Push Hard. Achieve Results.
By Jay Borella ’93, Air Interdiction Agent, Department of Homeland Security
In the fall of 1989, I reported to Cadet Capt. Shetler, Rasche Hall, first floor, F Company, to begin life as a new cadet in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets (VTCC). I was excited at the time, because a military life had been a goal of mine since grade school.
I grew up in an Army family, and this is what I understood. I found myself in good company, surrounded by high performers with similar ideals. The inspiration I received from the cadets around me and the lessons I learned here would reverberate through my career. I was a “Corps-only” cadet, joining the U.S. Marine Corps through the Platoon Leader Course. I would go on to serve active duty, reserve duty, and as a pilot in the U.S. Customs Service.
I stumbled many times as a cadet, and I struggled with the fast pace of being a flight student. My fellow Hokies got me through Naval flight training in Pensacola, Florida. There was a healthy crew of aspiring Naval aviators in the class of 1993, who started flight training at the same time. Our routine association with one another during the various phases of school kept us all on track.
I recall many evenings hosted at a house full of former cadets, quizzing, studying, and challenging one another to do better.
There were laughs (and a few libations) along the way, but these fellow alumni drove me to ultimately qualify for my assignment of choice: AH-1W Cobra pilot, U.S. Marine Corps.
Life as a Marine
Reporting to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167, “The Warriors,” in New River, North Carolina, presented many of the cliché “new guy in a salty unit” vignettes. That being said, there was reality to the fact that this squadron pushed hard and obtained top results. I initially felt I was a C-grade student in an A-plus society.
I shared a house with another VTCC grad, Lt. J.N. Rule ’93, who was an infantry platoon commander at Camp Lejeune. He was a driven Marine who accelerated through his postings, ahead of his peers. Finding myself again surrounded by high performers (on base and at home), I quickly picked up my pace to be part of the A-plus society in my squadron.
I became a weapons and tactics instructor in the AH-1W, responsible for the readiness of all the pilots in the squadron to go do what attack pilots do. I finally felt I had the reins in my hands and I was setting the pace, when I had to make one of the hardest decisions I have ever made.
My obligation for active duty (time required for accepting flight training) was complete at the same time as my first fleet tour. Do I take orders for a “proper career path” assignment, or become “Mr. Borella” in the civilian world? Fortunately, I had a very good officer in charge (OIC) who knew my personality and realized I was not quite ready to loosen the reins. He said, “There is an opening at Customs. These are few and far between, but it seems right up your alley.” While on board a carrier at sea, I submitted a resume to the U.S. Department of Treasury, U.S. Customs Service, to be a customs pilot. I had no idea what these guys did.
A New Career Path
A customs pilot uses aircraft to enforce U.S. Treasury law — basically counter smuggling, which drives straight to counter narcotics. I joined an agency that was pushing hard and obtaining results.
I was stationed in Tucson, Arizona, conducting operations in the remote southwest and Central America. We were looking for bad guys doing bad things in the desert.
My new coworkers were exceptional pilots, but that was only part of the job. The aircraft simply got you to the problem. It then became a pursuit and apprehension of some sort, often contested, often at night. My former OIC was correct, and this new group of professionals challenged me to master entirely new skill sets.
We flew small Cessnas, light European helicopters, UH-60 Blackhawks, and Citation business jets. During my time in Arizona, I was involved in chases of planes, cars, helicopters, and ultralights. I found myself in foot pursuits, and, in one case, a horse pursuit.
These were all things I never dreamed I would do, or even could do. Like my time in Rasche Hall, I was surrounded by high performers with like ideals who elevated my ability significantly.
The light helicopters (AS-350 Ecureuil or A-Star) were mostly used as a reconnaissance asset, scouring the desert with sensors to locate smuggling activity. The light helicopter was able to get very low to observe the subtle clues that sensors may miss. When smugglers were located, the A-Star could land in tiny spots, and the pilots would jump out and go to work.
If the situation was too much for this crew, the UH-60 could deliver a larger group of agents. The Blackhawk also had room to extract whatever we seized.
The fixed wing aircraft were filled with electronics and would go looking for aircraft, cars, and boats involved in smuggling activity. The Citation was a business jet on the outside, but the inside housed an F-16 radar coupled to various sensors, plus an array of secure communications. These crews would correlate what they found with available intelligence and stay out of sight as we tracked the suspect vehicle to a drop point. The UH-60 would be vectored in to solve the problem on the ground.
“U.S. customs pilot” was a very broad job description. Day to day, one could occupy any seat in the various aircraft, front or back.
Concurrent with this occupation, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve as a Cobra pilot (part-time) in the Red Dogs of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773 in Atlanta. A reserve squadron offered a new challenge for me, because the Marines in this unit may be part time but they had a lot of experience in their field — pilots, mechanics, support crews who held a depth of skill that comes with being in the same unit and same role for a decade or more. I stepped off the top rung in the fleet to find my Cobra abilities meager in this crowd. I learned so much from these Marines.
Post 9/11, the Red Dogs got activated, which meant pressing pause on the customs pilot and becoming a full time Marine Corps pilot. I was again the weapons and tactics instructor responsible for aircrew readiness. We were sent to Afghanistan in 2003 to look for bad guys doing bad things in the desert (something I had, unknowingly, been preparing for all along). We were there for two years. We pushed hard and obtained top results.
On a particular night in 2005, we relieved a small remote outpost that had been surrounded by an estimated 120 enemy. Cobras calling in artillery fire, AC-130 gun ships, Royal Air Force Harriers, and fighting through the night were credited with saving the lives of all those at the fire base. There is no greater reward than to sit with the commander of troops after the fact and get a “thank you” that is very real.
In 2005, I returned to Arizona, and the war on drugs. The light bulb had finally come on. These Marine Reservists were making me a better customs pilot, and these customs agents were making me a better war fighter.
It was also at this time that I met my future wife, Rebecca, in Tucson. I found myself in good company at work, at home, and in the Reserves.
Eight days after our wedding, my reserve squadron was deployed to Iraq for a year. I was looking for bad folks doing bad things in the desert — again. Following our successes in Afghanistan and Iraq and accomplishing more in a Cobra than I ever thought I would, I wanted to focus on my new group of high performers: my wife and son. I retired after 23 years in the Marines.
To change things up, I took a Customs (now under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) posting in Washington state. The job description has not changed, but the smuggling environment has. The citations have been swapped out for King Airs with higher-tech gadgetry. We remain busy, and I continue to be inspired by the professionals to my left and right. Submitting a resume from a carrier in the Atlantic has certainly unlocked a corridor of possibilities I never expected. I am grateful I did.
My professional and personal successes along the way could not have happened, but for my surrounding cadets, pilots, Marines, and agents. We joined the VTCC to be amongst those who do more. We started off surrounded by people who “live” the eight Pylons. That is what we understand.
It was my good fortune to have landed in places that would prepare me for things I never knew I would do. If I were to offer a suggestion to a past me, it would be to look to those who are pushing hard and achieving results. Those are your people, and it may be a launching point to a skill level you never anticipated.