By Scott McKie,
Cherokee One Feather
Lt. Col. Lewis Harding Jr. (Ret.) was recognized during Veterans Honors Ceremonies Day during the Cherokee Indian Fair on Oct. 11. The Sylva-Webster High School (class of 1983) and Western Carolina University (class of 1987) graduate is a first descendant of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Harding began his military career by enlisting in the Tennessee Air National Guard in January 1983 as an autopilot maintenance technician with the 134th Air Refueling Group in Knoxville, Tennessee.
While enlisted there, he finished his degree at Middle Tennessee State University and applied for Air Force pilot training and began in November 1985. The next month, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and reported to Williams Air Force Base for pilot training.
Harding flew the KC-135, an aerial refueling aircraft known as the Stratotanker, for 21 years, eventually becoming a senior evaluator and instructor pilot in the aircraft.
He flew combat missions in the KC-135 in the First Gulf War in Operation Desert Shield; Kosovo Campaign; Homeland Defense Missions after Sept. 11, 2001; and he was deployed in the Second Gulf War in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
In January 2010, Harding transitioned to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft that flies above 60,000 feet high and stays airborne for more than 24 hours. The Global Hawk provides worldwide surveillance and reconnaissance missions while being operated remotely from Beale Air Force Base in California. Harding operated the Global Hawk worldwide, frequently within areas of international tension.
In March 2011, in the only unclassified and publicly releasable operation Harding was involved in, he was named the Director of Pacific Integration just as the United States started Operation Tomodachi, an assistance operation to support Japan in disaster relief following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The Global Hawks operated from Beale provided nearly daily imagery to assist in those efforts, including constant overwatch of the Fukushima Reactor and assisting the Japanese in rescuing thousands of isolated citizens.
All total, Harding flew just over 5,200 hours in T-37, T-38, KC-135 and RQ-4 aircraft during his military service.
During his career, he received numerous awards and decorations, including the Meritorious Service Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor Device, Combat Readiness Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Kuwait Liberation Medal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.