ROBINS AIR BASE WING, Ga. —

A desire to fly and be a part of something bigger than himself is what led Master Sgt. Ryan Starkey, 461 Air Control Wing Staff superintendent, to enlist nearly 20 years ago.

“I became a link operator aboard the E-3 AWACS,” Starkey said. “Our role was to identify air targets as friend or foe and send that information to the folks on the ground.”

As an air defense system, E-3s can detect, identify and track airborne enemy forces as well as direct fighter-interceptor aircraft to these enemy targets.

Experience has proven that the E-3 Sentry  can respond quickly and effectively to a crisis  and support worldwide military deployment operations.

During the events of 9/11, Starkey was awarded an Air Medal for a singular event while aboard the only E-3 on the West Coast. “That day, a job that normally demands about three people, I happened to be the only one there to do it.”  Starkey explained. “We were originally there for a training sortie – I was an instructor and had students. We were given fighters and told to guard the west coast, and about eight or nine hours later we’d cleared the airspace of all aircraft. Luckily we didn’t have to shoot any planes down.”

The Air Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the armed forces of the United States, has distinguished oneself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.

Although Starkey’s career has kept him busy, along with multiple deployments, he and his wife, Stephenie, still find time to have fun together.
“On our way home from a trip together, my wife began asking me all sorts of questions,” he said. “I’d asked her what she was doing, and she explained that she’d found an application online for this new game show which had advertised they were looking for good people who had done good things. She said she thought of me, filled out the application and submitted it.”

Starkey didn’t think much of it at the time but says he received a phone call from Los Angeles a week later, shrugging the caller off as being a telemarketer. “That’s when one of my co-workers said, ‘What if it’s Steven Spielberg?’” Starkey recalled. “I said, ‘Well what if it is Spielberg? I’ve got to take this!’”

Little did the master Sergeant know that this phone call would ultimately be the first step for him and his wife winning over $550 thousand dollars with NBC’s game show “The Wall.”
“Being on this show was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had,” he said.  The Starkeys have plans for their winnings; donating about 20 percent to charitable causes, looking forward to living without debt, and investing for the future within their four children.

“Money aside, the biggest take away from this experience was the spiritual journey my wife and I went through together,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself, about my marriage and I learned a great deal about where I am spiritually.”

Master Sgt. Starkey’s episode of “The Wall” will re-air at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday, June 15, on NBC