A pilot’s homecoming offers poetic end to storied career

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Chelsea Smith
  • 125th Fighter Wing

Lt. Col. Daniel Schiller’s last tour of duty as part of the Florida Air National Guard couldn’t be a more satisfying final act in his two-decade military career. Just months before his retirement, the fighter pilot and chief of safety at the 125th Fighter Wing returns to Colombia – the country where he was born and placed for adoption more than four decades ago.

Schiller will participate in exercises taking place in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility.

Born to a Colombian mother and raised in the U.S., Schiller grew up the oldest of four children and among one other adopted sibling. From an early age, his adoption status was never a secret, and his parents’ transparency made navigating tough topics a little less complicated, he said.

“It was always a part of the conversation growing up,” he said. “I always had an interest in who my birth parents were and if they were alive, but I never actively pursued a search for them.”

That is, until he married and became a parent himself. His wife, Tanya, felt it important for him to learn about his genealogy and answers to questions that could paint a more complete picture of his early life.

“My mother has always been interested in family genealogy and that got me thinking about Dan’s family tree,” she said. “That’s when I started asking questions that I would want to know the answer to if I were in his shoes.”

As a father to four children who were unaware of their paternal family’s medical history, the impetus to find his biological family kindled.

In 2017, he joined a Facebook group designed to connect Colombian adoptees to their biological family members. Within four hours of submitting his adoption paperwork, the Facebook moderators were able to confirm that his biological mother was alive.

“I was stunned,” he said. “They were also able to tell me I had a brother and a sister. I figured it would take months or years before they would get back to me, but it was kind of a whirlwind from the time that I knew they were alive.”

Recovering from the weight of the news meant sitting with the information for a few days. After revealing the news to his wife and parents, who were immensely supportive, he got in touch with his older half-brother Juan, who still lives in Colombia. From those conversations brought forth a revelation of another sibling and insight into his origin story.

Juan, who was four years Schiller’s senior, was raised by his father but had enough of a relationship with their mother to shed light on the circumstances around his birth. Juan also revealed that they had a younger half-sister, who was adopted by another family and now resides in Spain. A year after initially connecting, Schiller traveled to the country where he had roots, but no memories, to meet his mother and brother for the first time.

During his four-day trip, he visited the orphanage where he was placed before coming to the U.S. and toured areas in Bogota. Mostly, he spent considerable time getting to know his biological family. His birth mother was only fluent in Spanish, but the language barrier didn’t prevent him from forming a meaningful connection during their visit. Unfortunately, it would be both his first and last in-person meeting with her as she passed away in 2020, he said.

“I’m extremely grateful to have spent those few days getting to know her and meeting the woman who gave me life,” he said. “The opportunity to have a glimpse into who she was, where I was from and make lifelong bonds with my brother Juan was priceless.”

Now, five years later, Schiller’s return to Colombia represents a full circle moment.

“It’s one of those stories that couldn’t have been written better,” he said. “If I stayed in Colombia, I might have gone on to become a Colombian Air Force pilot instead of a U.S. pilot. The chances of me having the life I had are probably one in a million just based on the sequence of events that had to happen. To be adopted by the right family, given the right education and to have the spark to want to become an Air Force pilot all led me here, and the opportunity to go back to Colombia.”

For Tanya, the 17-year “military rollercoaster” alongside her husband is decelerating, but the final stretch presents an opportunity ripe for gaining new perspective.

“I think it’s a great chance for him to learn about his past, observe a different culture and experience what his life could have been like had he not been adopted. I think that kind of perspective can really help a person embrace the path their life has taken.”

Whether fate or fortune, Schiller’s final mission in the Florida Air National Guard offers two reasons to celebrate as he closes this chapter of life – a poetic homecoming and end to a storied career.