Water droplets fell upon the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Roland taxied for the last time as a military aviator. Exiting the cockpit, Roland gave a wave of gratitude to dozens of family members and colleagues as he stepped out of his first airframe, for the final time. He gave a hearty “thank you” to the fire department for supporting the “Wash Ceremony,” which is a time-honored tradition where an arch of water washes over the helicopter as the crew taxies together for the last time at Stewart Air Base on July 15.
As Roland’s family rushed over and showered him with champagne, a wave of emotions washed over the old warfighter. He felt gratitude and appreciation for what he had been afforded in the military, as well as blessed to find a job he loved. Roland said he was honored to serve in such a noble profession. He started his military career in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1986, but later attended the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Basic Course in 1992 so he could pursue his passion for aviation.
Roland’s love of flying came from his late father.
“My father, Richard Wesley Roland, call sign ROCKO, was my best friend,” he said. “He was the first call I ever made when things went sideways. My first flight was with him. He was a Marine fighter pilot and flew in Korea. He retired from the airlines with over 40,000 flight hours. I took my first flight with my father when I was 8 years old. In summers, he would spot swordfish from his super-cub for fishing boats. We always talked about doing one last flight together.”
As Roland walked toward the hangar, he cradled an American flag and beautiful wooden box containing his father’s remains. They had their final flight together, and although it was not how they had envisioned it, it was special.
Special is one way to describe Roland’s military career. During his time in the Army, he earned dozens of awards, including numerous awards for valor including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“During that mission the aircraft was shot up, but we stayed and engaged multiple enemies who were going to kill the sniper team we just dropped off,” Roland said. Always one to highlight others Roland then said, “The sniper that day was awarded the Silver Star.”
Roland’s other valorous awards include three Air Medals for Valor, and one Army Commendation Medal with Valor. He flew counter drug and narcotics operations, lived across the globe and deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. After 36 years of military service, and more than 8,000 flight hours, Roland was not the only one reflecting on those years in service.
Before the ceremony, fellow pilots in the audience noted that he was instrumental and had a personal role in updating the UH-60’s checklist.
But Roland didn’t just change checklists.
He “changed the culture of the aviation branch,” according to Maj. Gen. William K. Gayler, host of the retirement ceremony.
Gayler started his reflection of Roland’s time in the service by thanking Roland’s family.
“We volunteered to do this,” Gayler acknowledged before looking over at Roland’s wife, Kathleen.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done, every sleepless night, deployment or training mission. You never know if something is going to happen. Those are painful experiences, and you did it with grace and dignity,ˮ Gayler said. “Our spouses and children have to leave dear friends and form new friendships. It’s amazing to watch the resilience of military families.”
After thanking Roland’s family, Gayler continued to describe Roland as a competent and fun problem solver who made a lasting impact on the aviation branch.
Then it was Chief Roland’s time to reflect.
As Roland gave his farewell speech, there was a common theme of heartfelt gratitude for his supportive family and past teammates. He listed no fewer than 14 teams by name, including team “Wings of Lightning,” a nod to his brief time in the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, where he spent a short 13 years of his career. He thanked the crew from 10th Mountain’s Combat Aviation Brigade, who provided the airframe for the final flight and helped ensure the flight was shared with his father.
“I’ve had thousands of teammates over the years, and I wish they all could have been here today,” Roland said. “We volunteered to sacrifice everything for each other, and the defense of this nation. That’s the common bond we have and hold dear.”
Roland thanked his children — Joe, Nicole, and Sean, and two grandchildren, Symina and Joey, for their love and support.
“It doesn’t happen without my wife supporting me,” Roland said. “I thank God every day that we are together. I can’t articulate the love I have for you. You are my everything and I love you forever and a day.”
Roland served as the Chief Warrant Officer of the aviation branch, which many consider the pinnacle of an aviation warrant officer’s career. However, he was not finished leading Soldiers. Still a few years out from his mandatory retirement date, Roland had more he wanted to give. He specifically asked to serve as the commander of the 2nd Aviation Detachment for the U.S. Military Academy.
When asked what it meant to command at West Point, he said, “It meant the world to me.”
Roland was inspired by previous commanders and said, “It’s about serving your troops. They don’t serve you; you serve them. Leadership is the number one retention tool in the Army. Good leaders keep good Soldiers in; they take marginal Soldiers and make them better.”