Everything changed on Wednesday, November 12, 1980. Suddenly, I could hold the world in my hands. It was the day after Veterans Day, and Ronald Reagan had just won a landslide election victory over President Jimmy Carter. I was a sergeant in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, Patrol and Investigation Division, and had stopped at Wyandotte General Hospital to hold my first child one more time and look at her sweet face. Born that morning, she weighed in at six pounds, twelve ounces.
From the start, it seemed that Catherine was always right there, waiting for me to come home or riding escort on her bike as I ran for miles, telling her scary stories about movies such as Forbidden Planet, Psycho, The Thing, and Predator. She couldn’t get enough, even while coaching me on my six-mile speed runs. The deal was, she would earn a dollar or get to have a sleepover if she got me back in less than fifty minutes. If we went one second over, she lost.
To ramp up the tension, we invented two imaginary skeletons that trailed behind us—a dad on foot and a little girl skeleton on a bicycle—who would steal our bodies if I didn’t finish in time. “Hurry, Daddy! Hurry! They’re catching up!” she would scream, bouncing up and down on her bike as I checked my watch, sprinting down streets and ducking through “secret passages.”
Sometimes, I’d tell her the skeleton caught me and I was covered in artificial skin. She would get so scared, she’d make me open my mouth so she could see if there was any flesh inside. “Don’t worry, I’m still your dad,” I would answer through clenched teeth. That always got her going faster.
The weather didn’t matter. Catherine was always there, even in winter, bicycling with our dogs and me. If her hands got cold, I’d stop and rub them and take off my socks and put them over her gloves. Then I’d say, “Don’t worry, angel, if your hands get worse, I’ll make you a pair of gloves from the dogs.”
Catherine was born tough, and, of course, being a former Army Ranger, I encouraged her in that direction: teaching her how to climb over obstacles, swim in the canal by our house in Grosse Ile, and run distance even before she was in grade school. But those were small things. Her mother, Cathy, provided everything else. Catherine was motivated and had a natural flare for helping and leading other kids, and like her mom, she was a social butterfly.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, Catherine became a cross-country runner in middle school and an honor student in high school. She could outswim and outrun me. A soldier in mind, body, and spirit, she applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. Both accepted her immediately. She chose the Air Force Academy, and less than twenty-four hours after she walked across the high school stage with her diploma, we were driving our little girl to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
It was still pre-9/11, and we walked with her to the gate for her flight to Alabama and the prep school, Marion Military Institute. She had to bring her newly bought black leather combat boots and was told not to pack them but to carry them on her. So she flung them around her neck and gave her last hugs and kisses. And just like that, our beautiful, talented 18-year-old girl disappeared down the jetway. The reality of it came crashing in on us, and all we could do was cry.
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Our tears eventually dried, and we watched with pride as our grown-up girl kept on growing. In 2004, Catherine graduated from the Air Force Academy after meeting her future husband, Craig Christ, in an Arabic class. She flew gliders, made five free-fall jumps, earned her parachutist wings, received a bachelor of science degree in biology, and was accepted for flight school. Two years later, in March 2006, she earned her pilot’s wings and went on to fly the KC-135 Stratotanker, a four-engine turbofan refueler.
Catherine deployed six times to Kyrgyzstan, to refuel aircraft over Afghanistan. One Sunday morning, February 18, 2007, Catherine’s tanker was in the air when a long-range twin-rotor MH-47 Chinook Special Operations helicopter suffered engine failure. Loaded with twenty-two troops, it crashed under overcast skies, on a dusty mountain plain.
Eight troops were killed, and everyone else was injured. The enemy suddenly appeared and closed in on the burning wreckage. The less seriously injured on board were desperately providing assistance and getting others out of the aircraft, and now they had to defend their position.
Twin-engine F-15 Eagle all-weather fighters, loaded with bombs and missiles but low on fuel, scrambled to the area. Other tankers were airborne, but they were either far away refueling aircraft or returning to base, empty. Catherine maneuvered to the location and continuously circled, refueling one fighter after another. She could hear the frantic pleas of the survivors on the strike frequency as each F-15, topped with fuel, veered off and plunged 18,000 feet to bomb and strafe the enemy. Unbeknownst to her, one of the survivors was U.S. Army Ranger Jon-Erik Watson, from her own little island hometown of Grosse Ile.
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Catherine soldiered on and completed an Ironman, multiple other triathlons, and seven marathons. She earned a master’s degree in business administration and became a KC-135 aircraft commander, a student pilot instructor, and a major. She and her husband and four young children are now at their last duty station: Edwards Air Force Base, California, only a few hours away from our Huntington Beach home.
After sixteen years of not living in the same time zone or even the same hemisphere, our girl is just up the road. And soon enough, her and Craig’s kids will be old enough to bike along on my runs, just as their mom did once upon a time.
 On Wednesday, May 2, 2007, Grosse Ile Township hosted a welcome-home parade down Macomb Street for its seriously injured native son, U.S. Army Ranger Jon-Erik Watson.
* Special thanks to Tammy Travis-Taylor of the Grosse Ile Historical Society for providing this document.