Jasper native to teach at West PointJune 8, 2020
By LEANN BURKE
WEST POINT, N.Y. — For Jasper native Nathan Humbert, Sept. 11, 2001, was a day that set the course for the rest of his life.
An eighth-grader at Holy Family Catholic School, Nathan sat in the cafeteria with his classmates and teachers, watching a television screen as the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. As he sat watching and living through a day that would change the U.S. forever, he decided to join the military. It’s a choice that has led him around the United States, on a deployment to Afghanistan and on a rotation in South Korea, all as the pilot of an Apache helicopter. Next, the choice will lead him back to his alma mater — the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — as an instructor of aeronautical engineering.
In the years following 9/11, Nathan watched the news regularly, keeping up on developments with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a student at Jasper High School, he regularly talked with U.S. Army recruiters and eagerly planned to enlist immediately after graduation.
“I was kind of counting down the days until I could join and be part of it,” said Nathan, who graduated from JHS in 2006.
His parents, Gene and Donna Humbert, supported his goal, although they weren’t thrilled with the idea of their son enlisting immediately after high school. They wanted him to get a college degree first. He took their advice and attended West Point to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
West Point is not your typical college experience, Nathan said. The summer before freshman year, incoming freshmen attend West Point’s version of boot camp. Then, when classes start, the day is rigidly structured, and freshmen — referred to as “plebes” — lack many of the freedoms their peers at civilian universities enjoy. As upperclassmen at West Point, Nathan said, you gain freedoms, but the days are still structured and include military drills, workouts and required participation in either a competitive or intramural sport. During the summers, West Point students attend training and are often transported via helicopter. Through those experiences in the air, Nathan discovered his love of flying.
After he graduated from West Point in 2010, he attended flight school to be an Apache helicopter pilot.
In the years between graduation from West Point and his first station overseas, Nathan had some doubts about whether he’d get to realize his goal of fighting in the War on Terror. There was talk about withdrawing U.S. troops from the Middle East, and the war seemed to be winding down. But in 2013 while he was stationed at Fort Drum in New York, he got orders for a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. The goal he’d had since he was 14 would come to fruition.
“It was kind of surreal,” Nathan said.
On the one hand he dealt with the stresses of being in an active war zone. But on the other, he experienced the excitement and sense of fulfillment at finally being where he’d wanted to end up since 9/11.
Although he was well-prepared, Nathan faced a lot of challenges during deployment. Two of his friends were killed, and he was involved in several operations. One, in particular, sticks out in his mind. A group of U.S. soldiers were ambushed, so he flew his Apache to their location to cover them from the air so they could escape.
“It was a little thing in the totality of the war, but it’s something that stands out in my memory,” he said.
When he arrived back in the U.S. in early 2014 after the deployment, he said he looked at life differently. Daily inconveniences that would have irritated him before held little meaning after being in Afghanistan.
In 2015, he transferred to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for training before being stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. It was while he was stationed at Fort Riley that he got orders for a rotation in South Korea.
By then, he and his wife, Jessica (Stallwood) — also a JHS graduate — had started their family, and their oldest, Addison, had started school. The couple has three children: Addison, 8, Jaxson, 5, and Emerson, 19 months. When Nathan left for Afghanistan, Jessica and Addison moved back to Jasper. This time, however, the family stayed at Fort Riley.
Nathan’s experience in South Korea was very different from his experience in Afghanistan. This time, Nathan wasn’t overseas to fight a war. Rather, he and the rest of the U.S. soldiers were there as a deterrent against North Korea, and they often ran training exercises with South Korea’s military.
“It was cool to train with pilots from another country’s military and see how they train versus how we do,” Nathan said.
His Apache even made it onto a CNN newscast during the annual exercise along the border of North and South Korea.
Since South Korea isn’t an active war zone, he was allowed off base and could explore nearby communities and get to know the culture better.
There wasn’t the stress of being in war, but that doesn’t mean the experience was without danger. Nathan’s rotation came at the height of negotiations between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and there were many times when the atmosphere in South Korea grew tense.
“A few times we were put on alert,” he said. “You could just see a change in the country.”
By the time he left South Korea toward the end of 2017, there had been some changes in relations between the two countries and in how North Korea seemed to be operating.
When Nathan returned to the U.S., he started to think about what would come next. His mind drifted back to West Point, and the idea of being an instructor there came to the forefront. To do that, he’d need a master’s degree, so in 2018, he and his family moved to West Lafayette where he pursued a master’s in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He finished his studies earlier this year.
“It was cool being in a program many astronauts have been a part of,” Nathan said.
Of course, pursuing his master’s and becoming an instructor at West Point has meant taking a break from flying Apaches, and Nathan misses being in the air. But he will get the chance to fly aircraft with his students at West Point on occasion, and as soon as his two years as an instructor are up, he’ll be back in the Apaches.
“I want to enjoy my time [at West Point] and enjoy my family time, but I want to get back to flying helicopters,” he said.
Nathan plans to retire from the Army after 20 years of service. Right now, he’s halfway there. He was promoted from captain to major at a private ceremony in Jasper on Friday.
He knows the Army lifestyle is hard on his family — Addison probably won’t complete all four years of high school in the same place — but Jessica is supportive, and the opportunities he’s been given for his service have made the sacrifices worth it. The kids are OK with it, too, and although he’s only 5, Jaxson is already talking about following in his dad’s footsteps.
“I love being part of something less than 1% of the nation has done,” Nathan said. “And I feel like I’m setting a good example for my kids.”
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