’re not really from Afghanistan, but you’re kind of immersed in the life.”

By this time, Howk had a deep understanding of reconciliation, forgiveness and what the Quran actually says. He finished out his career in the intelligence community, and that’s when “phase two” of his life began. As his number of speaking engagements increased, Howk realized that he had to require a healthy atmosphere conducive to open exchange of understanding amongst people of all faiths. Speaking to Muslim and non-Muslim groups, he tells his audiences to not take the conversation personally or politically.

Additionally, Howk believes in a different approach to interfaith work. Typically, a Christian explains Christianity, a Jew explains Judaism, a Muslim explains Islam and so on. He’s flipped that formula on its head – and it’s worked.

“Most audiences will actually listen to me and take a moment to think about it like, ‘wait a minute. This guy lived in that culture, and he’s giving us facts. He’s not just giving us opinions or making up things. This is just what he experienced.’”

Howk carried the philosophy into the book “The Quran: A Chronological Modern English Interpretation.” Originally meant to be a PDF for friends in the military to better understand the places they were serving, a publisher approached Howk and said it needed to be made available to the public. Since then, it has won an award for excellence in writing from the Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest and received the Gold Medal from the National Indie Excellence Awards.

“I made it readable English. If I had to move a verse up a couple lines or move a verse down so that it flowed in English grammar and it made a paragraph that you can read, then I did that.” Howk changed the order of particular sermons to read chronologically in order to make the book easy to understand and a quick read for English speakers, as opposed to versions written by translators not as familiar with English.

Writing the book after a number of years giving talks, Howk anticipated the questions a typical American would have after reading the text. He’s even started the podcast “We’re Just Talking About It” to continue the dialogue between faith leaders to translate the understanding to members of all religions. Recently, Howk was asked to lunch with the president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the continent. At one point in the more than three-hour lunch, Howk explained his background. The president said it was no mistake that Howk is doing what he’s doing.

“He told me, ‘God really chose you for this plan. I mean, you’re a Baptist military officer, and you wander around America explaining Islam to non-Muslims. That doesn’t happen by accident.’ He was very appreciative that I am trying to increase tolerance between religions and just get people to be nicer to each other in general.”

Regardless of a person’s religious view, Howk didn’t choose the past few years of his journey – the journey chose him. Although he assumed he would’ve gone fishing more than the two trips he’s been on in retirement, Howk finds fulfillment in his own niche approach to interfaith work.

“I don’t think this happened by chance. I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of. This is not what I thought I’d be doing in retirement. It’s really taken on a life of its own.”

I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of.

Steve Sartain ’98: Forming A Community For Veterans Down Under

Steve Sartain ’98: Forming A Community For Veterans Down Under

He was a Charter Member of the first U.S. VFW Post in Australia to bridge the gap back home

Steve Sartain 98

Throughout his life, the only constant for Steve Sartain ’98 is that it’s consistently inconsistent.

Born in South Korea into a military family that alternated between Korea and the U.S. every few years, change is all Sartain has known. Yet, no matter where he’s been in his life, Sartain has managed to build a sense of community with those around him, just as he’s done by helping establish the first U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in Australia.

“One of the things missing for me here in Australia was the sense of camaraderie that I had in the military as well as a central group of Americans living Down Under,” Sartain said. “Additionally, there was little to no support for American veterans and their families like they would receive if they were Stateside.”

Out of this desire, Sartain, along with several other U.S. veterans, applied for and got Western Australia VFW Post 12163 chartered on May 7, 2017. From putting on social events to providing services to veterans and their families and supporting the local community, Sartain has worked in several roles in the post to make U.S. veterans feel at home on the other side of the world.

With his father’s service in the Air Force, Sartain is the fifth generation of military servicemen in his family, and he’s been able to trace his family lineage all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

“Having grown up on Air Force bases for most of my life, I always wanted to fly, so right after I got my driver’s license at 16, I flew for three months straight and earned my private pilot’s license, which is still one of the most memorable moments in my life.”

Attending high school in Germantown, Tennessee, Sartain decided Auburn was the best fit for him because of its strong aviation and aerospace programs as well as its top-ranked ROTC unit. What he didn’t realize is that he would get much more than that from his experience on The Plains.

“I specifically remember walking around campus during my first visit, and the fact that just saying “War Eagle” means hello, good-bye or what’s up, I was hooked. I loved my Auburn days, and to this day, I still try to represent Auburn in any way I can in the Land Down Under.”

Steve Sartain 98
Sartain with a Quokka, an Australian marsupial

In his time at college, Sartain was active in March of Dimes, the Auburn Choir and Delta Sigma Phi and Phi Mu Alpha fraternities, but a life-altering moment came during his time as a camp counselor in the inaugural Camp War Eagle.

During one of the academic sessions when campers can speak to advisors, Sartain decided to discuss the hospitality program with Susan Hubbard, now dean of the College of Human Sciences, because not many airlines were hiring at the time. She suggested taking a couple entry-level courses in the major. Because of his background working in the restaurant industry, the classes felt like second nature and he switched.

A couple internships with the Walt Disney World Resort later, Sartain got hired as the hotel manager for the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta two weeks after graduation and was heavily involved in the Ritz’s college-recruiting efforts. Many of these visits were back to Auburn. During one such trip, he met his wife who happened to be an exchange student from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia; his fraternity “big brother” was eventually the best man at his wedding in Australia.

Although he would occasionally fly, even sometimes taking friends to Auburn gamedays, the itch to get back into the cockpit was too much, and he was sworn into the Air Force in 2001 after three years with Ritz.

“I’ve always said my worst day in the air is better than my best day on the ground.” After completing training in 2003 and with his squadron being deployed overseas, Sartain was one of just three officers running the entire squadron in Florida. With numerous jobs and responsibilities in the squadron and being half Korean on his mother’s side, Sartain got the nickname “Odd Job,” from the Korean villain in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.”

After more than a  decade of meritorious distinguished service in the Air Force, Sartain relocated to Australia when his Auburn sweetheart got a job offer too good to refuse.

His illustrious Air Force career included flying Combat Rescue deployments across the globe, flying humanitarian missions supporting Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike as well as flying 17 rescue missions for NASA’s Space Shuttle program. He also aided in the rescue mission that was dramatized in the film “Captain Philips” starring Tom Hanks.

Sartain’s first job in Perth, Western Australia, was director of the AeroSpace Training Centre for the state government, but once again, the itch to personally get back into the cockpit was too strong. When he got the offer to be the inaugural manager for Western Australia’s Emergency Rescue Helicopter Services, he couldn’t resist.

“The opportunity to be back in world search and rescue was too good to pass up. It is an honor to lead our rescue crews in providing this life-saving service for the state, and continuing to uphold the SAR motto: These things we do, that others may live.”

With a dream job secured, the only piece of his past life missing in Australia was the sense of camaraderie he got from the military. But just as he’s done in dozens of homes growing up, at an unfamiliar school in Auburn and on several Air Force bases, he created a sense of togetherness through the first VFW in Australia.

“Our goal is to continue to support American veterans and their families here in Western Australia. We have been fortunate to be able to increase our post numbers each year, promote the VFW in supporting the community and bring together a tighter-knit Oz-American extended family.”

Steve Sartain 98
Lt. Col. Michael “Lucky” LaChance ’84: From Luck to Success

Lt. Col. Michael “Lucky” LaChance ’84: From Luck to Success

Doctors said he was dead, but it was just the beginning

Michael LaChance
LaChance with his wife Laura ’86

If you visit a LaChance family reunion and call out ‘Lucky,’ all the men in the room will turn around. But only one will tell you just how lucky he was to survive seven days in the hospital’s intensive care unit in his early twenties.

“My temperature went up to 109 degrees for 45 minutes,” said Lt. Col. Michael “Lucky” LaChance ’84. “On the ward, they thought I died.”

Assigned to the military’s infantry branch after completing ROTC at Auburn University, LaChance entered ranger school the same year he graduated with a degree in public administration in 1984. But a single instance of heat stroke cut his ranger school training short.

“It was actually a Godsend,” LaChance said. “It set into motion the series of events that changed my life.”

When LaChance wasn’t spending his childhood weekends at a sunny picnic with his family, or flying model airplanes in the backyard with his dad and brother, he was moving from base to base following his dad’s military employment. A hometown wasn’t a place, but wherever he, his brother and parents could stay longer than the place before. “I was always a military brat,” said LaChance. “Home was everywhere growing up.” But that’s the family arrangement.

LaChance’s father, grandfather and brother served in the military. His son, Michael Tyler, currently serves in the army as a captain. More than half his wife’s family has served or is serving. “We’re military families,” he says with a laugh.

While his dad was stationed at Fort Rucker in Dale County, Ala., LaChance chose to attend Auburn University after graduating high school in Ozark, Ala. For LaChance, serving in Auburn’s ROTC program come freshman year was never an option; it was the only option.

“Being at Auburn in the early ‘80s when Reagan was president was phenomenal,” LaChance said. “You had a renewed sense of purpose for your nation, and me and my ROTC buddies were as thick as thieves.”

After overcoming his heat stroke, LaChance was re-branched from infantry to military intelligence, a discipline focused onutilizing analysis collection to provide assistance to commanders in their decisions. The branch switch was anything but what LaChance had imagined for himself during his four years of ROTC training. It forced him to change his perspective on his place in the military, from the one pulling a trigger to the one planning when.

“You know the old joke about the world’s oldest profession? Well, they say this is the second,” said LaChance. “Every decision ever made since the beginning of time requires somebody to process, translate, interpret and make sense of the information all around them.”

LaChance served 21 years as a military intelligence officer, including a tour as the Chief of Intelligence Planning at Third Army, which was the commanding army headquarters for the Middle East. Beginning his military career in the 101st Airborne Division Association as General David Petraeus’s Battalion Intelligence Officer Commander, he successfully lead 120 service and support soldiers and managed $200 million of intelligence equipment. He also served as the COO of Task Force XXI, functioning as the chief of intelligence for the division during the testing of 121 new war fighter initiatives.

In 1998, LaChance became a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, until moving to Chicago to teach the Chicago University ROTC and later retiring from the army in 2005. While in college, LaChance never imagined the second half of his life after leaving the military. With a public administration degree, LaChance considered following in his dad’s footsteps and becoming a city manager, but the idea of politics failed to appeal.

“Nobody wants to hire a guy out of the military whose only job was to blow sh*t up,” LaChance says with a laugh. But the heatstroke came in luck. “I took the skills I learned from being a strategic planner and analyst and applied those in the business world all day long.”

For the last 10 years, LaChance has worked as a competitive intelligence executive and technical leader at Wheelhouse in Franklin, Tennessee, a private equity firm backing portfolio companies. “It’s like house-flipping, but with businesses,” he said. Prior to Wheelhouse, LaChance was senior IT project manager for Cogent-HMG and vice president of strategic planning and research for spheris. He also served as strategic services manager for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. However, transitioning from the military world into the civilian healthcare sector did not come easy.

“A lot of civilian guys feel their first job isn’t as enjoyable or fulfilling as they hoped. You spend 20 years in the military, then get out and realize the world isn’t what you thought it would be. The rose-colored glasses come off.”

In his first job at BlueCross BlueShield, LaChance said he felt as if he were speaking a foreign language, causing ample friction within the workplace. However, when the business moved him to a different branch within government services, LaChance didn’t worry. To this day, he lives by one four-word philosophy: observe, orient, decide and act.

“In my opinion, the one thing that challenges people the most is a learning cycle. If you want to succeed in life, you have to be able to quickly observe, orient, decide and act, then take away lessons learned and try again.”

That, said LaChance, is how he makes his luck. LaChance currently resides in Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, with his wife Laura. In 1983, in the last quarter of LaChance’s senior year, the two met while working at the old Crystal restaurant across from the engineering building together. He worked a different shift than her, but their schedules crossed during a hectic football game in November. He took her on the first date on Thanksgiving. By Christmas, he’d gotten down on his knee. In June 1984, the knot was tied.

“That’s my philosophy,” LaChance said. “I’m not an indecisive person. I made a decision, I committed to it ever since.”

Together, LaChance and his wife have one son, Michael Tyler, and one daughter, Courtney. Though LaChance has led military generals and executives in intelligence analysis and technical planning for over 30 years, he said his greatest leadership position has been being a father.

“The most challenging, as well as the most impactful, leadership you could exercise is setting an example for someone and providing guidance and leadership to your children.” Leadership is simple for LaChance. “You gotta get dirty to experience what everyone else is experiencing,” he said.

It means not leading from the rear but leading from the trenches. It also means observing, orienting, deciding and acting in every given opportunity. For LaChance, opportunities move quickly. A chance heat stroke can open and close a door in the blink of an eye. In intelligence and analytics, some of the greatest decisions are made in split seconds. Life fares no differently.

“You have to go out and make things happen for yourself,” LaChance said. “The one thing I told my students is, ‘Everything I’m teaching you is history from this second on. That doesn’t mean there aren’t facts you shouldn’t be aware of, but the interaction of the human race inside this world we are all contained in, the only way you to succeed in that system is to act, orient, decide, observe, and repeat.”

LaChance with his son, Michael Tyler (Vanderbilt '13) and wife Laura (Auburn '86)
LaChance with his son, Michael Tyler (Vanderbilt ’13) and wife Laura (Auburn ’86)

“In my opinion, the one thing that challenges people the most is a learning cycle. If you want to succeed in life, you have to be able to quickly observe, orient, decide and act, then take away lessons learned and try again.”