TAMPA — More than most people, Air Force Lt. Col. N’Keiba Estelle knows the full circle of military life.
Her father was an Air Force senior master sergeant stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. She and her husband were married at the base chapel. And she was on the MacDill flightline for the dignified transfer ceremony when her husband’s body came home. Raymond Estelle II was one of nine Americans killed in April 2011 during an insider attack in Afghanistan.
Now she works in a MacDill building named after her husband, commanding some 200 airmen in the 6th Communications Squadron. It’s the unit where they first served together.
“I think being in this building makes you proud that you have the name Estelle,” she said about working in Estelle Hall. “And I think it makes you want to do the best job that you absolutely can. Because it means something to me and it means something to other people.”
When newly-minted second lieutenant N’Keiba Knox met her future husband for the first time, it was not love at first sight.
It happened June 2000. A recent graduate of officer training school, Knox was assigned to a technical school at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. She walked into a classroom, sat down and began sharing basic training stories with fellow airmen.
“And then he walks in and he sits right besides me,” she said of Estelle, a bald, muscular man who went by the nickname “Big Dawg.”
Estelle instantly tried to get her attention, she remembers, but she ignored him and kept talking to her friends.
“He wasn’t used to women doing that to him, just kind of brushing him off,” N’Keiba Estelle, now 44, said, laughing at the memory. “He was just kind of a ladies’ man, you know?”
But Big Dawg persisted.
“Once we went into our classroom, he sat beside me and pretty much after that we were chatting,” she said. “We were two peas in a pod.”
She liked that he was confident and funny.
“And it turned out we like to do the same stuff outdoors,” she said. “We were both athletic, into working out, running, you know, healthy eating, those type of things. And then of course, we had the military aspect as a common thing. So it just kind of developed from there.”
So much that her father, Levi Knox, remembered a phone call he received from his daughter.
"I met my soul mate," she told him.
"Already?" he responded.
She was 24 and her father cautioned that she would meet a lot of men.
But Knox and Estelle had a strong bond. The two were wed on May 12, 2001 at MacDill, where the two majors had transferred and served together in the unit N’Kieba Estelle now commands.
The couple had a daughter, Shayla, in 2002 and a son, Raymond III. He was born just weeks before her husband was killed.
On April 26, 2011, Raymond Estelle II arrived in Afghanistan to help advise that nation’s nascent air force.
In the morning, he received a Skype call from his wife, who was at their home in Virginia on maternity leave.
The next day, N’Keiba Estelle said she tried to call her husband again, but never heard back.
Hours later, as she was on the phone talking to her best friend, two men in uniform showed up at her door.
Convincing herself that taking care of the youngsters was more important, she ignored them. And several phone calls.
“Finally someone called and said, ‘hey, N’Keiba, you need to answer the door,’ ” she said. “And I was like, ‘Okay, and I knew at that point, it's probably bad news. Because any time military people come to your door, it's pretty much like what you see in the movies. They don't have any good news.”
The men were there to tell her that her husband, 40 — in Afghanistan for all of a day — had been killed. Investigators say a disgruntled Afghan military pilot walked into a conference room at the Hamid Karzai International Airport and began opening fire.
By the time he was done, Estelle and eight others were dead,
N’Keiba Estelle said she was in shock after hearing what happened.
“The painful part came after,” she said, “when I had to call his mom.”
Days later, surrounded by family, friends and former squadron mates, N’Keiba Estelle watched her husband’s remains land at MacDill.
“Just seeing faces that I had seen before, over the years from when we were here, as lieutenants, that was a comfort,” she said.
Last summer, N’Keiba Estelle was commanding the 87th Communications Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix in New Jersey when she received the call asking her if she wanted to come back to MacDill and lead the unit where she and her late husband served.
Looking for a new command assignment anyway, she was overjoyed.
“Are you kidding me?” she recalled asking. “Are you being serious?”
N’Keiba Estelle said it was the proverbial offer she could not refuse.
“It was very meaningful to come back here,” she said. “There are people who work on this base, who were here when I was a second lieutenant.”
There are still a few folks around who remember her husband. Occasionally an airmen will muster up the courage to tell her they knew Big Dawg.
And every so often, the memories flood back in fortuitous ways.
Sitting at her desk, N’Keiba Estelle pulls out four photographs featuring her and Raymond recently found when someone in her unit was moving into a new office at Estelle Hall.
“That’s me, right there,” she said, pointing to one photograph. “That’s Ray.”
N’Keiba Estelle commands airmen who provide everything from network access to voice capabilities to emergency management for 19,000 people who work on MacDill. Increasingly, however, airmen will help defend against cyber attacks.
“Our communications squadrons are undergoing a kind of evolution into doing more cyber mission defense,” she said. “Instead of being your IT person who shows up to fix your computer, now we're trying to evolve to defend our landscape.”
But N'Keiba Estelle has another role, one she hopes she never has to fulfill.
She is on-call as a casualty notification officer, one of those uniformed personnel at the ready to show up at a door with devastating news.
“I would imagine that if the opportunity arises, I would just tell them, ‘hey, I've been through this before,’ ” she said.. “’If you need anything you can call me.’”
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman .