Drawing on familiar subjects, a retired Marine once stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort has won a national journalism award for an article about the new fighter jets that have been assigned to the base.
Retired Chief Warrant Officer Randy Gaddo's article on VMFAT-501, the F-35B Lightning II training squadron coming to the air station this summer, earned the Roy S. Geiger Award from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.
The honor is given for the best Marine aviation article each year. Gaddo's story appeared in the January 2013 edition of Leatherneck, a monthly magazine for Marines.
In November 2012, Gaddo visited VMFAT-501 at Eglin Air Force Base near Valparaiso, Fla. -- the squadron's home until a move to Beaufort planned for this summer. He traveled from his home in Peachtree City, Ga., to spend a few days with the Marines in the squadron.
Gaddo's article looked at how the members of the relatively new squadron were building the training plans for the F-35B, the Marine Corps variant of the new Joint Strike Fighter, even as they were learning how to operate the jets themselves.
"What they've done is incredible," he said. "They're literally writing the book on how to operate them."
In the fall, at the suggestion of an editor at Leatherneck, Gaddo entered the article for judging in the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's annual awards. In March, he learned the judges had selected his article for the Roy S. Geiger Award.
Gaddo's interest in the squadron came from his interest in the Beaufort area. Much like VMFAT-501, Gaddo was also on a trajectory to Beaufort.
He served as the air station's public affairs officer twice in the 1970s and 1980s, shortly after joining the Marines. He also served as the editor of The Jet Stream, the air station's newspaper, in the five years he was stationed in Beaufort.
When he joined the Corps in 1976, he was on track for a position in an administrative field, but he found his way into public affairs while stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, Calif.
"There was an ad in the base newspaper, the Flight Jacket, for an opening," he said. "I thought, 'Well, I could probably do that.' It was the perfect field for me. I found my niche."
That would lead to work as a combat correspondent, photojournalist and public affairs officer. In 1983, while at the Beaufort air station, Gaddo was deployed to Lebanon with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, which the air station belongs to.
Gaddo also was stationed in Okinawa, Puerto Rico and at the Marine Corps' national public affairs office in Washington, D.C.
After retiring in 1996, he and his family relocated to Peachtree City, but Gaddo hoped to return to Beaufort. After his youngest son graduated from high school, he and his wife made the move to Beaufort in April 2013.
"I loved it here," he said. "I loved the fishing, the outdoors and the weather. I always planned on coming back."
With the squadron he chronicled moving to Beaufort soon, Gaddo said he hopes to set up a reunion with it this summer.
"My wife keeps asking me if I've contacted the squadron," he said. "It's on my list of things to do, to let them know I won the award."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.