A Tale of Two Brothers, Part 2

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Lt. Col. Joe Fulton and his brother, Capt. Tom Fulton, spent nearly 20 years apart after graduating from Roscommon High School in Roscommon, Mich., in the late 1980s.

Joe, the Astronautics Department's deputy head, earned a degree before entering the Air Force as an officer. Tom, a calculus instructor in the Mathematical Sciences Department, spent about 11 years as an enlisted Airman before he was accepted into the Airman Education and Commissioning Program.

They reunited at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., in 2008. Joe was stationed there as the chief engineer for the Wideband Global Satcom Group; he later became the 500-person group's deputy commander.

Tom was assigned to the Space and Missile Systems Center, where he led a 30-person team to develop a successor to the Space-Based Infrared System that could fly on a commercial satellite. Congress canceled the program in Fiscal Year 2011 after Air Force Space Command brought SBIRS online.

"It was a frustrating time," he said. "But it's one of those things where I'm fortunate to have been there because I experienced that, whether good or bad, and I know how to apply the things I learned there to future situations," Tom said.

In a way, Tom's perseverance paid off: the Third-Generation Infrared Surveillance program earned Aviation Week's Sub-System Level Research and Development Award in 2012. He also had his brother to help him through the tough times.

"I could ask him, 'How would you do this?' or 'What's your advice on that?'" Tom said. "He had already been there and experienced it and was good at what he did, he would always have that advice."

Joe also helped Tom's family when the captain deployed to Iraq in 2009.

"It was nice to have that family support," Tom said.

"That's something hard to find in the military when you're moving from base to base," Joe added.

Joe returned to the Astronautics Department in June 2009. Tom decided to join him when his tour of duty at Los Angeles AFB ended about 18 months later.

"I didn't want to be in LA for five years ... so at my three-year mark, I needed to (move) out of there," he said. "Well, where was I going to go? What was I going to do? Because my brother had been here before and was back here now. ...

"He kept saying, 'You've got to come to the Academy. You've got to come to the Academy.' I didn't want to do that because I didn't want it to seem like I was following in his footsteps. Academics was his thing. But I just got to the point where I thought, 'Maybe I'm just going to try this and see.'"

He applied to the Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering departments, but they had no positions available.

"But everybody had said, 'Apply to the Math Department,'" he said. "The thought was, the Math Department loves to hire engineers because they can show the practical application of math in the Air Force. I briefed to the Math Department during my interview, 'We use calculus in image processing.' That's a practical application."

Tom said teaching at the Academy has helped rebuild some of his pride in the Air Force.

"I had a bad attitude toward the Air Force when I left LA," he confessed. But, referring to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould's vision to build fanatical institutional pride, he added, "I think I got a little bit of that pride back in the Air Force when I came here because of all the opportunities that the Air Force Academy has: the sporting events with the cadets, interacting with them, being able to mentor these guys and share my experiences with them."

Joe has also taken advantage of the Academy's opportunities, volunteering to assist with Basic Cadet Training, filling a seat on the Academy's Admissions Panel and leading quarterly award boards.

And both officers have taken the chance to bond with each other in a way they hadn't done since high school. Tom started running to control his thyroiditis and convinced his older brother to join them.

"I love to run; he hates running," Tom said. "He likes doing push-ups and sit-ups, and I can't stand it."

Nonetheless, the brothers both score in the 90s on their physical fitness examinations.

"The two times I've scored an excellent on my PFE have been when I was running with Tom," Joe said. "He's always running faster, but that never bothered me at all, and I've seen my run speed increasing, my endurance increasing.

"Now I'm running 5½ miles every other morning with him. I do it because it's good for me, and I do it because it's expected, but I also do it because my brother's there with me," Joe added.

The two officers will both retire in a joint ceremony May 23.

"It's ... really awesome to be assigned to the same base as my brother. He didn't have to come here," Joe said, "but he came here because I enjoyed it so much. And for him to make the decision to retire here ... I think it would be a great honor to retire with him. He came up with a Sept. 1 date, and that works for me."

Joe said the choice of date was deliberate, as it allows the seniors in his classes to participate in the ceremony.

"I think it'll be kind of cool, and kind of poetic if you will, for all the cadets who are starting their careers with us ending our careers at the same time," he said.

"My brother pinned me on at (Officer Training School)," Tom said. "My wife was on one side, and my brother was on the other. I thought that was the greatest. To retire ... that's kind of nice. I can remember us causing trouble in high school, and now here we are at the end of our Air Force careers --"

"-- Looking forward to causing trouble as civilians," Joe joked.

More seriously, he added, "We had two different start times and two different paths. For us to finish at the same time ... it's interesting where life takes you."