A Tale of Two Brothers, Part 1

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Call them the tortoise and the hare.

Lt. Col. Joe Fulton hates running. His younger brother, Capt. Tom Fulton, loves it. When the two meet every other day to run together, the younger Fulton outruns the colonel.

The comparison also applies to their careers, with Tom enlisting into the Air Force straight out of high school while Joe went to college first. But while they started in separate places and at separate times, the two Academy instructors will end their careers here together.


Joe and Tom both graduated from Roscommon High School in Roscommon, Mich., with Joe, who's older by 14 months, graduating a year ahead of Tom. But while Joe headed to college, Tom headed for the Air Force recruiter's office.

"I did not want to go to college," Tom said. "It was kind of a way to get out of the small town that we lived in." Because he hadn't yet turned 18, he still needed a parent's signature to sign up.

Tom had signed up with a guaranteed job as an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet engine mechanic, but a visit from combat controllers during Basic Military Training piqued his interest. He decided to apply for the role, which meant taking the Air Force's Physical Ability and Stamina Test.

"I could run; I could swim; I could do any callisthenic: push-ups, pull-ups. So I scored really well on the test," he said. "So I converted from jet engine mechanic into combat control."

But after about six weeks in combat controller training, Tom started having second doubts.

"I was just like, 'What the hell am I doing?' I was 17 years old, and I got to talk to Army Rangers who were taking our course and all these other guys," he said. "Hearing the stories, I thought, 'I'll be 18 once I graduate ... I don't want to be in a war environment at 18 years old.'"

So Tom quit the program, thinking he could re-enter the training pipeline for jet engine mechanics. The Air Force had other plans.

"The Air Force said, 'Here's your two choices: POL (Petroleum, Oils and Lubricants) and security forces," Tom said. "My basic training instructor was a fuels guy, so I decided I'd do fuels."

His first assignment took him back to Michigan, where he fueled aircraft at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, in the state's upper peninsula.

"It was kind of nice, because the first jet fighter I refueled was an F-4 (Phantom)," Tom recalled. "It was a bomber and a tanker base. I got to experience sitting out on the flightline in my cold weather gear, refueling and defueling aircraft."

Meanwhile, Joe attended Michigan State University, studying toward a degree in astrophysics. He graduated in 1991 to find aerospace jobs had dried up.

"A couple of my friends were Air Force ROTC folks," Joe said. "They talked me into getting a commission through the Officer Training Program."

He spent his first years as a missile officer at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., maintaining weapons systems everyone hopes they'll never have to use.

"I didn't really feel challenged at the job," he said. "When you're dealing with nuclear weapons ... once you've been qualified to sit on alert, the job doesn't change. That's when I applied to come teach at the Astro Department."


Tom deployed to Saudi Arabia during the first Iraq War, then volunteered for a short tour to South Korea so he could get a follow-on base of preference assignment at Tyndall AFB, Fla. Tom stayed at Tyndall until 1997, when he moved to Luke AFB, Ariz.

"The intent of my career was to come in the Air Force, not go to college and just have fun," he said. "I would say that's what I did until my brother came into the Air Force as an officer. Then I started realizing: Hey, wait a minute. I can be an officer. The Air Force has a lot of opportunities, and they kept pushing all the commissioning programs, so I took advantage of those opportunities."

Tom, a staff sergeant by 1997, applied for and was accepted into the Airman Education and Commissioning Program, a highly competitive accessioning path that pays enlisted Airmen a staff sergeant's salary to attend school and earn a degree. Now stationed at Luke AFB, Ariz., he signed up to attend Arizona State University.

"It was guaranteed college, guaranteed commission, guaranteed job," he said. "The time that I was going to school was considered active-duty time, and that's really what's allowing me to retire with 25 years in."

While Tom hit the books in Arizona, Joe also returned to school: the Astronautics Department sent him to the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, to earn a master's degree in astronautical engineering.

"When I was doing ICBMs, I got a (Master of Business Administration) degree in personal finance through the Minuteman Education Program, and that was 100 percent reimbursement instead of the 75 percent Tuition Assistance at that time," he said. He returned to the Academy in 2000 and taught here for three years.

Next up for Joe was more school: this time at the University of Colorado in Boulder to earn his PhD. Tom, now an officer, headed to Wright-Patterson AFB. He spent three years as an imagery systems engineer before attending AFIT for a master's degree in computer science.

The hare was catching up.

Editor's Note: Look for Part 2 of "A Tale of Two Brothers" March 15.