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When Illinois Air National Guard Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. James Silvasy of Gurnee was an Army lieutenant in the late 1980s, he and his friend and fellow lieutenant, Jeff Caster, would look up into the sky from the woods during field training exercises at jet liners flying overhead.
“I’d say ‘You know, Jimmy, those guys flying the jets up there are clean. And here we are, dressed like trees, no shower in a week.’ It became a goal for a number of us guys – to someday fly for one of the major airlines,” Caster said. “One thing about Jimmy is he is focused and driven. If he says he’s going to do something then, by God, he’s going to do it.”
Both Silvasy and Caster are now airline pilots, Silvasy for United since 1996 and Caster for Delta.
Silvasy retired from the Illinois Air National Guard on June 3 during a ceremony at the 183rd Wing in Springfield. Those who knew him marveled at how he was able to balance his full-time job as a United Airlines pilot, his extensive military career, and his family life.
He served as the dual-status commander for the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 response in Illinois. He flew five different kinds of military aircraft with more than 4,900 military flight hours. As a commercial airline pilot, he has more than 15,000 hours in six different aircraft. He was mobilized for both domestic emergencies and war. And he spent many years as a single father raising two daughters and a son until he met wife Cyndi, in 2011.
“He’s never been afraid of hard work. He’s never been afraid of new challenges,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard. Neely and Silvasy were fellow group commanders at the 183rd Wing in Springfield. “He was a quick study in whatever we had going on,” Neely added.
“It takes a very special person to balance everything that he did for so long,” said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Pete Nezamis, the former Assistant Adjutant General – Air of the Illinois National Guard and Commander of the Illinois Air National Guard. “The man was balancing so much in life. I still don’t know how he did it.”
Silvasy said he had a lot of help. United Airlines was supportive of his military service and flexible with his schedule. And his daughters, Nina and Karen, helped care for their younger brother, Jimmy, along with neighbors and friends who pitched in. General Neely often says that for traditional Guard members juggling military duty and civilian jobs, family can sometimes take “last place.” When Cyndi joined the family, she dove right into the role of military spouse and the family was in first place again. Silvasy is grateful.
Silvasy’s career began in the 507th Air Ambulance Co., based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The Soldiers had a tough job as Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic (MAST) pilots and crew. They provided aerial medical rescue to rural communities in the south of Texas. This involved responding to traffic accidents or premature births or rescuing people from the flash floods that hit the area. Their job was to stabilize them and get them to San Antonio area hospitals as quickly as possible.
During Operation Just Cause from December 1989 to January 1990, Silvasy was also responsible for flying U.S. Soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in Operation Just Cause from the former Kelly Air Force Base near San Antonio to the Brooke Army Medical Center on Fort Sam Houston. The mission that landed Panama General Manuel Noriega in U.S. federal prison for racketeering and drug trafficking would cost 23 U.S. Soldiers their lives. It was a mission that Silvasy said would forever be fixed in his memory.
Looking back at that time, Silvasy admits, “I was not the best lieutenant out there.” Caster agreed. “If you told me that Jimmy was going to be a general back in those days, I would have told you absolutely no way.”
In fact, Silvasy, one of four boys, was even rambunctious as a child. His mother, Anne Marie Silvasy likes to tell how she received a call from Silvasy’s kindergarten teacher on the last day of school telling Silvasy’s mom that she was retiring and “Your son may have played a major role.” During his retirement speech, he thanked his mother, his father, Jack Silvasy, and the rest of his family for their part in raising a high-energy child who was not always the best behaved.
A little more than two years before he transferred to the Air Force, the 507th Air Ambulance Co. got a new commander that mentored and guided Lt. Silvasy.
“He was smart,” said Col. (ret.) Gregg Griffin, who was a Military Police officer in Vietnam before taking over the company of UH-1 Iroquois ‘Huey’ helicopters. “I could always tell that he had a lot of potential.”
Then a major, Griffin took over a unit “that hadn’t been to war in a while.” He saw that the officers were doing early morning physical training separate from the enlisted and immediately put an end to that practice. He put Silvasy in front of the physical training formations. Silvasy has never been blessed with imposing height. His 6-foot, 1-inch son towers over him. He’d strap a small pillow to his leg as a helicopter pilot to compensate for his lack of length in the cockpit. But he had plenty of stamina. “Jim was an athlete – a runner,” Griffin said. “He’d lead the push-ups, the squats, and the four-mile runs. If you are going to lead, you need to be up front.”
The future general said Griffin offered a “different perspective.” He removed barriers between the officers and Soldiers and put an emphasis on “field craft.” Griffin likes to tell the story of how he taught Lt. Silvasy how to take a field shower using water jugs off the back of a truck. Much of the reason Silvasy and Caster were in the woods looking up at airliners was because Griffin believed in field training with the troops. “He said, ‘If you are going to frigging lead, you are going to lead in this too,’” Silvasy said describing his old commander’s leadership style.
Silvasy was up front in how he communicated, Griffin said. “He’d tell me what’s going on and also help talk his Soldiers through problems too. His strength has always been with people as well as his technical expertise.”
Caster said Silvasy’s often blunt honesty did not endear him to everyone.
But his Soldiers, and then his airmen, loved his straightforward honesty. “He would explain the complex to either a CEO or a janitor in the same plain straightforward way,” Griffin said. “And when something needed to get done, he would explain why it needed to get done.”
“Working with General Silvasy as an enlisted service member was refreshing,” said Chief Master Sgt. (retired) Jennifer Aurora, the former Command Chief Master Sergeant for the Illinois Air National Guard. “He showed us a great deal of respect, provided transparency, and offered development opportunities to allow us to grow. It was an honor and delight to serve with and for General Silvasy. His leadership to the state and nation will be missed especially by the enlisted force.”
One of Silvasy’s regrets was that he did not get to go to war with the 507th Air Ambulance Co. By the time the company was activated for Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Silvasy was already in the Air Force’s pilot training course getting ready to take his place with the Illinois Air National Guard’s 126th Air Refueling Wing, then based at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. There he flew the KC-135 Stratotanker, the same aircraft the 126th ARW flies out of Scott Air Force Base today.
He flew around the world with the 126th ARW for five years until a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decision relocated the wing to Scott Air Force Base near Belleville in July 1999.
“It really was like breaking up a family,” Silvasy said. He was grateful to then Illinois Air National Guard Commander Brig. Gen. Hal Keistler for his handling of the move and his willingness to support unit members’ decisions whether they wanted to make the move, transfer to another unit or leave the service. Keistler, who would serve as the executive director of the National Guard Association of Illinois after retirement, died in 2019.
Silvasy opted for a break in service after the BRAC move. But soon he began “missing belonging to something bigger than me,” he said. Within a year he was with the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing based in Milwaukee. He deployed with the 128th ARW in 2003 for the Iraq War and made it overseas for the first day of the Air War. “It is one of those deployments that I will never forget.”
However, it was an assignment after the deployment that Silvasy said, “made me a different person.” Silvasy was placed as the full-time deputy commander of the 128th Medical Group.
“The Medical Group was undermanned and overtaxed,” said Col. Mike Mayo, the 128th ARW’s vice commander. “Its leadership was not around very much.” The unit had just failed an internal inspection and in a year was due for an Air Force inspection. Silvasy was asked to leave the pilot’s seat for a year and prepare the medical group for the Air Force inspection. He had graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in health care administration in 1985 but hadn’t had a job even close to the medical field since his days flying Army Air Ambulance Hueys in the late 1980s.
“I was totally out of my comfort zone,” Silvasy said.
But Mayo said Silvasy had the leadership that the medical group needed at that time. “He’s patient, tolerant, and he keeps people motivated and going in the right direction,” Mayo said. “He’s great under stress – calm and directive. He treats everyone with respect and keeps everyone together.”
The 128th Medical Group went from failing the internal inspection to receiving an “excellent” rating on the Air Force inspection just a year later. “He helped turn it around,” Mayo said.
“I learned a ton from those medical professionals. I have a total appreciation for their contribution to the mission,” Silvasy said.
His willingness to step out of the cockpit and try new assignments led him back to the Illinois Air National Guard. In 2013 he transferred to the 183rd Wing in Springfield taking various commands including the 183rd’s Air Operations Group, 183rd Air Mobility Operations Squadron and Joint Task Force – Illinois.
Silvasy said Col. Ricky Yoder, the Air Operations Group commander, taught him about the operational level of war after “spending my whole career at the tactical level. He was an outstanding mentor,” Silvasy said. “There were so many talented, innovative airmen at the AOG that were always thinking outside the box, solving problems and getting the mission done.”
Col. Lee Wheeler worked as the 183rd AOG’s full-time deputy commander under Silvasy in 2018. “He was one of the greatest bosses I ever had,” Wheeler said. “He was always engaged and knew his people. We spoke almost every day. He always kept fully informed with what was going on.”
Even when Silvasy was on long flights with United, he kept in the loop. “He’d be flying over the middle of the Pacific Ocean or over the Artic Circle and I’d be getting texts from him,” said Wheeler.
Silvasy was proud of how well the 183rd AOG integrated with the Polish Air Force during overseas exercises with the Illinois National Guard State Partnership Program. And he took pride in their performance on two 6-month rotations to U.S. Central Command as well as multiple short notice deployments.
During his time commanding the 183rd AOG he was reacquainted with his Army roots working with then 65th Troop Command Commander Col. Nick Johnson and his Soldiers on the Joint Task Force – Illinois. The JTF “melded so well together and were tested on the 2019 floods and the COVID-19 operations,” Silvasy said. “They knocked it out of the park on both occasions.”
As dual-status commander of the COVID-19 response in Illinois, Silvasy was “the right person at the right place” to coordinate the Illinois National Guard and active-duty forces operating across the state, Nezamis said. “Though he was the dual-status commander, he never took his eye off of the Illinois Air National Guard and his duties there.”
Silvasy kept both the Illinois National Guard and active-duty leadership informed as the dual-status commander of the historic COVID-19 mission. He let the force providers know how their troops were doing and kept them informed of any issues while those forces were under his command. “He would stay engaged. He would be there to 11 p.m. or 3 a.m. - when he needed to be there,” Nezamis said.
Silvasy’s last assignment was as the Chief of Staff for the Illinois Air National Guard and under his leadership the headquarters received the U.S. Air Force Organizational Excellence Award in 2022. He said that when he was at the wings, working at Joint Force Headquarters “was perceived as the place you didn’t want to be assigned.”
In reality, “it is a truly joint environment with Army and Air working together, thanks to Maj. Gen. Neely.” The headquarters Air staff are “truly amazing” and proved it as the Illinois National Guard responded to multiple domestic operations including COVID-19 over the last few years all the while still performing its federal missions with excellence, Silvasy said. You all contributed so much to this state affecting all three wings,” he told his staff during the retirement ceremony. “I know you will contribute even more in the future.”
Silvasy’s 3 Steps for Strong and Resilient Leaders: