Through five tours of duty in the U.S. Air Force, Maj. Michael Kluse always answered the call.
Michael Kluse, BSBA ’00, has a knack for being there. The 2018 Ohio Northern University Athletics Hall of Fame inductee played in every game during his four-year basketball career. Actually, he never even missed a start. After graduating with a management degree, he joined the United States Air Force and became a pilot. He served active-duty for 12 years, and through five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he never once missed a mission. He was as reliable as it gets, always there for his teammates on the basketball court and in the skies above the battlefield.
“You know, it’s one of those things that you don’t realize until someone tells you,” Kluse says of his ironman streak of consecutive starts for ONU. “I actually had no idea until about halfway through my senior year when someone told me. I thought back and I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess I have.’”
His military career was much the same. Kluse credits his reliability to a combination of good fortune – he was never sick or injured – and the lessons he learned at Ohio Northern. As a varsity athlete and a degree-seeking student, he had to learn how to manage his time. Through time management, he learned how to best prepare, whether for an exam or the Polar Bears’ next opponent. Finally, he learned how to set goals and never quit until he reached them. He set two goals at Northern: play basketball and graduate in four years. He graduated in three and a half. Once he set a goal and laid the groundwork for success, he did everything in his power to achieve it.
All I cared about was winning. My mindset has always been to show up and work as hard as I can and see what happens. Playing in every game was just a product of that. It came with the territory.
In the Air Force, the territory Kluse found himself flying above was wrought with peril. Kluse flew the KC-10 Extender, a 500,000-pound flying gas station, one of the biggest aircraft the military has to offer and a perfect fit for the 6-foot-6-inch former small forward. Any time the United States military has soldiers on the ground in a combat zone, there is fuel in the sky above 24 hours a day, seven days a week, carried by the KC-10 and the smaller KC-135. These airplanes and their crews are responsible for ensuring that the smaller fighters and ground support aircraft can complete their missions without having to land for refueling. As Kluse explains, takeoffs and landing are when all airplanes are most vulnerable to attack, especially his.
“We would normally stage (take off and land) from the United Arab Emirates, which was pretty safe. But I remember landing at Bagram in northern Afghanistan a few times. We had to land in the dark with no lights in a spiral descent due to the RPG threat. It could get a bit spotty,” says Kluse.
A typical mission for Kluse could last upwards of eight hours. He would circle high above Iraq or Afghanistan holding his aircraft steady while his crew completed the task of mid-air refueling F-16s, F-18s and A-10s. When deployed, Kluse would fly these missions every other day for three months at a time. When he wasn’t deployed, he would fly halfway around the world escorting fighter jets to the theatres of war, refueling the short-range aircraft along the way. Whenever he was called to do whatever was needed, Kluse was there.
In both his basketball and military careers, outside forces presented the opportunity, but it was Kluse’s preparedness that allowed him to take advantage. For basketball, it happened before the first game of his career. The Polar Bears were set to open the 1996-97 season at Division I Louisiana Tech, and Kluse was told two days before the game that he was going to start due to another player’s ineligibility. The freshman would not only start, but also score the first six points of a game that would prove to be one of the greatest upset victories in Ohio Northern sports history. It stands in stark contrast to the event that afforded him an opportunity for a military career, one of the darkest days in American history.
After I graduated from Northern, I went to a civilian flight school in Florida. I’d always wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. The school had a bridge program with some regional airlines, and after I graduated, I was hired by American Eagle airlines on Sept. 1, 2001. I was to start two weeks later, and then 9/11 happened.
Apart from the tragic loss of life and devastation in New York City and the Pentagon, 9/11 decimated the commercial aviation industry. Planes were grounded for days after the attack, and it took weeks for the number of daily flights to return to normal. Airlines were laying off pilots, not hiring new ones.
“It was the beginning and ending of my career all at once,” Kluse says.
He moved back to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and put his business degree to use as a financial analyst for Battelle. But he still had the itch for flying, so after a couple years he decided to apply for pilot training in both the U.S. Navy and Air Force. He was accepted into both and chose the Air Force, signing a 10-year commitment. Thus began his 12-year military career, which continues to this day in the Air Force Reserves, in which he holds the rank of major. His day job is as pilot and first officer for Delta Airlines – another goal met.
Kluse’s reliability can be attributed to traits like accountability and dedication, preparedness and drive. But even beyond his athletic and military careers, the key trait Kluse possesses is toughness. He played through injuries that might have sidelined another player – a dislocated shoulder, a finger that had to be popped back in place, multiple ankle sprains and a few trips to Lima Memorial after games to get stitched up – but he never had an injury that could keep him out of a game.
“I just iced it up, taped it up and off I went,” he says.
In the military, toughness took on a whole new meaning. Sure, flying in combat situations is stressful, and eight- to 10-hour missions are exhausting, but any active-duty service member or veteran will tell you that the hardest thing is being away from the ones they love. For Kluse, that’s wife Meghan and his two children, 13-year-old Brady and 10-year-old Jodi. In his Hall of Fame speech on Friday, Oct. 26, Kluse made sure to mention how important his family has been to him.
“Society, they love to thank the military members,” he says. “People stop me when I’m in uniform, and they’ll thank me for my service or call me a hero. And that is a wonderful thing, and we all certainly appreciate it. But in my opinion, as a member of the military, the true heroes are really the spouses. The wives and husbands that stay at home and take care of the kids and take care of the family while we go out and do the mission.”
Kluse is fortunate that Meghan grew up in a military family and understands the demands. Her father retired as a colonel in the Army, so she knew what it would be like for them when Michael enlisted. But just because she knew, it didn’t make it any easier.
“Probably one of the most challenging things you can ask of a significant other is to say, ‘Hey, every six months, I’m out of here. I’m leaving,’” says Kluse.
On this Veterans Day, we celebrate Kluse and we thank him for his service. We remember him in orange and black, leading the Polar Bears to victory on the basketball court. We remain awed by how he was always there for his teammates, always there for his country. And we send our appreciation to Meghan, who also was always there for Michael, so he could be there for all of us.
Ohio Northern University would like to recognize all active-duty service men and women and veterans, and especially, their families for all they do on our behalf.