Maj. Philip Ambard inspired achievement in everyone around him. But he never pushed anyone harder than he drove himself.
Ambard, of Colorado Springs, died Wednesday in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a mass shooting that left eight airmen and one civilian dead. He was four months into a yearlong tour overseas and was set to resume his teaching duties at the Air Force Academy when he came home.
A Venezuelan immigrant who came to America when he was 12, Ambard started as an enlisted airmen and zoomed through the ranks during a 25-year career.
Raised in Edmonds, Wash., he was a sergeant when he went through a grueling school to become an officer in 2000. He got his bachelor’s degree in night school and went on to get a master’s from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a doctorate at the University of Denver.
A father of five, he put three kids into the Air Force Academy and one into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Three have graduated and one is a sophomore. The fifth kid was a top high school scholar in the Pikes Peak region and attends University of Denver.
Ambard wanted to teach at the academy and got a job in the school’s department of foreign languages.
He had a gift for French and his native Spanish and was honored as an outstanding professor in 2005 and the school’s company grade officer of the year for 2006.
Not bad for a kid who had to teach himself English.
“He pushed all of us,” his daughter, Air Force Lt. Emily Short said Thursday. “His word for us was ‘Don’t do it the hard way, the way I did.’”
Born in Caracas, Ambard never lost his admiration for his adopted land. When he leaned English, he sought perfection and spoke without an accent. He told his children to be grateful for the gifts that come with American citizenship.
“Whenever we complained about something, he said ‘You could have worse things in this life,’” Short said.
The academy’s dean, Brig. Gen. Dana Born hand-picked Ambard to work on her staff as executive officer in 2007. She knew Ambard was going to be good when he first walked into her office.
“He felt as though he was given an opportunity,” Born said. “You could see it in his eyes everyday.”
Ambard married someone who could understand his drive. His wife of 23-years, Linda, is a teacher and a noted marathon runner.
“Whatever we did we did together,” Linda Ambard said by telephone from Dover, where she is waiting for her husband’s remains to come home. “Whenever one of us coached the other one coached right beside him.”
Phil Ambard didn’t accomplish things for selfish reasons, she said.
Earning an officer’s rank, all the education, the dedication to the Air Force was all about building a better life for his family.
“He worked so many hours, but when he came home he was home,” his wife said. “He was a dad, he was a husband, he was a friend.”
Linda Ambard said she will follow through with her plan to run 10 marathons this year, completing her goal of running a 26.2 mile race in each of the 50 states.
Each stride will be for Phil, she said.
“It’s the whispered prayers of my heart and my feet,” she said
Inside Stetson Elementary School, where Linda teaches physical education, children were mourning Thursday.
The students at Stetson knew the major. When his wife was off running marathons, Phil Ambard took over her whistle. Stetson Principal Mike Pickering said Ambard was his wife’s favorite substitute teacher.
“He was great with the kids,” Pickering said.
Ambard was a busy man, but found time for Boy Scouts, church and other community activities. Co-workers said it seemed like he’d gained the ability to live without sleep.
“I will always remember Phil for a phrase he would say anytime I asked him to do anything — ‘Consider it done, sir’,” said Col. Dan Uribe, Ambard’s boss in the academy’s foreign languages department.
Short is heading back to college this fall to get her master’s degree.
“I will be coming back to the academy and following in my dad’s footsteps,” she said.
It’s an easy path for her to see.
“The footprints are gigantic.”
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