By Staff Sgt. Justin Smith | 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne)
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Capt. Aaron Conner, chaplain, with 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, walked out of Provider Chapel July 18, 2021, after leading a routine Sunday church service and was surprised by friends and family with his father’s restored 1968 Pontiac Firebird.
Like most fathers, Sgt. Maj. Bradly D. Conner desired to strengthen the bond with his son by embarking on a project together. That project was the restoration of his Firebird, which he planned to eventually give to Aaron. That dream was tragically cut short when Conner was killed in action in May 2007.
Conner was the company sergeant major for C Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), at Fort Lewis, Washington. He was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom when he was fatally wounded by an IED that detonated near his vehicle during a combat patrol outside Al-Hillah, Iraq.
When he decided on the project, he knew he wanted a classic Firebird. Stationed at Fort Carson with 10th SFG(A) in 2001, he found a fixer-upper for sale in Denver. His widow, Cyndi Thomas, recalls the day he picked it up.
“The whole family drove to Denver, got the car, and drove it in not great working condition back to Colorado Springs,” said Thomas. “It overheated every few miles, and we’d have to stop so he could put water in the radiator, so it took us hours.”
Over the next several years, Conner would wrench away on the car in his garage with Aaron while his daughters Katie and Rachel enthusiastically looked on. Described by those who knew him as a devoted father, Conner enjoyed the company of his children as he progressed on the Firebird.
After Conner was killed in 2007, work on the car ceased but wasn’t forgotten.
“After Brad was killed, we moved to Mobile, Alabama, to be near my parents where they could help me with the three children,” said Thomas. “The car sat in the garage for 14 years while we lived there until Harry Zimmerman got in touch with us several years ago.”
Zimmerman was Conner’s company medical sergeant on the 2007 Iraq deployment and frequently thought about the unfinished Firebird and considered it his responsibility to finish the project.
“Sgt. Maj. Conner made the ultimate sacrifice, and he can’t be with his family anymore,” said Zimmerman. “I made it out of there alive. I figure I owe it to him and owe it to the family to make sure this gets done.”
After thinking about it for years, he decided it was time to put those thoughts into action and reached out to Thomas. She also thought frequently about the car sitting in her garage and was excited at the prospect of seeing it completed and handed down.
Zimmerman spent the next few years putting out feelers to various businesses and fundraising.
“The biggest challenge was finding the help getting the mechanical portion of it done,” said Zimmerman. “It’s pretty complex, and it’s a classic car on top of it.”
Zimmerman, who had retired at that point, wanted to ensure those involved in working on the vehicle would understand through firsthand experience the importance of the project. One example of the greater community coming together was one of Zimmerman’s bosses, who together with his son were both former Soldiers in Special Forces groups, contributing to the restoration.
After receiving the necessary funds and professional know-how, it was time to move forward.
Zimmerman travelled from Washington to Alabama, loaded the vehicle onto a trailer and drove back. The various professionals pooled their talents to finish where Conner left off, completing the job in less than a year.
Conner had done a lot of the heavy lifting on the project. The restoration included tasks such as making an electrical conversion between the 68 Firebird and 02 Camaro motor, new suspension, new tires and complete tune-up, among other things.
Throughout the entirety of the project, everyone involved successfully kept it a secret from Aaron.
“I walked to the door of the (chapel), I look out and see this blue Firebird there in front of it and all these people around it,” said Aaron. “I said, wow, that looks just like my dad’s car.”
When he walked out the chapel doors flanked by his mother and sister who were there under the cover of a family visit, Zimmerman revved the restored Camaro engine to smiles and applause from those present.
Once the initial surprise wore off, it was a reunion and celebration between friends and family brought together for the singular purpose of honoring a father’s legacy.
Afterward, Zimmerman started showing off the Firebird to Aaron, detailing what was done and demonstrating how it all worked. They then capped off the event with a short drive around post.
Aaron said he thought about how his father would react to seeing his project come to fruition with the fully restored car. Aaron also said that his father was never one to push his hobbies onto his family.
“While my dad gave me the freedom to pursue my own passions, I am confident that he would be swelling with pride knowing that his passion is shared and being driven by his son.”