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Burke Man Soars High in Persian Gulf

West Springfield graduate serves his country with love and support from his family

Lt. Col. Michael Orr’s days are long in Iraq. He’s currently serving his seventh deployment — his third in Iraq — but he enjoys some rewards that help him get through the grueling schedule.

"How many 41-year-old men get to launch off the aircraft carrier in a multi-million dollar fighter aircraft to go support Marine and soldiers in Iraq," said Orr, a commanding officer and F-18 Hornet pilot, via e-mail to the Connection. "There are lots of non-monetary rewards with this job."

Orr grew up in Burke Centre and graduated from West Springfield High School in 1983, which is where he first met his wife, Kasey Miller. He headed off to study economics at McGill University in Montreal. Kasey Miller visited Montreal and rang up her old high school friend, and the two got married a couple of years later, remembers Michael Orr’s father, James W. Orr. The couple has three children: Maggie, 13, Caroline, 11 and Jack, 7.

After graduating from college, Michael Orr was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, said James Orr.

"I asked him before he got into [the military], ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’" said James Orr. "He said to me, ‘Are you kidding? I’ve wanted to do this my whole life.’"

Michael Orr said he joined the Marines for the same reasons many other Americans join: to serve his country. But for Michael Orr, he also saw a desire in the "strong sense of purpose" and "tough standards."

James Orr was also a marine, and he served in the Vietnam War. Michael Orr grew up around that military culture, and as he surrounded himself with it again as an adult, he felt at home.

"I didn’t think I would make a career out of the Marines when I first joined, but as I began to advance in rank and got more responsibility, I really started to enjoy the people I worked and lived with," wrote Michael Orr. "Being a Marine officer is so much more than a job to me; it is all about the great pleasure of leading Marines."

MICHAEL ORR’S parents, James and Elizabeth, couldn’t be more proud of their son. The couple has four children, and each has taken a very different career path. They never pushed the military on their children, but Michael Orr was a natural. He’s not only a marine; he now leads marines.

"Lt. Col. Orr is an exceptional leader," said Cpl. John Jackson, via e-mail to the Connection. "He often tells marines, no matter how junior or senior they are, how proud of them he is. I am ecstatic to have such a great commanding officer in charge of me and my fellow marines."

Leaders should lead by example, said Michael Orr. Subordinates should not be asked to do anything that their leaders aren’t also prepared to do, he said. Michael Orr sees the more than 200 men and women in his squadron everyday, and he leads by walking around and knowing them. He doesn’t believe in leadership from "trapped behind a desk."

"He is a hard-charger who deeply cares about each marine that is under his charge," said Jackson. "He cares not only about work, or marine things, but also their lives at home."

James and Elizabeth Orr, who now live in Texas, aren’t surprised at their son’s success in the Marines. James Orr said his son has always been very focused. When he sets his mind to something, he follows through, James Orr said.

"I’m so proud of him I could pop the buttons off my shirt," said James Orr.

Elizabeth Orr is just as proud, but she takes on the role of a worrying mother too. She said having a son away at war is a much different feeling than when her husband was in Vietnam. Elizabeth said she has to remind herself how big her "little boy" is now.

"I think, ‘That can’t be my little boy’," she said. "When it’s your husband … you’re the same age, you’ve been through the same things. When it’s your child … you have these memories of him as a child, which of course I don’t have of my husband."

James Orr said his grandchildren miss their father, but that he should be back in a few months. Michael Orr said the deployments, which typically last up to six months, are a "tremendous strain on his wife and kids." He’s thankful for e-mail though, since it allows him to stay in touch almost daily.

FOR THIS deployment, Michael Orr spends most of his time flying. It’s a little less stressful for Elizabeth Orr and the family when they know he’s in the air, and not on the ground, she said.

"I’m not quite as worried as when he’s on the ground," she said.

One of his more recent deployments was a ground deployment, and Elizabeth Orr laughed when she remembered what her son’s first concern was. As a pilot, he was used to flying in and eating a hot meal on the aircraft carrier. On the ground, he now had to eat Meals Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, out of a plastic bag.

"Mike loves to eat, ever since he was a little kid," Elizabeth Orr said.

Michael Orr has his hot meals for this deployment, so he’s happy about the support he gets from his full belly. What’s more important though, he said, is the support he and his soldiers get from the American people. His parents are both members of groups that send care packages and letters to the deployed military, and it’s people like them that make such a big difference in the lives of American troops, Michael Orr said.

"There are loads of great Americans who are fighting every day to make this part of the world a better place," he said. "It’s not always easy, but the support of the people back home really means a lot to the people over here."