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Kelly: 80th birthday a major milestone for flying hero who scaled the heights during Vietnam, Cold War

Kelly: 80th birthday a major milestone for flying hero who scaled the heights during Vietnam, Cold War

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A son of Austrian immigrants recalls his father’s admonition about the good fortune to be born in America.

“You were given your freedom as a gift,” his father told him. “You didn’t have to work for it. Don’t ever forget that.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Reg Urschler never forgot it. He turned 80 on Thursday, a decorated former Cold War and Vietnam War command pilot with more than 15,000 flying hours, including 1,500-plus in combat. His tours of duty included Japan, Turkey, Greenland and England.

A proud veteran of the old Strategic Air Command, he recalls the stirring stand-down ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base in 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when SAC was retired.

“I stood in that hangar,” he said, “and had tears rolling down my cheeks.”

In retirement, Urschler flew 3,000-plus hours at air shows in his P-51 Mustang, named Gunfighter. Today he enjoys gardening and nature, and last week planted a tree at the Bellevue home near Fontenelle Forest that he shares with Joanne Hedge.

“When you get to 80 and start to slow down, it’s wonderful to have someone to care for you,” he said. “We love each other and care for each other.”

Reg never has married. At a posting in Alaska in 1965, he met Joanne and her husband, fellow Air Force pilot Richard “Dick” Hedge.

“My husband and I somewhat adopted Reg,” Joanne said. “We took him under our wing. He’s been a member of our family ever since.”

Reg considers the Hedges’ three children to be his godchildren. Dick Hedge, he said, was “my brother, my confessor, my mentor, my counselor — he was everything, a wonderful human being.”

Hedge, a retired colonel who once commanded an Air Force wing in England, died in 2004 when his small plane crashed in a farm field near the North Omaha Airport. He was 69.

Later, the Hedges’ children urged Joanne and Urschler to build a house and move in together, which they did. That’s where they will welcome more than 50 people today to celebrate his milestone birthday.

“Reg is very dedicated to the country and the military,” Joanne said. “He’s just a nice, old, cantankerous man, and he doesn’t mind being called cantankerous.”

His given name is Regis, and Joanne pronounces his nickname “Reege.” Others say “Redge,” which Urschler said started with British military colleagues saying it that way.

Growing up in “an immigrant community” in Pittsburgh during World War II, young Urschler would run outside and look skyward every time he heard an airplane. After high school, he enlisted in the Air Force and took pilot training at 19. He later received a bachelor’s degree.

During the Cold War, he flew reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. He quips that he often had “fighter escorts” during those missions. The only problem was that the “escorts” had the Soviet Red Star or other foreign insignia.

Urschler’s military honors include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star.

He and crewmates once helped detect the testing of previously unknown Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles that were launched without an actual nuclear warhead.

In 1978 at Offutt, he became commander of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. He retired from the Air Force in 1985. He underwent five-bypass heart surgery in 2001, and returned to flying his P-51 for several years.

He no longer flies but says his health is good. He has never forgotten his father’s words about being born in America, and he is glad he spent a 32-year career in the nation’s military, of which 28 years were with SAC.

“I’ve been very lucky,”
 Urschler said. “I’ve worked with wonderful people who made me look good.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132,

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