Sandia LabNews

A desire to serve

Sandia’s Susan Berlin-Sanders remembers a sister who loved adventure and her country, and lost her life in the line of duty in Afghanistan

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SUSAN BERLIN-SANDERS says her sister wanted to help her country following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Phyllis Pelky was teaching high school in Rio Rancho when she invited an Air Force recruiter to speak to her class. She wanted the students to think about the many career options life has to offer. They listened, but the person who ended up being recruited was Phyllis herself.

“She called and told me she was joining the Air Force and I said, ‘Seriously? You’re 33 years old!’” says Susan Berlin-Sanders, Phyllis’s sister and a Sandia computer server administrator. “This was in 2004, and she felt a sense of duty to do something after 9/11. The military resonated with her. She wanted to serve her country.”

Phyllis enlisted and made the Air Force a second career, moving for more than a decade to several assignments and rising to the rank of major before becoming aide de camp to the superintendent of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. “It was a special, prestigious job,” Susan says. “She was at the right hand of the general in charge of the academy.”

But Phyllis had one more ambition — to go to a war zone. “She wanted that experience,” Susan says.

Phyllis volunteered to be deployed and was sent to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she died on Oct. 11, 2015, at age 45, in the line of duty. “It was a huge loss. We were devastated,” Susan says. “She was a great person, a kind, capable, and gifted person.”

The loss is particularly painful on Veterans Day, which falls not long after the anniversary of Phyllis’s death. “I think about the sacrifices people make so we can be free,” Susan says. “We honor all the people who have served in the military, and my sister was one of them. It means a lot to me.”

Two sisters growing up

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TEACHER PHYLLIS PELKY built a second career in the US Air Force.

Phyllis and Susan came from a family of seven children, six girls and a boy, raised in Oak Lawn, Illinois. The family moved to Rio Rancho when Susan was 12 and Phyllis 9. Their father, a former railroad worker, was hired at the Motorola plant in Albuquerque.

The two girls were close growing up. “We played a lot. I keep a picture of the two of us as kids that’s special to me,” Susan says. “She had huge blue eyes and was very mischievous. All the kids have different stories about Phyllis. One I remember clearly is the time she drew a big picture of mountains on a wall in our house and signed my name to it. I, of course, got in trouble.”

Susan says Phyllis had a strong moral compass and stood up for kids who were bullied. In third grade, she took on an older boy who was picking on others. “She confronted him and he got in her face so she gave him a punch and sent him home crying,” Susan laughs, recalling the scene. “She was eight years old. She wanted to get the other kids out of the line of fire. She knew the right thing to do in every situation.”

At Cibola High School, Phyllis developed a love of languages and travel — she biked across Europe with friends after high school — and thought about becoming an interpreter. “She wanted to do adventurous things,” Susan says.

Phyllis studied French and German at the University of New Mexico and graduated with a degree in education. She also started a family, marrying David Pelky and having two sons in her early 20s.  

She had taught German, French, and humanities for seven years at Rio Rancho High when the Air Force recruiter changed her life. She easily qualified for service, acing the physical training. “She was always in great condition, worked out all the time,” Susan says. “She tested at the level of a 25-year-old man.” And because she had a college degree, Phyllis entered Officer Training School. She was commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 2004.

Her first assignment was at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri as a pilot coordinator. “They thought they would teach her things, but she ended up teaching them,” Susan says. “They were blown away by her abilities.”

She led the Equal Opportunity Office at Kadena Air Base in Japan for four years then went to Montreal, Canada, to earn a master’s degree at McGill University. She was then assigned to the Air Force Academy, where she taught languages for four years before being tapped as aide de camp to Superintendent Gen. Michelle Johnson. “She and her family, who followed her to her various posts, loved Colorado Springs, and talked about retiring there,” Susan says.  

A terrible day

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SISTERS — Susan, right, and Phyllis grew up in a large family in Oak Lawn, Illinois. “We were very close,” Susan says.

But first came a one-year deployment to Afghanistan in support of NATO-led Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. “We worried about her when she told us where she was going,” Susan says. “It seemed like a dangerous place to be.”

Phyllis served as a personnel specialist training Afghans to organize their air force. Four months into her deployment, Phyllis was on a helicopter crossing the air base when it crashed. “She went to meetings all the time across the base and it was unsafe to walk so they generally took a helicopter,” Susan says. “On this trip, it was a morning meeting and they were on their way back when the helicopter went down.”

Five of the 10 people on board died on impact, all sitting on the same side of the aircraft. Susan’s phone began ringing a few hours later. “Everyone was calling,” she says. “It was a terrible, terrible day.”

She had last heard from Phyllis about three weeks before the accident when she wrote in the family newsletter about her experiences in Afghanistan and what her family was up to. One of her sons and his wife were expecting a baby, and Phyllis was looking forward to being a grandmother. “Three weeks later, she was gone,” Susan says.

In February 2015, Phyllis invited Susan and another sister to spend her birthday with her in Colorado Springs. “We spent a whole weekend with her and had a really fun time,” Susan says. “When we all lived in Albuquerque we would have girls’ nights out. We got to do that again. I’ll never forget that weekend.”

Remembered by hundreds

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ON DEPLOYMENT — Phyllis, right, served in Afghanistan four months before her fatal helicopter ride.

About 400 people attended Phyllis’s military funeral on Oct. 26, 2015, at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where she is buried. She was saluted for three miles along the route as she left Peterson Air Force Base following her dignified transfer. “Everyone was there from the academy, lots of students. She made great friends there,” Susan says. “Generals and commanders spoke. They all loved her. It was very touching.”

Phyllis’s younger son, Zachary Pelky, followed her footsteps into the Air Force and is a second lieutenant in pilot school in Texas. Her older son, Alex Pelky, lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Brandi and their young daughter. Her widower Dave also lives in Colorado Springs.

Susan says she still goes to grief meetings and credits the organization TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) — which offers support groups, mentors, retreats, and social events to people who have lost a military family member — with helping her come to terms with her sister’s death.  

She says she used to be one of those Sandians who kept walking when the national anthem played at 5 p.m. on Kirtland Air Force Base. But no more. “When my sister passed away, it gave me a renewed feeling of why we play the anthem, what patriotism is all about. It changed my whole mindset,” Susan says. “Now I stop and give Phyllis a moment of silence at the end of my day.”