During his 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, Steve Holder traveled the world and worked as a highly specialized plane mechanic on F-16s, one of the most iconic fighter jets in the world.
Now, as a retired veteran, Holder works for Denver Water as a mechanical shop supervisor.
He’s one of the many employees Denver Water honors on Veterans Day for their service in the armed forces on behalf of our country, who now serve the region on behalf of Colorado’s biggest water utility.
Holder, a Colorado native, joined Denver Water seven years ago.
When he enlisted in the military, Holder had no mechanical or military background. He thought he might be a teacher or a coach after college, certainly not an airplane mechanic.
But when Holder, a state champion wrestler, finished college at Grand Junction’s Colorado Mesa University (formerly called Mesa State College), where he attended on a wrestling scholarship, he started thinking about the future for him, his wife and their new baby.
Holder talked to a local recruiter about opportunities in the armed forces.
“I was working part-time and told the recruiter I really wanted only two things: a reliable paycheck and health insurance for me and my family,” Holder said.
Upon being assured the military could provide those two things, Holder had one more question.
“What’s the coolest plane I could work on if I joined the Air Force?”
The answer was the F-16, a fighter jet that can hit 1,500 miles per hour and has been flown thousands of times in support of U.S. military operations around the world. It’s also the plane used by the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.
Holder enlisted and worked on F-16s as a crew chief, or a mechanic, after test results indicated he had an aptitude for technical work.
Because of that, Holder has some advice for people beginning their career — military or otherwise.
“When you’re just starting out you don’t know what you’re good at,” Holder said. “So try everything.”
Holder took his own advice to heart during his Air Force career. He retired from the Air Force with the rank of master sergeant.
During his time with the Air Force, Holder traveled the world, with he and his family stationed at bases in Florida, Utah, Arizona, Texas and Japan. Holder also was stationed in Korea for a year on his own, while his wife and their three children stayed in Colorado.
“I once added up the miles for my travels and realized I’ve circled the globe three and a half times,” Holder said.
One of the hardest parts of Holder’s time in the military was being away from his family. His service included deployments and temporary tours in support of combat situations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At one point, Holder was sent to Italy, where he supported pilots flying missions into Kosovo during the series of wars in the 1990s following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“I did final airplane checks and inspections with our planes and the pilots before they left on their missions,” Holder said. “After we’d go through all the steps, I’d give them a final salute and tell them ‘I’ll be here when you get back.’”
Holder eventually spent four years as an instructor at a crew chief school at a base in Texas. He also continued his own education and finished his bachelor’s degree, earned two additional associate’s degrees, and received a Federal Aviation Administration airframe and powerplant certificate.
One of the experiences Holder and his family valued the most was living overseas in Japan for five years at the Misawa Air Base, about 11 hours north of Tokyo by car. His two oldest children graduated from high school in Japan at a Department of Defense school.
“It was a wonderful experience, particularly for our kids, to have exposure to living in another culture,” Holder said.
One of their family goals was to explore northern Japan as much as they could, working off a “to-see” list in a local travel guide.
“We decided we’d do daytrips from our house and go as far as we could in one day,” Holder said. Their adventures included skiing, climbing Mt. Fuji, and seeing the Japanese macaque, also known as the snow monkey.
They went to local food festivals and open-air fish markets, tried local cuisines in small mom-and-pop restaurants, and maintained as adventurous a lifestyle as they could.
Holder retired after his tour in Japan, returning to Colorado to be closer to family. Now he’s involved with Denver Water’s Veterans Network and applies his military training to his civilian career.
He has positive memories of his military experience.
“When you’re in the military, there’s a pride, a discipline and a camaraderie that you don’t often experience in other careers,” Holder said. “You also get incredible training and skills that you can transfer to other jobs when you get out of the military, so I do think more people should serve.”