After flying a daylong mission over Kosovo, U.S. Air Force Lt. Dagvin Anderson and his colleagues were unwinding at a hotel lounge in Tirrenia, Italy, near their base of operations.
Col. Dagvin Anderson
A man sidled beside him, mumbled a few German words and reached into the pocket of Anderson's flight suit. It was late summer in 1996, and the young officer assumed he'd just had his pocket picked.
He reached down and found just the opposite: The man had dropped 50 deutsche marks — about 25 bucks in 1996 dollars — into his pocket.
Today, Col. Anderson commands the 58th Special Operations Wing from his office at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., and he credits that chance meeting with turning his head in a new career direction.
The 2,500 airmen and women under Anderson's command train 2,000 military personnel annually all over the country to operate helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. They also train personnel for special operations and rescues. It's a far cry from his 1992 bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis.
When they spoke, the German man poured his gratitude for his post-Berlin Wall freedom onto the young lieutenant. He told Anderson about the possibilities that had opened for his two sons, including studying in the United States.
"He wasn't just thanking me, he was thanking every American service member who had stood up during the Cold War," Anderson said. "That really hooked me into this world of international relations. There was something there I really wasn't aware of."
Anderson insisted he couldn't accept money from the man, who settled for buying five bottles of Chianti from the bar for the U.S. airmen.
Until then, Anderson assumed his electrical engineering education would play a larger part in his career, even though he knew he was destined for pilot training in the Air Force.
Indeed, those analytical and technical skills have come in handy during his Air Force career. After graduation, while waiting to start pilot training, he worked as a communications engineer at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
And he recalls in particular his work in the mid-2000s as part of the unit that developed the U-28, a light, fixed-wing aircraft built to provide airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for special operations forces.
"It made a huge difference being able to talk the same language," Anderson said. "Having a technical degree and being an aviator is a great connection. Knowing how that equipment operates and works is very helpful."
Gaining the background wasn't easy. Anderson recalls Friday night was the only time he and his classmates would take off before hitting the books and the lab again all day Saturday and Sunday.
Electrical Engineering 379, Signal Analysis for Electronic Systems & Circuits, "was the most horrible class I've ever taken," said Anderson, who remembered the professor, Michael I. Miller, PhD, telling students he taught to the top 5 percent of the class. The rest? Well, they'd have to catch up.
"I was one of the ones catching up," Anderson said. After bombing the first test, he realized he needed to spend time outside class with Dr. Miller, now a professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
"In hindsight, I was learning more in that class than any other," Anderson said. "It was because he was so involved and excited about that subject, and he made the time for you."
After leaving WashU and his flying career, Anderson's encounter with the German man compelled him to develop more background in what he calls "the softer sciences." He studied international relations as an Olmsted Scholar at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. He earned his master's degree in strategic studies from Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
He finds his international relations background helps as he deals with global issues members of his command confront as they train Air Force personnel. His engineering skills help him as a problem solver. And the combination of those skills has carried him from overseas assignments to Florida, to Massachusetts and to Washington, D.C.
Through every one of his moves, however, he's carried one keepsake with him: A single unopened bottle of Chianti.
"I've moved it for 20 years now," he said, "and don't plan on opening it."
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