Since he was a small child, United States Air Force Major Dennie French dreamed of being in the military, specifically a pilot. When he was a junior in high school, he went to enlist in the U.S. Army with the intent of flying Apache helicopters.
“I took all the tests, and everything was great,” French said. “Then I went for my medical, and they determined I was color blind. I couldn’t do anything.”
Disappointed, French opted not to join the Army and instead went to the University of Louisville, earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2001.
Moved to serve by Sept. 11 attacks
When the Sept. 11 attacks happened later that year, he knew it was time to find a way to serve his country. So, in 2003, French went to Air Force officer’s training school and was assigned to the 31st Combat Communications Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base.
Since then, French has deployed to Al Udeid, Al Asad, Kuwait, Bagram and other locations, earning several commendation medals. Those honors include a Bronze Star awarded by the U.S. Army for work performed while serving in undisclosed locations on a Special Operations Team with the Joint Task Force.
French, who currently serves as director of operations for the 205th Engineering Installation Squadron, was recognized for his accomplishments when he was named Patriot of the Game during the OU vs. TCU game last month. He was nominated by his wife, J, who says he puts serving his country, community and family above himself 100% of the time. His wife and his children joined him on the field for the recognition.
"I had a lot of respect for the university for making that such a big deal. I always thought it would be so cool to be on the field, to take the kids and mama down there, because she would flip out. I thought that would never happen because there are tons of people who are way more deserving than I ever thought I was. I thought, you know, that will never be us.”
A humbling experience
“I was so humbled. I did not feel like that was an honor I deserved or I earned. I look at some of the WWII vets or these guys that are retired and have done so much. How am I deserving?” he said. “Then I started thinking how cool is it for my wife, my kids, my family to be honored for all of the sacrifices they’ve made. Because, you know, really, I’m just doing my job. They do without their dad, they do without their husband, they do without their best friend or their partner for days, weeks or months at a time. I was happy for them to be honored more so than I was about myself.”
French said he was familiar with Patriot of the Game because he and his wife frequently attend OU football games. A diehard Louisville Cardinals fan who became an OU fan by marriage, French always watched the presentation wishing his own alma mater did something like Patriot of the Game.
“I thought it was so cool that OU did that. I had a lot of respect for the university for making that such a big deal,” he said. “I always thought it would be so cool to be on the field, to take the kids and mama down there, because she would flip out. I thought that would never happen because there are tons of people who are way more deserving than I ever thought I was. I thought, you know, that will never be us.”
Ironically, he and his family were on the way to Kentucky to go to a Louisville game when he found out he’d been selected for Patriot of the Game.
“My wife got a phone call while we’re in the car,” he said. “She had tears in her eyes and tells us what’s going on. I was like, ‘Shut up!’”
French said that was when he realized all the questions his wife had been asking in the weeks prior were for the nomination form, not his obituary.
“I knew she was up to something. She told me it was important to have all of this information together in case anything ever happened to me,” he said. “I knew to just leave it alone and let her do her thing.”
Living a life of service
For French, serving goes beyond what he’s done for the military. He volunteers for the PTA and PTO at his children’s schools, serves at church and bakes the family birthday cakes. He often sends his wife love notes and surprise gifts, and when he was deployed and couldn’t make it to the Daddy Daughter Dance, he not only sent a friend to the dance in his place but also provided a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself so his girls could still dance with their dad.
“I’ve always felt compelled to serve. I don’t know if it was the way I was brought up or what. I did a lot of work on a farm in Kentucky growing up, my grandpa’s farm, and we just worked all the time,” he said. “We were always helping other people out. That’s probably where I got it, from my grandpa and my dad. I think working out there, just helping each other out, it went from there to high school football, and I’ve just always felt compelled to serve. It makes me feel good.”
"I asked Ryan (Rasnick) with Sooner Sports what I was supposed to do when we’re down there, and he said you can pump up the crowd, you can wave, whatever you want. But the one thing is, enjoy it. Embrace it, enjoy it. So, I get out there, and it’s happening and what do I do? I start crying. Tears well up, and I was so overwhelmed by the whole experience. It blew me away."
In addition to the Bronze Star, an award he never expected to receive, and his other military accomplishments, French takes great pride in working with and leading others, especially those who are enlisted.
“When I work with our teams and the enlisted guys ask me if I’m prior enlisted, to me that’s a huge compliment. To me, what that says is, you have a level head, you understand things, you’re personable,” he said. “I have the greatest and utmost respect for our enlisted force. The fact that I was never enlisted, but they come and ask me if I was prior enlisted, that means a lot to me. I take that as a huge compliment.”
French plans to retire in 22 months. Since starting out, he’s experienced about every phase possible in his career, and it’s culminated to where he is now.
“I’m sitting in this position where I take all of my past experiences and get to help lead, direct and guide the squadron in the right direction,” he said. “I get to give back a little bit. I get to take all of the lessons I’ve learned and share them.”
French said he and his family are grateful for the Patriot of the Game experience and the special attention they were given the entire weekend.
“We’ve always been on the crowd side where we’re all yelling and clapping. I asked Ryan (Rasnick) with Sooner Sports what I was supposed to do when we’re down there, and he said you can pump up the crowd, you can wave, whatever you want. But the one thing is, enjoy it. Embrace it, enjoy it,” he said. “So, I get out there, and it’s happening and what do I do? I start crying. Tears well up, and I was so overwhelmed by the whole experience. It blew me away.
“Seeing the kids and their reactions, seeing the big smiles, it was awesome. It was so cool," he added. "From the moment that we knew what was going on, I felt so special. It was well thought out, it was very easy for us to get around, we all felt so special. I felt like we were all part of the family.”
Nominate your own patriot
Presented by the OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies, Patriot of the Game honors military service members at home football games, as well as various men’s and women’s basketball games, baseball games and softball games.
Patriot of the Game is just one of many ways the college serves military families. PACS is a leader in military education with more than 55 years of experience supporting the educational needs of service members worldwide. PACS brings the excellence of OU degrees and programs to students, wherever they may be. Visit our website for more information on our degrees and our offerings for service members.
Do you know someone who deserves to be Patriot of the Game? To nominate a service member, visit patriot.pacs.ou.edu and tell us why.