Memorial allows slain Air Force Academy professor to keep teaching cadets
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 1, 2017
Maj. Phil Ambard is now memorialized at the Air Force Academy, but he's still not a typical hero.
He died six years ago this week in Afghanistan, but he's not honored for battlefield valor. He's being held up as an example for future pilots but never flew a plane.
Instead, Ambard is recognized for being an immigrant who learned English from American soap operas. He's honored for heading to battle because he didn't want to teach cadets when he hadn't heard shots fired in anger. He's lionized as a father of five, a community volunteer, a master of eight languages and possibly the hardest worker to wear the uniform on the academy's campus.
Last week, the academy cut the ribbon on the Maj. Phil Ambard conference room.
"We hope by having his name here, he will continue to inspire future generations," Brig. Gen. Andy Armacost, the academy's dean, said after the school dedicated a conference room to Ambard.
His widow, Linda Ambard, said her self-effacing husband would be embarrassed by the conference room. Outside the simple space is a big picture of Ambard in uniform, a plaque detailing his career and a display of his medals and rank insignia - from an airman's single stripe to a major's gold leaf.
"He would say it's too much," she said.
Maj. Ambard, an academy language professor, always preferred to put others in the spotlight.
"When you were around Phil, you felt good about yourself and the Air Force," explained retired Brig. Gen. Gunther Mueller.
Ambard, a native of Venezuela, moved to America when he was 12. TV shows were his language teachers, with "All My Children" and "General Hospital" leading the way.
Ambard struggled in high school but found inspiration in the Air Force after a recruiter told him it offered a path to citizenship.
He was a sergeant when he went through a grueling school to become an officer in 2000. He got his bachelor's degree in night school and went on to get a master's from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a doctorate at the University of Denver.
A father of five, he put three kids into the Air Force Academy and one into the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. The fifth kid was a top high school scholar in the Pikes Peak region and attended the University of Denver.
His daughter, Maj. Emily Short, is serving at the academy now.
"He remains my Air Force mentor," she said.
Ambard volunteered to head overseas in 2011 and was assigned to mentor Afghan troops.
On April 27, 2011, he and nine others were killed in Kabul when an Afghan opened fire with a pistol in one of the worst insider attacks of the war.
Not long after his death, leaders at the academy began figuring out how to honor Ambard.
"We can rise from the ashes of that terrible day and find hope together," said Maj. David Leonard, a chaplain and Ambard's brother-in-law.
The Air Force Academy has memorials to heroes all over the place.
Arnold Hall recognizes Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold who led the allied air campaign that toppled Hitler.
Sijan Hall recognizes Lt. Lance Sijan, whose tenacity in escaping his North Vietnamese captors earned him the Medal of Honor. Fairchild Hall recognizes Gen. Muir Fairchild, a former sergeant who dropped bombs by hand in World War I, flew the first U.S. flights to South America and helped lead the burgeoning Air Force of World War II.
Phil Ambard was a leader and a hero in his own right. But that's not what got him the memorial in Fairchild Hall.
He's recognized as a teacher who drove others to climb the heights of success.
Thanks to the memorial, cadets in years to come will get to learn a bit about a man who overcame his past, marched past his fears and smiled while doing it, academy leaders said.
And when those cadets are going through their tough times, they have Phil Ambard's legacy to push them ahead, Armacost said.
"This is a nice reminder for cadets," Armacost said. "It forces them to examine their own situations."
©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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