Gone, but not forgotten: Whitlock family keeps Air Force ties after son’s death through Gold Star program

  • Published
  • By Holly Logan-Arrington
  • Robins Public Affairs

“Nicholas was a man of integrity who always put others before himself.”

Clare Whitlock, Capt. Nicholas Whitlock’s mother, said as she reminisced about her 29-year-old son who died in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2012.

The Air Force’s core values came as natural to Nick as his signature smile.

Long before Nick was old enough to fill the pilot’s seat, a family friend and pilot took the then 8-year-old boy and one of his brothers on a flight that piqued not only a bright smile out of Nick, but his interest in aviation, as well.

At that moment, Nick was hooked on the idea of becoming a pilot.

“Mike’s middle son Adam attended the Air Force Academy,” Nick’s father, Jimmy Whitlock, said. “Upon academy graduation, Adam kept his parade cap and gave it to Nick. Adam earned his wings at a joint NATO pilot training program at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. When we moved to Texas, we visited Adam at the base. Nick wanted to do something with his life that few could or would do. He wanted to fly jets.”

Instead of heading to Cancun with friends following his senior year, Nick took flying lessons that summer.

“Every summer break from college, Nick took additional lessons,” Jimmy said.  “After his graduation from Mercer University, as Nick was trying to make the determination of what career to pursue, Nick continued his flying and amassed over 100 hours and earned his private pilot’s license from what is now named Whitlock Field at the Newnan-Coweta Airport in Georgia.”

Although Nick graduated from Mercer University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2005, and worked as a financial adviser part-time while interviewing for banking and investment positions at the same time he was interviewing for full-time and reserve positions in the Air Force, his heart was still in love with a career in aviation.

“During the summer of 2005, when Nick went into a local bank, he was met by one of his high school classmates,” Jimmy said. “Nick saw the friend working behind a desk greeting customers as they came into the bank. Seeing that, Nick knew immediately he wanted to fly and not be tied to a desk.”

With certainty he was going for a pilot's slot in the Air Force.

Nick’s journey toward an Air Force career begins

Ashley Whitlock, Nick’s college sweetheart who became his wife in 2010, was proud of Nick’s decision.

“Nick took the path less-traveled to earn his pilot’s slot, earning his private pilot’s license in 2005 before being accepted into the Air Force in 2006,” she said.

Nick’s first encounter with an Air Force recruiter was not an ideal meeting.

The Newnan, Georgia, native wasn’t an Air Force Academy graduate. He wasn’t an Air Force ROTC cadet, but he did have a private pilot’s license and his greatest asset was that Nick was a natural born leader. Still, an Atlanta-based recruiter dismissed Nick as someone who had watched the movie, Top Gun, one too many times.

This didn’t dim Nick’s dream.

Nick pursued a different recruiter. After a call or two, Nick made a connection with an Air Force recruiter in Florida. With favorable results, Nick began applying for a pilot slot in the Air Force. 

The spring of 2006, Nick received both a full-time offer and reserve offers. Nick chose full-time and went to Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, in the fall of 2006. 

Nick joined the U.S Air Force in August 2006.

Nick was a born leader

Upon completing Officer Training School, Nick was selected for the highly sought-after Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. The first in his class to break the sound barrier, Nick received his wings in 2008 and was assigned to the 34th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, to fly the U-28A aircraft.

“Nick knew a career in the Air Force would be both challenging and rewarding, but he was not deterred by the challenges and only worked harder in the face of obstacles,” Ashley said. “A skilled and respected pilot, Nick believed deeply in the missions he was a part of and studied constantly so that he could be the best pilot possible.”

Jimmy said his son was a born leader.

“Nick was mature beyond his years, remarkable, and absolutely determined to succeed,” said Jimmy. “Everything he tackled he did with excellence and he gave all he had from the talent he was given.

“If you personally knew Nick, then you knew his heart, his character, his determination and the many reasons to celebrate his life,” Jimmy said. “He made a difference in this world. There is no finer son that a man could have”

On February 18, 2012, Nick “literally died trying to be the very best that he could be,” Jimmy said. “I stand in awe of all he accomplished in his 29 short years. He was committed to one marriage, and he even held me - his dad - accountable.”

This was Nick’s first flight out on his fifth deployment, having served in both Djibouti and Afghanistan prior to this deployment.

Since Nick’s passing, his family started a foundation in his name to carry on his legacy.

Friends and family established the foundation in 2012 to remember Nick by supporting service-minded leaders and veterans in the southeast, where Nick was born, raised and served.

Ashley said that the foundation has raised money to support graduating high school seniors, regional veterans and leadership programs, military helping agencies and youth programs. And she is really proud of how the foundation is growing.

Ashley said the family is really proud of how the foundation is growing.

“Next up, we’re working to establish a memorial scholarship and veteran-specific recreational support services for the Middle Georgia area,” she said. “But perhaps what I’m most proud of is the way the foundation brings together friends and family from all parts of Nick’s life – high school, college, church, the military and his hometown – just as Nick did when he was alive.”

Nick’s parents said they hope to continue to honor the sacrifice of Nick and others paid for their country.  They also hope to focus on people who exhibit the same integrity, values and dreams to make life better for others.

In the time since Nick’s death, his parents have become part of the Gold Star Family program at Robins.

Gold Star Families Program reminds families they are not alone

Candace Franks, a Community Readiness specialist at Robins Airman & Family Readiness Center, said the Gold Star Family program ensures families of fallen airmen are never forgotten. 

“We provide support and outreach to the immediate family members of those who have died in combat,” she said. “As part of this program, the family members are allowed base access cards so that they can attend base events and have access to services.”

Clare hopes the program will keep her connected to the Air Force family.

“No one can understand unless they have walked in our shoes, and I’m glad they can’t,” she said.  “People can have empathy, which is so well received, but I needed to know what to do to survive.”

Clare said being part of the Gold Star Program reminds her that she’s not alone.

“There is a bigger picture, one for the health and well-being of our country,” she said.

Ashley learned of the Gold Star Families Program while at her husband’s last duty station.

“I first learned about the Gold Star Family Program through my Casualty Assistance Officer at Hurlburt,” she said. “My interest in the program was to establish a network who could understand the journey my family and I were on, and offer support and advice as we walked forward on this new path.”

Jimmy and Clare Whitlock may never hold their son in their arms again, but he will always be in their hearts.

“We love him with all our heart and mind,” Jimmy said. “We are so proud of the wonderful life he led, all that he accomplished on this earth and what he is accomplishing even now through the memory he has left with all of us. We are so very proud he served our country and made a difference for freedom. I pray his bright star will never be extinguished.” 

For more information on the Gold Star Families Program at Robins Air Force Base, contact the Airman & Family Readiness Center at (478) 926-1256.