MILTON — Lt. j.g. Payden Roberts of Jay, formerly of Milton, earned his Wings of Gold onboard Naval Air Station Whiting Field in a ceremony on April 27.
Roberts, who said both towns hold a special place in his heart, is deeply rooted in the areas surrounding NAS Whiting Field. Roberts and his family lived in Milton for most of his childhood, where he attended the Pensacola Christian Academy, Bagdad Elementary School and Avalon Middle School. After sixth grade, they moved north to the small town of Jay, where Roberts graduated from Jay High School.
"Technically, I could call Milton my hometown," Roberts said. "But I most often say Jay. It's where my immediate family still lives and where I would say I really 'grew up' the most. Plus, it's almost a conversation piece. Since no one knows where it is, I get to tell them about it."
Roberts lived the classic, small-town-America childhood of close-knit friendships, town pride, and baseball.
"I do love where I grew up and where I'm from," he said. "The relationships are really what attach me to this place. Even after moving, I am still able to keep in touch with my friends from Milton and Pace, mostly through baseball."
But living just west of the busiest airspace in the world is a severe departure from classic small-town America. Roberts says there is no wonder where the idea to fly for the Navy originated. Roberts hardly went a day without thinking about aviation, between the Blue Angels ripping through the sky, numerous visits to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, a week at Starbase Atlantis onboard NAS Whiting Field in fifth grade, and his family home being located directly under the T6-B Texan II course-rules for formation flights.
"I have been watching the orange and white planes and helicopters fly over my head my entire life," Roberts said. "It's always been my dream."
Yet, there was an even stronger contributor to Roberts' decision.
"Just as much or more influence came from my family's prior service," he said.
Nine members of Roberts' immediate and extended family are serving or have served the nation through military service, in the ranks of the Navy, Marine Corp, Air Force, Army and Coast Guard. With representation in all military branches, Roberts could have claimed family tradition in any one. But he was especially drawn to the Navy, following the steps of his grandfather, retired Lt. Cmdr. Joel Roberts Sr.
"The person who really sparked my interest in all of this, and the Navy in general, was my grandfather on my father's side," Roberts said. "He served 30 years in the Navy, enlisting and then earning his commission through Officer Candidate School."
Robert's grandfather passed away when Roberts was eleven, but his family had a surprise for him after the winging ceremony.
"I remember always asking him to show me his sword, which I thought was so cool. Unbeknownst to me, my father actually found my grandfather's 57-year-old sword and cleaned it up," Roberts said.
He was then presented the sword as a gift, following a Navy tradition.
"It was a pretty emotional moment, as both family and tradition are very important to me."
Roberts was pinned at the ceremony by his father, Joel Roberts Jr., and was joined on stage by his mother, Laurie Roberts, sister, Jescie Roberts, girlfriend, Emily Dobson, and his mother's father, Army veteran Harvey Beard.
Like a number of other local natives who recently earned their wings at NAS Whiting Field, Roberts did not immediately pursue a career in the military through the Naval Academy or the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Unable to pursue another passion - baseball, Roberts spent his freshman year at the University of West Florida studying business administration.
"It pained me knowing that I definitely had the skill to play baseball at the collegiate level," Roberts said. "I didn't really know how college baseball 'worked' at the time, but by the time I knew what was going on as far as recruiting and trying out, the time had already passed to go to some of those smaller colleges I was most interested in."
But he kept practicing, dragging friends out to the Jay baseball field throughout the summer after freshman year in an effort to keep his skills sharp. After months of hard work, he was offered a baseball scholarship at Emmanuel College in the small town of Franklin Springs, Georgia.
Only after earning a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 2015 did he reach out to a local Navy recruiter.
Roberts ended up working with the same recruiter as another recent NAS Whiting Field winger, Lt. j.g. Tyler Mayor of Navarre, Florida. Since recruitment, Roberts and Mayor have followed very similar paths. Both were at Officer Candidate School at the same time, both flew the T6-B in Training Squadron Twenty-Seven (VT-27) in Corpus Christi, Texas, and both earned their Wings of Gold flying the TH-57 Sea Ranger out of Helicopter Training Squadron Eight (HT-8) within two weeks of each other.
"Going through flight school proved to be mentally, physically, and spiritually challenging," Roberts said. "As with anything, I'd have good days, and days that may not have been so good. Through this, I feel like I really started to realize what mattered most to me in my life - things such as my faith and my family, things that I really clung to and supported me and helped me push through and strive to be the best that I could be."