"Man's flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge," attributed to Austin "Dusty" Miller on the retirement ceremony program honoring Col. Thomas A. Cristler

One of this nation's highest military honors has been awarded to Col. Thomas A Cristler, the son of Shirley and Ernest Cristler of Pendleton.

Many folks know the Cristlers, native Oregonians who have been involved in Pendleton in many positive ways since they moved here from Eugene in 1960.

Ernest is perhaps best known for his work establishing the Meadowood Speech and Hearing Camp. He also was a key figure in developing special education programs for Pendleton and Eastern Oregon. Shirley was a registered nurse who worked in the operating room.

But back to their son.

Col. Cristler, who recently retired from the Air Force, was awarded the Legion of Merit in August by the under secretary of the Air Force. It is the nation's sixth-highest military decoration. With the honor, Col. Cristler joins an elite, distinguished group who have been given the Legion of Merit, including David Hackworth, Hyman G. Rickover, Mike Mullen, Edwin Hubble, David Niven, Audie Murphy and John McCain.

Col. Cristler is a 1978 graduate of Pendleton High School. His official retirement ceremony - which his parents attended - was held at the Pentagon, where he has served for the past nine years.

Even his parents have a hard time explaining what their son did in the USAF during his long, storied career.

"Most of the time we haven't known what he was doing," said his father, Ernest. "It was classified." They learned that he was "a major player" in the development of GPS (global positioning system).

In fact, a look at the retirement program for Col. Cristler reveals some high-level assignments, although most are a tangle of unintelligible military jargon. Here are just a few examples:

? Test manager, SDI kill chain experiments program, Los Angeles.

? Chief systems engineer, advanced systems program office, space and missile center, Los Angeles.

? Information warfare program element monitor, info dominance directorate, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, Washington, D.C.

? Director for combat air forces command and control programs, Air Force program executive office for control and control programs, Washington, D.C.

? Program manager, ground systems, signals intelligence directorate, national reconnaissance office, Chantilly, Va.

? Chief space control and advanced technologies division, space acquisition directorate, office of the under secretary of the Air Force, Washington, D.C.

Fortunately, his retirement program provides a slightly simpler explanation of Col. Cristler's role in service to his country.

"He serves as the Director's principal acquisition advisor for the development and procurement of Air Force space and missile systems. His responsibilities include overseeing planning, programming, budgeting and execution of the Air Force's portfolio of space capabilities, developing acquisition priorities and strategies and advocating the Air Force's space programs to the intelligence community, the office of the Secretary of Defense, Congress and the White House."

Not bad for the product of Pendleton schools who started his learning at the Presbyterian nursery school. His parents remembered many teachers willing to help their son.

One third-grade teacher, Charlotte Winters, "challenged Tom," his mother recalled, using math games that became a turning point for him.

By the time he was in junior high, Shirley noted that her son had made a decision. He was going to attend the Air Force Academy.

She also remembered asking him at one point, "Are you sure you don't need a backup plan?"

"He said, 'I don't think so,'" she said.

He was right. Then-U.S. Rep. Al Ullman recommended the Pendleton High School honor society student for the academy. Thomas Cristler graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1982 with a degree in mathematics and astrophysics.

His father also believes that Tom's interest in space was launched when American astronauts landed on the moon on his son's ninth birthday.

"He talked about that," Ernest Cristler said. "It marked his dedication that led to a career."

For his own perspective, Col. Cristler called his Air Force career "a wonderful experience highlighted by many highly-motivated, dedicated people."

The colonel also gave credit to his sixth-grade teacher Verne Wilcox and high school counselor Mary Lynn Rees.

But he saved his most important accolade for his parents.

"My parents gave me the core values of service and excellence," he said.

For that, Pendleton and this nation can be very, very proud.

Skip Nichols is managing editor of the East Oregonian. He can be reached at 278-2673 or snichols@eastoregonian.com.

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