In Memory of
Capt Kenneth W. “K3” Sturgill
February 13, 1995 – July 07, 2016
On July 7, 2016, The California Wing lost one if it’s most dynamic young members, Airman First Class (A1C) Kenneth W. Sturgill passed away on the final day of the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Instructor Selection Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis in Texas. Kenneth, known affectionately as “K3” since he was named after both his father and grandfather, had recently received top honors as an honor graduate and tied for top graduate of a class of 715 trainees from Air Force basic training at Lackland Air Force Base before beginning SERE training.
SERE Instructor Selection School is known for being one of the most demanding technical schools in the Air Force. The goal of the selection process is to identify not only the “best of the best” in physical abilities and survival tactics, but also find those that have the unique ability to effectively instruct to a broad and varied audience from both the enlisted and officer ranks. Kenneth had both the physical attributes and the ability to touch those that he was instructing which made him perfectly suited for this important role.At one lodge event, a 10 year old K3 saw a man with a fighter plane pin on his lapel. K3 told him that he wanted to be an Air Force pilot and the man responded by saying “you need to do well in school” to which the confident K3 responded that he had all ‘A’s in school. During this conversation, this man told K3 that he should join Civil Air Patrol but that he couldn’t yet because he needed to be 12 years old.
He did not tell his parents about this conversation, but nearly a year and a half later, a few days before his 12th birthday, he brought the forms to his parents. They sadly told him the next meeting was the day of his party. So he asked them to cancel his birthday party.They did and took him to join Civil Air Patrol and thus began K3’s journey of “Service Before Self.”
K3 joined the East Bay Cadet Squadron 18 in 2007 at 12 years old and soon, Tammy and Ken “K2” joined as well and together they became one of the most vibrant and dedicated CAP families in the California Wing. K3 dedicated himself to the program but wasn’t always focused on his personal advancement through the program. Many times he voluntarily allowed opportunities for promotion to pass in favor of serving in a way to better the program as a whole. Perhaps the most significant example of this dedication was when he postponed attending Region Cadet Leadership School (RCLS), a requirement for the Eaker Award, by two years following his eligibility after being hand selected for a new program. Twelve cadets, affectionately known as the “Dirty Dozen” were selected from squadrons across the country for the new Security Forces Familiarization Course. Following his successful completion of the course, K3 was invited back the following year as a cadet instructor. Although he later did earn the Eaker Award, he put his personal opportunities second in favor of opportunities to serve others.
One of many CAP activities Kenneth attended was the Livermore Airport Open House where Squadron18/Squadron 188 had a public information booth. K3 took his time talking with all, but especially kids. He crouched down so he was at their eye level and engaged the entire group, answered questions and drew each of them into the exciting and rewarding world of Search & Rescue and CAP. K3 could communicate effectively based upon the audience and the situation. It never mattered whether it was a Cub Scout or serving as the Aide de Camp for the National Commander at the 2011 California Wing Conference.
Kenneth attended numerous wing and national activities and eight encampments. He was the 2013 Cadet of the Year for the California Air Force Association and was a qualified Mission Observer, Ground Team Leader and was recognized with the Lifesaving Award that he received along with his father for a ground team mission they participated in together. Before the required age of 21 years, K3 became a Senior Member so that he could serve as a training officer and mentor cadets at the wing encampment and assist as an escort with cadets visiting for the International Air Cadet Exchange program, where aviation minded cadets from other countries visit the United States.
K3’s dream was to join the Air Force and serve his country. With an eye towards becoming a PJ (Pararescueman) in the United States Air Force, K3 began training and getting physically prepared for the rigorous testing. After being accepted into the training program, K3 was injured and was forced to postpone his enlistment. Never to be discouraged, K3 embraced his rehabilitation and was soon reporting to Lackland Air Force Base for Basic Military Training but this time, with a slot in the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Instructor Selection Course following basic training.
During basic training, K3 was selected as Dorm Chief where the leadership skills he developed in CAP benefited his entire BMT flight. He earned Warhawk Athlete, Honor Graduate, and completed BMT rated tied for 1st out of 715 trainees. Graduation from basic training is a proud moment where the family can come out to graduation and see their new Air Force Airman for the first time in many weeks. Following K3’s graduation, he briefly greeted his proud parents and announced that he needed to tend to him fellow gradates to ensure that they all met up with their families. Later that night, K3 personally telephoned many of the people in CAP that positively impacted his life to personally thank them for their guidance and mentorship. Following graduation, K3 attended SERE training where he selflessly gave of his time to help and encourage his fellow airmen trainees and CAP members back home. On his last day of SERE training, K3 was found in the field unresponsive and could not be resuscitated.
The sudden passing of K3 sent shockwaves through the Air Force and CAP communities. As his friends and fellow CAP members struggled to make sense of K3’s loss, the essence of his true being began to emerge. Col Alan Ferguson, Commander of the California Wing, said “Kenneth had a positive impact on the lives of CAP members both cadets and seniors. It is always sad when we lose a CAP member but when we lost K3 it was very hard on many of us. K3 had been an outstanding cadet and at the time of his passing was an outstanding senior member and Air Force Airman. Everyone involved in the California Wing’s Cadet Program knows the Sturgill family and that are always there to help others succeed. We will all miss K3. Even those that never personally knew K3 have benefited by his contribution to CAP”.On his final journey home, K3 was accompanied by a fellow former CAP Cadet and US Army EOD Speciality Mark Combs.
On July 16, 2016, a public memorial was held in Livermore to honor K3’s memory. Although many days had passed since K3’s death, the chapel was filled beyond capacity with mourners who were still in shock but were inspired by the many speakers at the service which was presided over by Lt Col (Ch) Paul Ward. Among those that spoke were his two CAP “brothers” Ravi Patel and Luke Beck-Fridell who recounted how the three of them were inseparable throughout their CAP years and that although gone, K3 would continue to inspire them throughout their lives. One of the last to speak was Congressman Eric Swalwell who presented the family with a flag that was flown over the United States Capitol in honor of K3.
The following day, full military honors were rendered at the San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio. In the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, veterans, family and friends came together one last time to honor K3’s commitment to life and serving his country. The Commander of the USAF SERE program, Lt Col Clint Rae, spoke of how K3 was “truly a NCO at heart” and of his “uncommon and extraordinary leadership abilities, even to those of senior ranking”. Col Rae closed his remarks stating how much K3’s passing was such a tremendous loss to the SERE community and the United States Air Force as a whole.
Both the memorial service and the ceremony at the Presidio had an overriding theme of “NFQ” or “Never Friggin’ Quit.” Whether it was the three large bronze letters that stood near his Urn or the words that every speaker who eulogized him, everyone knew by the end of the day what “NFQ” meant. This was one of K3’s favorite sayings and a way of life for him. Whether in school, gymnastics, CAP, his recovery after injury or in Air Force training, K3 lived that mantra and everyone around him was inspired by his personal commitment and drive.
Even after his passing, K3 and his legacy continues to inspire others. TSgt Vaught, K3’s Military Training Instructor (MTI) at basic training, stated, “One of my female trainees asked me today “Ma’am what does a motivated trainee or Airman look like in your eyes?” Before the words could come out, another MTI from across the hall flipped his hat to where you could see the inside and said “this is what a motivated trainee and Airman looks like”. I looked inside his hat and he had K3’s memorial pamphlet in his hat.”
The family and friends of Kenneth have worked with the Cadet Character and Leadership Foundation to develop this scholarship for cadets attending Civil Air Patrol Pararescue and Survival Orientation Course (PJOC) and Advanced Pararescue Orientation Course (APJOC). The ultimate goal of the scholarship is to honor Kenneth’s spirit of “NFQ” by helping support those cadets who desire to attend the course.
To know Kenneth was to love him and everything he embodied. His life goals were based on the USAF Pararescue motto – “These Things We Do, That Others May Live.” He exemplified the core value of “Service Before Self” in everything that he did, saw to the needs of everyone else and could be counted on to lend a hand whenever needed. Kenneth left this world doing what he loved most and living his dream, in the service of his nation. He was a leader beyond his years. Kenneth was our brother, our fellow airman, our commander, our teacher, our mentor, our son, and most of all, our friend and although he may no longer be with us physically, the gifts that he gave us all will live forever in our wing and everyone he touched.
Article by Maj Kathy Johnson, Bear Facts, edited by K3 Scholarship Group