Live Like Reid

By Joanne Norell

This Veteran’s Day has taken on a different kind of significance for the University of Notre Dame women’s golf program.

It’s a little more personal for the Irish this year. What they’re playing for is a little more well-defined. Not just for their Notre Dame family. For their Ohana.

As participants in the Folds of Honor Military Tribute Program, the Irish are dedicating this season in honor of U.S. Air Force Captain Reid Nishizuka, a 2005 Notre Dame graduate who died in service to his country on April 27, 2013. Nishizuka, a native of Kailua, Hawaii, was a recipient of 10 Air Medals, two Air Force Commendation Medals, two Air Force Achievement Medals and a Bronze Star for Heroism. He and three other airmen died when their plane crashed near Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

This season, senior Mia Ayer will carry a golf bag in Nishizuka’s honor.

Though none of the current members of the Irish women’s golf team knew Nishizuka, they recently had the honor of meeting his father and stepmother, Ricky and Norene Nishizuka. What blossomed was not only a friendship, but the beginnings of a new family — informed by the culture that was so important to Reid in his lifetime.

“‘Ohana’ means family,” Ricky said. “You don’t have to be related to be part of your Ohana. It’s in the heart. Nobody gets left behind.”

Folds of Honor

Since 2007, the Folds of Honor Foundation has been dedicated to providing educational scholarships to families of fallen military members. Founded  by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Dan Rooney, the organization took shape after Rooney witnessed several passengers disembark a plane carrying the remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin before his casket was deboarded. In that moment, Rooney vowed to pay tribute to American service members and their families while working to honor the sacrifices of those fighting in the armed forces.

One of the initiatives of the organization is the Folds of Honor Military Tribute Program, which provides the opportunity for collegiate golf teams to honor a fallen or severely wounded American soldier. Program participants select a student-athlete to carry a golf bag displaying the name, rank and branch of service of the soldier being honored that season.

According to Ayer, the program gained traction among collegiate golf teams when former Texas State coach Lisa Strom initiated a movement to get the sport involved. That’s how Irish head coach Susan Holt learned of Folds of Honor, and how Ayer ended up with Capt. Nishizuka’s golf bag.

“Words cannot describe how much it means to me to have his name on her golf bag,” Ricky said. “She’s such a wonderful person and she has a lot of traits that Reid had.”

“In learning about Captain Nishizuka’s story, it became apparent he was a very kind and happy person who had a fun personality and enjoyed the company of others,” Holt said. “That is Mia in a nutshell. She has the type of personality that lights up a room when she walks in. She is the perfect person to honor Reid and to share his story.”

Throughout the season, the Notre Dame women’s golf team will also raise funds with the proceeds benefiting the Folds of Honor and its scholarship and assistance programs.

“Words cannot describe how much it means to me to have his name on her golf bag. (Mia's) such a wonderful person and she has a lot of traits that Reid had.”

‘Choose Kind’

Before he was an Air Force officer, Reid Nishizuka was a student of aerospace engineering; a cadet in Notre Dame’s Air Force ROTC outpost; an active member of the Hawaii Club; and a resident of Alumni Hall. He found his way to Notre Dame from Kailua, on the island of Oahu, at the urging of his father.

He just loved the school because I loved the school,” Ricky said. “Like father, like son.”

After graduating in 2005, Nishizuka underwent his Air Force pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi and Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in Texas. He got his start on EC-130s at bases in Arizona and California, but made the switch to the MC-12 Liberty due to need before being deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

What endeared Nishizuka to those around him, beyond his evident intellect and patriotism, was his unfailing positivity. Ask anyone who knew him, and the common thread is his kindness.

“He has always been such a wonderful, caring person,” U.S. Air Force Captain Mark Jarotkiewicz (’04) wrote to Notre Dame Magazine in 2013. “He carried with him the greatest personality of happiness that I’ve ever known.”

Fellow aerospace engineering student Mike Trela (’04) said, “Reid always challenged those around him to do their best in the smallest ways and always brought joy to those around him.”

Indeed, according to Ricky, a dedication to kindness and decency became Reid’s personal guiding mantra.

“His claim to fame was he always said, ‘If you had to choose between being right and being kind, choose kind,’” Ricky recalled.

Nothing could have prepared him for the day when three Air Force officers appeared on his doorstep.

“That’s a vivid (image) that I cannot erase from my mind now.”

Through their loss, the Nishizukas started Live Like Reid, an organization aimed at spreading Reid’s message of kindness and positivity. Proceeds of their children’s book, How To Be A Hero: From A to Z help support the Reid Nishizuka Mentorship Award, given annually to the graduating cadet from Notre Dame’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 225 who most embodies the characteristics displayed by Reid in his lifetime: a cheerful disposition, utmost professionalism and superior mentorship.

“Everybody looked up to him because he (was) trustworthy and loyal,” Ricky said. “He’s a great example for everybody to follow.”

A Special Weekend

Since the women’s golf team announced its involvement with the Folds of Honor Military Tribute Program in September, the program had not had the opportunity to connect with the Nishizukas, now based in Las Vegas. That changed in October when, as part of a campaign to honor military families, Coca-Cola treated Ricky and Norene to a weekend on campus for the USC football game.

“Being on campus, there’s no better feeling than to be around where he used to be,” Ricky said.

First on the agenda was a meet and greet at the golf facility with Ayer and the rest of the Irish golf squad. They traded stories, learning more about each other — about Reid. Among the similarities they uncovered was the talent for the clarinet shared by Ricky, Reid, Ayer and her father, Christopher.

Ricky and Norene presented the team with blue and gold leis made from hollowed nuts with “Capt. Reid Nishizuka” etched on one of the beads. 

“He gave that to every one of us one by one and he would put it over your head and give you a big hug and say thank you,” Ayer said. “That was so touching. I don’t know what I was expecting but his kindness just overwhelmed me. Honestly, it was really great and I made sure to wear it every time I saw him. … (He said to) think about Reid when you play and think about this lei and have a great season.

“For them to be so gracious and forward-thinking and so positive was really inspiring. They really embody the positivity they talk about with Reid.”

“Being on campus, there’s no better feeling than to be around where he used to be."

Next it was onto the Irish football practice, where the Nishizukas met with fellow Hawaiians Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Alohi Gilman and Marist Liufau. The Hawaiian connection was strong and Ricky presented the trio with the same Irish leis. 

“I can still picture them walking up to us and they approached us with utmost respect,” Ricky said. “They called me ‘uncle’ and they called Norene ‘auntie.’”

“Even though we don’t know each other and that was our first time meeting, it’s just a normal thing back home,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “It meant a lot to me that we had the opportunity to meet both of them. It just makes you appreciate we’re not living for free … There are people fighting for our freedom.”

Luck would have it the Irish hockey team opened its season against Air Force on Friday night, and the Nishizukas were honored with the customary military salute. The Air Force connection continued at Saturday’s football game, as the pre-game flyover was performed by pilots of the same aircraft flown by Reid.

“That brought back so many memories,” Ricky said. 

During the game, the Nishizukas and Ayer took part in an on-field recognition for the Folds of Honor Military Tribute program. The presentation included a video featuring Tagovailoa-Amosa explaining the significance of Ohana.

“‘Ohana’ in the Hawaiian culture means family,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “And family means nobody left behind or forgotten.”

As the crowd reacted to the Nishizukas story, Ricky and Norene again felt the sense of expansion of the Ohana.

“Whenever I see my son (in photos or video), it brings back so many memories,” Ricky said, “but to see the crowd respond to our loss and what it means to serve the country, it’s an incredible experience.”

“I knew they were proud of their son, but that loss was there,” Ayer said. “Being on the field … was a powerful experience, but I think in that moment it was just them. It was just them and Reid.”

After the game, Ricky and Norene joined those airmen from the flyover, linking arms to sway in time to the alma mater.

“The Air Force personnel waved us into their group,” Ricky said. “There was no you and I. It was just us.”

At the center of the weekend, though, was the connection forged between Ricky, Norene and Ayer. The Nishizukas vowed to follow Ayer and the women’s golf team’s results throughout the season. Ayer, for her part, has a very tangible reminder of the impact of their weekend together.

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“It’s an honor to hold that bag,” Ayer said. “Every time I walk off the putting green now and I look at that bag, at his name, at the colors, I’m going to think of Ricky and Norene. I’m going to think about this weekend. I’m going to think about Reid and the stories they told me about who Reid was and his positivity.”

The loss of their son is something Ricky and Norene Nishizuka will never fully heal from. But what they have found in the years since Reid’s death, and through their experience with Folds of Honor and Ayer, is that the indelible bonds created in Reid’s memory can help them continue to move forward.

“I would love for that relationship to continue on for the rest of our lives,” Ricky said. “We have a new Ohana today because of this weekend.”


As part of the Folds of Honor Military Tribute Program, the Notre Dame women’s golf program is auctioning an identical golf bag to the one that senior Mia Ayer is using all season to pay tribute to fallen U.S. Air Force Captain, Reid Nishizuka. Proceeds raised from the auction will help provide scholarship assistance to the children of soldiers killed or disabled in service to our country. To bid, visit

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