When you ask a boy what he wants to be when he grows up, he might suggest a lot of things, including a professional athlete or maybe a jet pilot. But what about both? Meet Major Dan Rooney – PGA golf professional, fighter pilot, founder and CEO of the Folds of Honor, husband and father of five. Get to know our latest ambassador and his journey from the golf course green to the wild blue yonder—and his most ambitious mission yet, to help military families in need.
Q: Tell us about the genesis of aviation and golf in your life; at what point did you know you wanted to become a fighter pilot and a golfer?
A: When I was a 12-years-old, I met a fighter pilot on the golf course, and that’s when I knew that my dream was to combine these two things. Interesting, you know: I asked my dad, and his question to me was, “do you know which way an airplane takes off?”
I’m 12, and I’m like, “into the wind.”
He said that’s exactly right. And I think the beauty of that moment is he was preparing me for these inevitable headwinds that would stand between a 12-year-old boy and these two different, but big dreams, and certainly that has been the case.
But what I had no idea is how these two dreams would ultimately combine in my life to send me on a trajectory that I never would have imagined. But certainly—biased from me—one of the coolest job descriptions on earth is to get to be a PGA golf professional and a fighter pilot, and I’ve gotten to do that for the last 19 years or so. [I’m] Really fortunate.
Q: How were you able to accomplish your dream?
A: Anytime you have a big dream in life…you can expect that there’s going to be a lot of sacrifice and a lot hard work required, which is true.
But along that journey, having people believe in you I think is the biggest motivator. And I’ve been so blessed to have incredible people—I call them moments of synchronicity, or chance with a purpose—how people are placed in my path that have helped me cultivate, and helped me press through, the difficult times on the journey.
Always keeping your eye on the prize—and with some hard work and belief and opportunities that others provided—I was able to seize those moments and create the ultimate job description: getting to fly and play golf.
Q: Describe Folds of Honor in your own words?
A: I got back from my second tour of duty in Iraq, and I was actually on a commercial airline flight from Chicago O’Hare to Grand Rapids, Michigan. And unbeknownst to me, Corporal Brock Bucklin’s remains were on that flight, and his identical twin brother, Corporal Brad Bucklin, was in first class and was bringing him home from the battlefield.
And we land in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the captain announces what is happening, and asks everybody to stay in their seats until Brock’s remains are removed from the right cargo hold.
I’ve seen a lot of sacrifice in combat, but I’d never seen that side of war, and that night I watched the Bucklin family on the darkest night of their lives—his brothers, his parents, his 4-year-old son as he watched his dad’s American Flag draped coffin inch down the cargo ramp—and I’ll tell you as a father, the finality of the sacrifice set in at that moment, when you realize that this young boy would never play catch with his dad, or go get ice cream, or go fly, whatever it might be.
As the ceremony finished itself up, I stood back up and looked back to see that more than half the people had gotten off the airplane, and that was really the moment that hit me, and I felt a calling on my life that I’d never felt before. [I was] very unprepared, I’m not very smart, didn’t have any money, had no influence, but that’s what faith is about. And 10 years ago, my wife and I started the Folds of Honor above our garage in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. To say, “against all odds” would not adequately describe where we started from, but I will tell you when you’re on the right path in life, there’s a higher force that conspires for you.
As an organization, we’ve awarded over 16,000 scholarships now to spouses and children who’ve had someone killed or disabled, raised north of $100 million dollars, and we are really just getting started.
It’s like the F-16 on its tail, this thing is going vertical. What we’re doing is right. It’s impactful, and it has given me a sense of purpose and fulfilment—like so many others who are involved with Folds of Honor—that I am so thankful, and that doesn’t describe how blessed we are to have this mission in our lives. There’s incredible irony that, when you reach out to help someone, that you’re actually the one being helped.
In addition to flying for the USAF, Major Dan Rooney owns and operates a Cirrus SR22 featuring Garmin G1000 avionics. Stay tuned for part two of this series to learn more about Major Rooney’s experience in general aviation and how he utilizes it in his civilian life.