by Brandon LaChance
John “Jack” Ruskin has been looking at this name for years.When he saw the same name on a guest speaker list for a Certified Public Announcement convention in San Diego, he knew he recognized the name and decided to reach out on LinkedIn to see if it was the same person or a relative.
When Ruskin – a Dwight Township High School 1982 graduate, retired Navy veteran, and married to Patty Slattery with two children – heard back from Art delaCruz he found out he was the guy behind the name sewed onto his flight suit 26 years earlier.
“I got to looking through the guest speaker list and one of the names – Art delaCruz – caught my eye; it looked very familiar,” Ruskin said. “At first, I thought he was a helicopter pilot that I may have flown with in the Navy. I sent him a message via Linkedin saying, ‘Do you happen to be related to or are you a helicopter pilot?’ I told him I was Search and Rescue in Fallon, Nevada.
“He said, ‘No, but I was a TOPGUN instructor. One of your huckleberries picked me up in the Nevada desert when I ejected in 1996.’ I got to thinking, that was me. There is a custom in the Navy, when you rescue pilots, you get to keep their name tag. You take their name tag off of their flight suit.
“I kept the five name tags that I have all of these years. I still had his name tag. I offered to give it back to him when we were at the convention. He said it would mean more if you keep it. He was a guest speaker and I was at a booth during the convention and he came down and we were able to meet.”
The meeting was special for Ruskin and delaCruz.
Ruskin spent 20 years, six months and 22 days in the Navy including stops in San Diego, Oceanside, Calif., North Carolina, a Mediterranean tour, Key West, Fla., Cherry Point, NC, Guam, Fallon, Nevada, and Cuba.
In 40 rescues, delaCruz is the only chance meeting Ruskin has had.
“I can’t explain what it meant to actually meet him and get a picture with him. It was just a really cool feeling,” Ruskin said. “You hear stories of people developing a kindred spirit with other people who have been in the service. This was an electrical moment. I changed my flight to come home so I could hear him speak.
“It’s all about service; servicing and helping others. You got to wear a flight suit and they paid you an extra $400 a month, which was good money then with a wife and two little kids. But it’s not about that, it was about helping others. I was on 40 rescues and they were all different whether it was a pilot (Ruskin has five name tags from pilot rescues), Coast Guard rescues where I’d get lowered to a ship, someone getting lost in a national forest, or getting injured in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, or getting trapped in a flash flood. Just taking someone and helping them was the reward.”
The pilot who was saved on July 6, 1996, delaCruz, was ecstatic to meet Ruskin.
Even though they share a life and death moment, there has been zero contact between the two since the day delaCruz said thank you as he was being carried out of a helicopter and he sent the search and rescue unit a bottle of scotch.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t forget or that you can’t forget. I was assigned as an instructor at TOPGUN. In 1996, I was in my fifth year of my career,” delaCruz said. “I got my wings in 1992. I was pretty young Lieutenant in 1996 and I stayed in the Navy until 2013. I did 22 years in the Navy.
“One of the things we did often at TOPGUN is we train against other people. It was two F-14s participating in a training flight, Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM). During the flight, we were doing some pretty aggressive maneuvering and we had a mechanical failure that resulted in a flat spin. We ended up in a flat spin in an area of the desert outside of Fallon, Nevada. We had to eject from the airplane. We executed the emergency procedure and ejected while the airplane continued to spin underneath me. It hit the ground and exploded as it had 14,000 pounds of fuel in it.
“Where Jack comes in, he’s essentially a member of a fire department. He’s constantly training, constantly prepared and they have to have the ability to project and rescue air crew across a vast area of land. They can travel out a 100-plus miles into the middle of nowhere because that’s where we do our training. They’re at the ready to be able to respond in a moment’s notice when anyone is flying.”
During the rescue, Ruskin told delaCruz he was in shock. The other pilot being rescued with delaCruz had a high heart rate while delaCruz’s was calm. The traumatic circumstance had him, his whole body, in a stunned state.
Once delaCruz could assess the situation, he was thankful he was in the Navy with “brothers” who he trusts to save his and other’s lives.
“I think it’s expected. It’s a demonstration of something military veterans learn. It’s literally from the second you put on a uniform, it’s in your DNA,” delaCruz said. “People are relying on you and you’ll rely on them. I’ve become accustom to it because I know an 18-year old is looking at a $50 million jet and saying, ‘This jet is ready to go today.’
“I think in that moment, you appreciate that people are going to pick you up. I think Jack’s mission also extends to search and rescue and combat zones. You always had this assumption that people like Jack, who are trained to do search and rescue, are going to do everything they can to bring you home even if you’re in a hostile area or situation.”
delaCruz is now the CEO of Team Rubicon, which is a non-profit organization that helps with disaster relief. Meeting Ruskin, delaCruz asked if he’d like to join Team Rubicon.
Ruskin declined stating, ‘I’m past my prime.’
However, this will not stop Ruskin and delaCruz from staying in touch more than they have in the last 26 years.
“I suppose this chance meeting with Art was my reward for all of the years of doing search and rescue. I was like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert when I met him in San Diego,” Ruskin said. “I went total groupie. To know this connection I had with this man and not seeing him or having any communication in 26 years, and then to have a chance to meet him was astonishing.
“I used to take the name tags of pilots sewed on my leather flight coat. They went the jacket’s sleeve. That’s why the name seemed so familiar to me because the name was on my sleeve for so many years.”
Ruskin and delaCruz took a photo of their chance meeting and Ruskin posted it on LinkedIn. The photo has more than 22,500 views.
Brandon LaChance can be reached at 815-876-7941, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @LaChanceWriter.