Retired VAQ-129 flight instructor leaves legacy of tackling challenges

Courtesy photo
Steven Trent takes a selfie of him and his wife, Holli, on Black Peak in the North Cascades. The couple met on a mountain climbing trip six years ago.

Holli Trent met the man who would later become her husband during a climbing trip to the top of Mount Baker.

What she saw in Steven Trent during that outing six years ago would offer only a glimpse of the modest, soft-spoken, inspirational rock she would come to lean on.

“He’s my hero,” Holli Trent said. “I’ve never met anyone as strong as him.”

Steven Trent has spent a career in the Navy, and in life, leaving such lasting impressions.

He came to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in 1990 as a recent U.S. Naval Academy graduate hungry to learn from his veteran peers.

A quarter-century later, he retired as a commander and flight instructor, still demonstrating the same infectious enthusiasm about an extraordinary aviation career, a venerable aircraft and a home base in Oak Harbor that are all dear to him.

Trent retired in February after 27 years in active duty and the reserves. During that time, he racked up more than 5,000 flight hours in the EA-6B Prowler, more than any pilot has logged in that aircraft in U.S. naval history.

The feat only makes the 48-year-old poke fun at himself.

“I guess I’m just an old guy,” he said, laughing.

Such a sheepish response is what Holli has grown to expect from a husband that she calls “a very modest guy” who portrays a “quiet confidence” about him.

“That’s a bonus in a leadership position,” she said. “He’s definitely a commander, not a demander. He knows how to reach people. He treats people with respect and they come through. A lot of people want to be like him.”

It is Steven Trent’s courageous side and positive life outlook despite some difficult circumstances that have perhaps endeared him to his wife the most.

Steven Trent was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December of 2013 and underwent a total gastrectomy to remove his stomach, where doctors believe the cancer was contained.

Although he is able to live a mostly normal, active life and remains a pilot for United Airlines, his condition ended his ability to fly in the Navy, which led to his retirement this winter from VAQ-129’s Special Augmentation Unit (SAU).

As it turned out, the conclusion to his naval career coincided with the Navy retiring the 44-year-old EA-6B Prowler, which has been replaced by the EA-18G Growler.

The last remaining Prowler squadron at NAS Whidbey is VAQ-134. A Prowler Sundown ceremony will be held June 27 during an open house on base to offically retire the Prowlers.

Trent’s last flight in the cockpit of a Prowler was in January of 2014 ­— two days before his surgery at the University of Washington.

He was placed on a medical hold while he recuperated and got healthier before being medically retired last month.

“I can’t complain,” Trent said. “I think it’s gone as well as it could have gone. They caught the cancer before it spread, which is pretty key. The Navy took care of a lot of stuff I didn’t have to worry about like how I was going to pay the bill.”

Initially difficult in adjusting to the change, Trent has learned to cope with life without a stomach. A physical fitness buff, he initially lost about 20 pounds but has gained all but five back so far.

“It’s not as bad as what you would think,” Trent said. “The stomach acts more as a holding tank.

“What I need to do is eat smaller portions, and I just need to eat more often and watch what I eat.”

He said eating more frequently is the tricky part.

“I don’t have the ordinary instinct or hunger pangs that people get,” Trent said, “so it’s real easy for me to forget about eating.”

A prolific mountain climber, he admitted that staying in good physical condition and maintaining a positive mental outlook has made the ordeal go more smoothly.

And mentally, he said he was prepared better than most.

Trent knew he had a genetic predisposition to the type of stomach cancer in which he was diagnosed. He said he’s lost three cousins, an uncle and grandmother to the same type of cancer, and two other relatives took the pre-emptive step to have their stomachs removed because of the likelihood that cancer would strike them.

“I sort of mentally prepared for it because the docs were telling me I had a 66 percent chance of getting this cancer before the age of 55,” Trent said. “It was recommended to me by the docs to do this, but I would have had to give up flying at that point.”

He gambled by not having the pre-emptive surgery but continued with annual biopsies.

Still, it was a risky move, according to his wife, who is a nuclear medicine technologist at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.

“He didn’t want to stop flying jets. That was his No. 1 thing in life since he was a little boy,” she said.

“But by doing the biopsy every year, it was sort of like playing Russian Roulette.”

She said the sort of cancer in her husband’s family is fast spreading, so annual biopsies sometimes aren’t frequent enough.

“Usually anyone in the family, as soon as they were diagnosed, they were gone in six months,” Holli Trent said. “It was really scary.”

Steven Trent said he feels fortunate that all indications are that the cancer was contained to the stomach. He said he was told he can live a healthy life through managing his diet and eating habits.

Two days into his retirement, he said he was already feeling strange about what he called a “sense of finality” in the Navy.

Although he and his wife moved to Stanwood last year, he has called Oak Harbor home and NAS Whidbey his home base since he was stationed there in 1990 and soon got the call name “Smack.”

He’s been affiliated with VAQ-129 since 1996.

“I feel there will be a space missing in my life, a vacuum there of not having the military camaraderie,” Trent said. “I think that’s the thing I’ll miss the most.”

He’ll be missing the Prowler aircraft he grew pretty fond of over the years.

“Yeah, it was part of me. I flew it a lot,” said Trent, who figures he flew about 5,030 flight hours.

“It’s an old aircraft, but it’s well-designed. It can take some damage and still keep coming back. The Growler brings a lot of new capabilities to the fight.”