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Back home on Whidbey

Putting away his uniform for good, Dennis Hunsinger, a 1973 Langley High School graduate, closes the book on a career in Air Force security and counterterrorism to start his life over on South Whidbey. - Matt Johnson
Putting away his uniform for good, Dennis Hunsinger, a 1973 Langley High School graduate, closes the book on a career in Air Force security and counterterrorism to start his life over on South Whidbey.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

On Sept. 10, Air Force Col. Dennis Hunsinger was planning his retirement party.

With almost 30 years behind him and at the peak of his career as the director of Air Force security forces at 12 Air Mobility Command bases, he was ready to travel around during his last few months of active duty to see friends, play that last golf game or two with buddies at other stations, and ,above all, move for the last time.

Hunsinger and his wife, Jeanne, are both Whidbey Island natives and after setting up 17 different households over the years, they wanted nothing more than to come home and move into their dream house on Saratoga Passage.

Then Sept. 11 came. After that, there was no rest for the man charged with keeping the enemy off Air Force territory and aircraft.

"It got real busy after Sept. 11," Hunsinger said. "Everything got canceled."

Finally back to stay on Whidbey Island in early January, Hunsinger was still decompressing after four months of duty that were some of the most intense of his career. He saw his security force double in size, from 2,300 to 5,000 personnel, and his oversight extend to 33 Air National Guard bases and 34 Air Force Reserve bases. In addition, the in-flight security wing of his force, the Ravens, was suddenly required to be on every transport and tanker plane flight leaving those bases.

"It was a scheduling nightmare," Hunsinger said.

But it was what he had trained for. And he was used to being busy. With a doctoral degree in sociology in addition to his rank in the Air Force, Hunsinger has seen, learned and lived through more experiences than most people would want in a couple of lifetimes.

He spent all of 1979 in Turkey, without Jeanne or his daughter and two sons, to be the chief of security for a munitions squadron. In 1996 he was alone again, this time in the Saudi Arabian desert.

He worked in counterterrorism in the 1980s and wrote a manual on the subject for the Pentagon.

"I was doing anti-terrorism since before anti-terrorism was cool," he said.

Now, with his retirement official this month, Hunsinger can look back and forward with the eyes of someone who has learned about terrorism and seen its effects up close. Just 49 years old and ready to catch up with Langley High School friends seen sporadically over the past three decades, he is likely to be the center of interest at Fourth of July parties, family gatherings and even little coffee klatches here and there.

What he will be able to tell anyone who asks him about the United States' future in a world that suddenly seems to be in the grip of terrorism is that he has hope. That hope comes from experience and from knowing the men and women who work in special operations in Asia and other areas.

He said that even before Sept. 11, the U.S. was waging an offensive battle against perceived terrorist threats. Sometimes that battle was just observation. Other times, special forces took actual action. Most of the time, however, someone else got the credit for military actions, if anyone got credit at all.

"They do stuff we never hear about," Hunsinger said. "They're out doing a lot of things. They're discreet in what they do."

That secret war will be more in the open now. Saddam Hussein, he said, is the next target.

"It's going to widen," he said of the U.S. undeclared war on terrorism.

There are other things Hunsinger wants to tell to old friends after his years away. He and Jeanne have a new house on five acres of land they purchased from her father, Fred Frei, in the early 1970s. Then there are the couple's children: Joanne, who is getting married this year, and Matt, who is pursuing a career. The couple's oldest son, Dan, died in 1994.

There is also the matter of what Hunsinger is going to do with the rest of his life. With Jeanne already at work as an accountant in the Everett area, Hunsinger has to think about what he wants to do when he grows up.

"I still feel like I'm 18 years old," he said.

While there is a chance that he might wind up in the security field again, Hunsinger said he is taking his time. He'll take a few months off to work on the new house and property, and to reconnect with the place his family has always thought of home, no matter where his career took them. That sense of home is something they have always preserved.

"Every leave that we took, we came home," he said.

Outside of that reconnection, for the first time in his working life, Hunsinger is open to suggestions.

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