ST. CLAIR COUNTY, Ill. (KMOV.com) -- Some rule with an iron fist, and some, like Col. Scot Heathman, take a different approach. Col. Heathman, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base, has been described as compassionate, personable, and filled with positivity. He's had a military career full of successes, but not without adversity.
That's only made him a stronger leader.
"I’ve moved Martian space craft that are orbiting Mars right now, to humanitarian efforts down in South America, to flying in various combat zones," he said. "It’s a difficult thing leading a large organization. This in itself is like a city. Essentially I’m the mayor."
From a young age, Heathman knew he wanted to fly. In fact, he got inspiration a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away.
"It was Star Wars. Yes I’m a bit of a nerd," he said. "When you see a movie like that when you’re young, when you see that X-Wing fighter or that Millennium Falcon, you’re like, 'That's what I want to do.'"
Some of Heathman's most memorable moments include missions to the Middle East flying the KC-135 aerial refueler and C-17 cargo aircraft.
"When you’re the airplane bringing in all the turkeys for Thanksgiving, you are the most popular aircraft in the Middle East or wherever," he said with a laugh.
After more than a decade of flying missions, he took on more leadership roles in the Air Force, eventually landing at SAFB in June of 2019. But his journey wasn't that simple. His life changed dramatically six months before arriving in southern Illinois.
"We were at a stoplight and got hit from behind by another vehicle, and I had a little bit of whiplash and through the course of them looking and doing MRIs and looking at my neck, they said to me 'do you realize you have a brain tumor?'" Heathman said. "You go from having a normal life to what are you going to do?"
What he did, bolstered by the strength of his family and friends, was push forward with his move to Scott Air Force Base while the tumor in his brain gradually got bigger.
"In January 2020, I started losing feeling in my face and a little bit down the left side of my body. That’s when we decided we probably need to do a surgery," he said.
Heathman endured a 10-hour surgery where doctors removed most of the tumor. In the weeks and months after the surgery, the commander worked to regain command of his body.
"Couldn’t walk that well, had to learn how to walk and had all kind of therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy for speech," he said. "As a commander you want to get back. This is like being a starting quarterback and you get pulled for injury, you want to be back in the game. Not to prove anything, that’s just my responsibility."
He was determined to bounce back and his colleagues were there to lift his spirits.
"I have a bag full of cards. Everyday after my radiation, I would walk home and there would be a basket of cards from airmen I don’t even know," he recalled. "You just can’t describe the feeling. It’s just pure joy, and it kept me going."
Col. Heathman is now almost fully recovered, but knows he may never be able to do what he loves again.
"If there is a time when the flight docs here say 'hey, let’s get you checked out,' that possibility might exist. But I’m ok if I don’t fly again. It’s not a pressure that I’m putting on myself because there is just more important matters at stake right now," he said.
Heathman said he doesn't know how much more time he has in the Air Force. He'll be leaving command of the 375th very soon, and his next assignment is still working within the 18th Air Force.
"There is going to be sadness leaving command, but there is a point where you just exhale and you go, 'wow, what did we accomplish?'" he said. "It’s a blessing and honor just to serve, and I’ve been blessed to have flown in the United States Air Force."