By Kara Van Pelt
Posted: Sunday, August 14, 2011 12:05 am
After growing up in Beckley and attending Shady Spring High School, the eldest of three, Col. Greg Urtso fell into his career by chance while attending West Virginia University his freshman year. Now, after 22 years in the U.S. Air Force, Urtso serves as the vice commander of the 11th Wing at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where his responsibilities include greeting the president when he arrives and departs from the base.
But when the college freshman signed up for an ROTC course, he was really just looking for a “couple extra hours” to qualify for full-time student status.
Over two decades later, Urtso said he has no regrets.
A proud husband and father of two teenage girls, Urtso has his hands full serving such a prestigious role in the Air Force, while juggling family and career.
“I graduated high school in 1985 and went to WVU after that,” he says. “I was actually looking for credit hours and came across the ROTC recruiters. Army and Air Force were side by side, and my dad went to Army ROTC, so naturally, I had to go the other way,” he said. “So I signed up, received a scholarship and the rest is history.”
After college, Urtso’s first assignment was to Fort Rucker, Ala., where he completed helicopter pilot training, becoming a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot. Since then, he has flown more than 3,000 hours, and throughout the years, a couple assignments have remained close to his heart.
In the early ’90s, as a new lieutenant at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., Urtso remembers search and rescue missions where he would go out to find lost hunters, injured passengers of plane crashes, and others in need. During that time, he was credited with 10 saves, which he defines as “actually saving a life.”
“Had we not intervened and taken the person to medical treatment, they would have died,” he says.
However, what he holds closest to his heart about his time at Malmstrom is his first meeting with the woman who would become his wife.
“My wife, Kelly, has been there with me from Great Falls on,” Urtso says. “She was an RN in an operating room and was never interested in dating military guys so she had no idea what she was getting herself into. She’s been a trooper though.
“It takes a real special person because for military spouses, as they move around, their jobs don’t follow them like ours do so she had to constantly re-establish herself every time we moved, which was tough.”
However, with the birth of their daughters, Elizabeth, just shy of 16, and Maddie, 13, Kelly devoted her time to raising her daughters and volunteering.
Since the early ’90s, the Urtso family has made 13 moves and even gone overseas. Urtso’s assignments included serving as executive wing officer, special missions instructor pilot, congressional liaison officer, and he was deployed to Afghanistan as a deputy mission support commander.
But at his current position, Urtso holds a title and carries responsibilities very few in the Air Force ever see.
“With this job, as vice wing commander, one of the duties that four of us share is greeting the president when he arrives and departs from Joint Base Andrews. So I got to meet him shortly after I got there,” he explains. “I’m not one to be awestruck, but when I was standing there and the cameras were rolling and the photographers were out there and we saw the plane coming in, I was like, ‘OK, I’m actually doing this.’
“You always want to have something in your pocket to talk about because it’s only a short distance from the airplane to the helicopter. Some guys talk about the weather, others about the trip he is taking, but I talk about my family,” he continues. “His daughter was having a birthday the Fourth of July, so we talked about that for a little bit. I told him I also had two daughters, and he asked me what it was like to raise two teenage girls.”
Urtso said he has been extremely blessed to have daughters that have always adjusted so well to their many moves as “military brats.”
While he and his family have traveled the world, Urtso’s roots have remained in West Virginia. His father, Leonard, owns A. L. Lee Corp., in Beckley, which has five plants that build underground mining equipment. His brother is senior vice president there, and his sister practices law in Morgantown.
When asked about retirement, he says, “I haven’t really committed to one way or another, but my father encourages me to ride out my military career as long as it takes. People say when it is time to go, you know, but I still love what I do, so it’s not time yet, but it’s obviously getting closer.”
He says it will be an adjustment to return to life as a civilian and the camaraderie of the military is what he will miss most, but he also looks forward to returning home.
“You make some great friends throughout the years that stay with you for life, but I do look forward to returning to West Virginia and planting some roots so when my girls go off to college, they will have a place to call home.”