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Friends reunite in Southwest Asia after two decades

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- It took 20 years and 14,000 miles, but for Tom and Steve, reuniting was a great reason to deploy to Southwest Asia.

Though these two Air Force officers now sit only five feet from each other, the road from their friendship begins at a middle school in San Antonio, Texas, a time both remember very well.

"Steve and I met in the seventh grade at John H. Wood, Jr. Middle School," said Capt. Thomas "Tom" Kleczkowski, U.S. Central Air Forces protocol chief. "Steve and I were very good friends and attended our first rock concert in the eigth grade."

Remembering that time as well, Steve added some other extracurricular activities the school friends enjoyed together.

"Tom and I grew up in San Antonio," said Maj. Steven "Steve" Haynes, U.S. Central Air Forces Lessons Learned chief. "We were both in the middle school band and played football and baseball together. After we graduated from James Madison High School I had no idea he was going to join the Air Force."

In fact, neither Tom nor Steve shared their aspirations for Air Force service with each other despite sharing just about everything else. Taking that a step further, they didn't know they would run into each other after deploying in support of the Global War on Terror.

"I was brought over to my new work station by my predecessor and he introduced me to the lessons learned guy," said Captain Kleczkowski. "I immediately shook my head in disbelief and said, 'I already know him.'"

"Steve changed quite a bit from as I remembered him," Captain Kleczkowski continued. "He had long hair and an earring that was standard for the late '80s rock scene."

Steve remembers his childhood friend as well, but claims the change is not so dramatic - maybe.

"I recognized him right away," said Major Haynes. "Tom used to be a skinny kid with tight curl, a bad '80s perm. Now he looks like Lou Ferrigno with a military cut. But he has not changed that much."

Reflecting on their chance meeting, both shared a feeling of pleasant surprise.

"It's nice to catch up and find out how things are going in each others' lives," said Major Haynes. "Unlike so often happens, we didn't find ourselves having done some very different things. In this case, we still have very much in common and we still have the same interests. To be honest, it was like it was when we were punks."

Tom agreed. "I think it's an absolute amazing coincidence being seated five feet away from an old buddy I haven't seen in 20 years," said Captain Kleczkowski. "It's awesome seeing an old friend from my high school years and reminiscing about all the old times and the crazy things we did."

After 20 years, though they shared so much in common, they still found some differences. For ex-ample, Steve is married and he and his wife Tricia have one son, Austin. On the other hand, Tom is married but he and his wife Mantissa have seven sons or as Steve put it, "The Brady Bunch."

Steve enlisted in the Air Force in 1987 and was commissioned through Southwest Texas State University ROTC in 1996. Tom, on the other hand, enlisted in the Air Force in 1989 and was commissioned through the Air Force Officer Training School, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in 2001.

Now together again, they spend their off time enjoying what they called Smoke Pit Unplugged. They still share the same interests and enjoy smoking cigars and playing guitars. And as for returning home, Steve left South-west Asia in late May 2007 while Tom is on a one-year tour ending in February 2008. Despite this parting of friends, in September their class celebrates its 20th reunion and both hope to reunite for yet another Smoke Pit Unplugged - San Antonio style.

Sure, it took 20 years and 14,000 miles deployments to reunite these old friends, but for Tom and Steve, it made the trip more bearable.