Kim Elle can say with confidence that her father’s service in the military keeps her “grounded” and “focused on doing the right thing, for the right reason to make a difference.”
She was 5 years old when her father, Air Force Capt. Ted G. Sweeting, died. He was killed June 21, 1971, when his plane crashed in Holland after serving two tours in Vietnam. He was 27 years old.
“He was shot down at Vietnam in 1970, rescued and then a year later, after that second tour, we moved to Holland and that’s where his plane crashed,” said Elle, who is executive director of Augusta Warrior Project, about his death Thursday.” Every time I see the American flag, or every time I hear the national anthem or Taps, or anything related to the military it takes me back to my first dad, and it also has me think about how blessed I am to have my second dad.”
But it took time for her to get to this stage. Elle, who joined the military in 1988 and currently serves in the Air Force Reserves, said she could not recount memories of Sweeting as a child but gained deeper appreciation of his qualities as she grew older.
Sweeting, a California native, left behind his wife, Lynn, and his three daughters, one whom her mother was pregnant with at the time. A couple years later her mother married three-star Air Force Gen. Richard “Dick” Bethurem. Elle said the relationship she built with Bethurem coupled with what she discovered about her father.
“There’s a lot of serendipitous things tied to my two dads,” Elle said. “But I never talked about any one of my dads really until I was teaching at the Air Force Academy and I was a lieutenant colonel at the time.”
Elle said she first began learning more about her father’s experience after an elderly man, who had been searching for Sweeting for more than 30 years, contacted her.
“He wanted to thank him for the job he had done at Vietnam,” she said. “It’s cool and creepy at the same time. When he shared with me about the difference that my dad had made as a young lieutenant over in Vietnam, I realized that I had a story to tell and I was able to shift in the way that I taught leadership at the Air Force Academy to really get cadets to see and understand the importance of it.”
The more involved she became within her military career the more memories she found of her father. One recent memory occurred on May 7 as she was preparing to speak at a summer event. Elle said she found an excerpt from a book entitled The Tiger FACs, written by David Yates who was a lieutenant at the time her father died and later her boss once she joined the Air Force, that details the events prior to Sweeting’s death.
“It gave me another glimpse of my dad that I just had no idea,” she said. “And I discovered this on May 7 of this year and he was shot down May 7, 1970. To me that is just so crazy, but it’s interesting to learn so much about him all these years later.”
As she attended a special event at her father’s school, she was presented with an American flag in her father’s honor. Elle said the act brought much perspective about the person that Sweeting was, and “how well he was remembered and respected.”
“I really saw how not only his high school remembered him, but his college remembered him,” Elle said. “It’s interesting just the number of people who have reached out to me and my family throughout these years who just wanted to check on us and wanted us to know something that we might not know.”
She now documents experiences found in relation to Sweeting, which includes a letter from the president at the time, and her second father, with hopes that her children will keep the story alive.
“I know that they feel extremely proud of both of my dads,” Elle said. “Even though they didn’t know my first dad they feel very proud.”