A Tight-Knit Foursome
By Debbie Lagestee • Photos by Valerie & Ed Photography
When Katie and Mike Zinkgraf met in high school in Spokane, WA, marriage was nowhere on their radar. Mike was a senior, and Katie was a sophomore. They dated off and on for several years. It was a running joke amongst their friends whether or not Katie and Mike were together. Still, even in their off times, they kept in touch throughout their college years despite attending separate colleges 3 hours apart. During Katie’s senior year of college, their relationship became serious, and Mike proposed during Katie’s winter break. She said yes, graduated from college, and then their adventure began!
Following 9-11, Mike had a strong pull to enlist in the military. Trusted family and friends encouraged Mike to enroll in college and join the ROTC program. He followed their advice and attended Central Washington University. It was a rigorous program, yet he excelled, and after 2 years, he earned a slot in the pilot program, something he never thought would be within his reach. Between his sophomore and junior year, he was sent to Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, for Field Training, aka Bootcamp. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Law and Justice from Central Washington University. He also earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma. Mike was commissioned in July 2005 and was stationed in his home state at JB Lewis McChord Air Force Base.
He spent his first year of active duty there and obtained his private pilot license. Mike’s next assignment took him to Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. After 13 months of intense training learning the T-6 and T-1 aircraft, he graduated at the top of his class from Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training, earning his Air Force Pilot wings.
In August 2007, with Katie by his side and wedding plans in place, Mike was to learn his first active-duty assignment in the Air Force. The long-standing tradition and weeks of anticipation culminate on assignment night. The event was held in an auditorium with a slot-machine-style wheel with different destinations and aircraft awaiting to be assigned to the new graduates. Mike’s award exceeded his expectations. He was given a very rare and competitive assignment flying Learjets stationed in Germany for 3 years. It was a pleasant surprise to Mike and Katie but required them to move up their wedding date. They were married on August 19, 2007, and 10 days later, they left for Germany. Mike’s new squadron was small and close-knit. Katie and Mike made life-long friends while stationed there. They enjoyed traveling around Europe and figuring out their new life together as a young married couple. The memories still hold a special place in their hearts. Katie recalls, “It was like being on a 3-year honeymoon.”
Following their assignment in Germany in 2010, they returned to JB Lewis McChord in Washington for several years. Mike learned to fly the C-17, and he’s been flying it ever since. Then they spent a couple of years at Travis Air Force Base in northern California. In 2016 their assignment took them to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. While at Maxwell, Mike didn’t do as much flying. Instead, he pursued his second Master’s degree in Military Operational Art and Science. In 2020, he was assigned to Joint Base Charleston.
Mike currently serves as Lieutenant Colonel and the Commander of the 437th Operation Support Squadron as an Instructor Pilot.
Katie and Mike agree that life as an active-duty Air Force pilot has many challenges, but they have zero regrets. “When Mike has to leave for extended periods of time, it’s tough. He could be gone for months at a time,” Katie explains. She is Mike’s biggest supporter and has been by his side throughout his career, and he does not take that for granted. “Katie is amazing. She’s been able to adapt and land a job every place we’ve been. I’m really proud of her”, says Mike. Together they make a great team, and they choose to focus on the military’s positive aspects it brings to their lives. They have been blessed with the assignments given. They love the opportunity to travel and see the world and are forever grateful for the friends they have made along the way.
Katie attended Washington State University and earned a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition. Since she and Mike moved to Germany right after graduation, she completed her internship overseas through the University of Northern Colorado distance dietetic internship program. She felt privileged to spend a lot of time with soldiers returning from war at the major U.S. Army hospital, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Navigating the internship and classes from Germany was not always ideal. Due to the time change, she attended online lectures from 1:00-3:00 am while working in the hospital from 7:30 am-4:30 pm. Upon completing the internship, she flew to Texas to take her Board Exams. Katie continued her education, earning her Master’s degree in Nutrition through Central Michigan University. She has spent the majority of her career in gerontological nutrition. She has been working in long-term care for ten years and currently works for National Healthcare Corporation (NHC). She recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with them and said, “I’m the happiest here of all the places I’ve worked.” The flexibility at NHC allows her to work full-time and be an involved mom with the kids’ activities.
Katie and Mike have two children. The oldest, Conner, is an 8-year-old boy who is strong-willed, loving, active, super athletic, and compassionate. Last year, his teacher awarded him “The Most Inquisitive and Enthusiastic” in his class. Mike, a current recreational hockey player, is the coach of Connor’s 8U hockey team at the Carolina Ice Palace.
Father and son love the camaraderie and the time spent together playing a sport they love. They can be found on the links when they are not on the ice. Mike introduced Connor to golf at the young age of 5. He already has the stamina to play a full round. In the spring, Connor is considering playing baseball and soccer.
Kennedy is the 4-year-old spitfire of the family. She’s adorable and wild, wrapped into one. She loves to swim, help mom and dad cook, and do crafts. Kennedy is smart and enjoys her pre-kindergarten class. She will soon be enrolling in a learn-to-ice-skate class to keep up with her big brother on the ice.
Otto is the 12-year-old family dog, a Lhasa Apso. He is lucky to be alive after surviving a few near-death experiences, including getting stung by a bee and swallowing a fishing hook.
The Zinkgraf family has lived in the Creekside subdivision of Carolina Bay for 2.5 years. Once they saw the neighborhood, they knew it was the place for them. They love getting outside and always seeing how many people are outside biking, walking, and playing. They seldom miss a Food Truck Friday and love movies in the park. They admit Halloween in the community is the best they’ve ever seen! They are a tight-knit family that loves going to the beach, hanging out with friends at local breweries, and going for hikes and bike rides on the Greenway.
Mike and Katie purchased a local pizzeria in Spokane, WA, about 6 years ago and recently bought a lake house there as well. Someday they wish to go back and run the day-to-day operations of the pizzeria.
Mike may also pursue a life as an airline pilot when he retires from the military. Until then, they will enjoy taking annual trips back to their hometown to visit family and friends and eat lots of pizza! At this point, their future is undecided. They love Charleston and are thankful it will be home for at least 2 more years. Moving from place to place is all they have known. Katie says, “No place is forever.” But she adds, “This is the best neighborhood we have ever lived in, and it will be very hard to leave. We live in the greatest country in the world, and we try to never take that for granted. South Carolina is very military-friendly, and we appreciate that very much.” Wherever their next assignment takes them, this tight-knit foursome will keep a piece of Charleston forever in their hearts!