Brett's History – For My Grandchildren
I was lucky to be born an Air Force brat into a loving, solidly conservative family. My Dad flew B-17's in WW II and stayed in the service after the war was over; he retired as a colonel after 30 years of service. Mom was a traditional housewife and, at the end of her life, had the pleasure of knowing that she raised a fine physician (my brother, Jon) and an Air Force officer.
Our family was stationed largely in the west and it was in California that my brother, and I discovered athletics. By the time I was in high school, I was a back-stroker on the swimming team of the 4,000-student Tucson High and set schoolboy records in Arizona. It was in Arizona, at Davis Monthan AFB, that I really developed an interest in airplanes; we'd crawl under the fence and evade the Air Police, as they were called then, in order to explore and play in the thousands of WW II aircraft stored in “The Boneyard.” But Dad was transferred to Nebraska at the end of my sophomore year and the ‘new place,' Bellevue High School, didn't even have a swimming pool much less a swim team! Plus, I had to leave in Tucson my best friend and future classmate, John Graves, and his two brothers. Moreover, before we arrived I was convinced I would never fit in because I thought I'd look pretty dumb in bib overalls (don't all Nebraskans wear them?). Bellevue was a much smaller school and good things tend to happen to ‘big fish in small ponds.' I lettered in football; placed third in the state meet in wrestling (155 lbs); and ran in the state track meet finals (440 yd dash). Life was as idyllic as it could be - - there were virtually no racial tensions or drug problems in the little town on the outskirts of Omaha, and I ‘went steady' with the head cheerleader - - later to become Miss Colorado! Life was sweet!
I was pretty naïve - - or stupid; take your choice. I had become impressed by and learned to appreciate the AF people I met through my parents; they were hard-working, honest, fun-loving people, and their love of country rubbed off on me. I just liked being around them! So, I decided to attend the ‘new' Air Force Academy on graduation from HS …. and didn't apply to any other college or university! God smiled on my lack of foresight and President Eisenhower bestowed one of his Academy appointments on me in 1960. John Graves called me and said, “Guess what? I got an appointment to USAFA!” And we both squealed like little girls when I told him we'd be classmates. We met in Denver a couple of days before our June 27, 1960 reporting date and agreed to become roommates for four years. Upon arriving at the cadet area in our bus, we were swallowed by the din of yelling upperclassmen and I didn't see John again for six months!
Fairly early in our Doolie Summer our entire class of 772 Academy entrants sat in one of the cavernous lecture halls and someone - - the Asst Commandant? - - said, “It's time for you to meet your classmates; would every former high school student body president please stand?” I thought as I started to rise, “Well, they're going to recognize ME!!” And it seemed like a fourth of the class stood!! I recall being mightily impressed. Then the colonel said, “Will all the National Merit Scholars please stand?” Another fourth of the room stood. “Will all the three-sport lettermen stand?” Two hundred young men stood. The entire class was standing after a couple of more impressive categories were announced. It hit me then: I'm going to be classmates with some seriously talented men!!
Our four years at the Academy were completely memorable in most respects. I initially roomed with Rich Bedarf and, after I did some hard work tutoring Rich, he ranked number ONE in the class after our first semester! I covered myself with no glory at all in academic endeavors; a failed Physics course saw me repeat the class during the summer and resulted in no vacation. It was almost as if I had the attitude, “I dare you to teach me anything.” I truly hated the academic environment and did the bare minimum to ‘get by.' Of the list of things I regret in Life, not taking full advantage of the Academy's superb academic curricula ranks near the top of the list. I was also humbled by some of my REALLY SMART classmates. But I also relied on my instinct that the school wasn't there only to turn out future professors. Surely, learning some leadership skills had to fit into the scheme of things? Kurt Pauer and I roomed together, and his sense of humor and intelligence carried my through some tough times with the Dean of Faculty!
I wrestled at USAFA also but had the good (bad?) fortune to have at ‘my' weight class one of the singularly most gifted athletes ever to attend a service academy, Terry Isaacson. “Ike” placed 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the NCAA wrestling tournaments during his USAFA wrestling career. I'm sure his success was because I had to wrestle him every week - - and never whipped him one time! Terry couldn't focus singularly on wrestling because he was also USAFA's quarterback and captain of the golf team! What a stud! I also entered the Cadet Wing Boxing Tournament as a Doolie and was lucky enough to win the 155 lb championship. For, oh, 20 minutes I could do no wrong with the upperclassmen in our squadron! I was also the only guy in our class of 1964 to make a perfect score on the semiannual Physical Fitness Test. As I gaze upon my ever-expanding waistline as a retiree I wonder, “What the hell happened?!” Our four years together in 19th squadron leave me with a trunk-full of memories; I was so fortunate to be able to share the experience with some truly gifted men.
Pilot training at Craig AFB, near Selma, AL was followed by assignment to B-52's at Homestead AFB, FL - - right at the entrance to the Florida Keys. Flying, scuba diving on the reefs, and enjoying the social scene in southern Florida (seven stewardess schools ringed the Miami airport!) made a couple of years fly by quickly! In mid-'67 I got an assignment as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) to Southeast Asia and left the idyllic Miami life far behind.
On the first day of “FAC School” at Hurlburt Field, FL, I got reacquainted with a highly respected classmate, Joe Redden, who had just left Nashville and C-130's to become a FAC, also. Joe and I teamed up and followed one another to various schools and classes as we learned the skills needed by a Forward Air Controller. We both ended up at NKP in Thailand, roomed together and flew many night missions together in our little O-2 over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and North Viet Nam. There were nights when the ground fire aimed at us was truly terrifying. I know no braver man than Joe Redden. As we were both bachelors, Joe and I visited Bangkok every month and enjoyed the company of two young American ladies who worked in the city. The museums there were lovely. My memories of that year in Thailand and Danang are happy ones for many reasons. I enjoyed the responsibilities of a FAC, and I got to hang out with and become fast friends with one of the most gifted men I've known - - my classmate, Joe Redden.
An assignment to Barksdale AFB as a B-52 aircraft commander followed the FAC tour. A six-month Arc Light tour was part of the ‘deal' as a B-52 guy, so I returned to SEA in heavies for another visit to that part of the world. On returning, I met my future wife, Terri, who was visiting her folks. She was pretty; an AF brat also; a California school teacher; and I was quickly smitten. We were married in 1972 and, as I write this, we'll celebrate 39 years of marriage this year. If I've enjoyed any success as an officer, Terri has been largely responsible - - she's a lot smarter than I and tougher, too! I had been selected to be the aide de camp for Lt Gen Russ Dougherty, the 2AF commander, and served in that job for a year. He was promoted to four stars after the year and confirmed by the Senate as the Chief of Staff, SHAPE, Belgium; General Dougherty asked Terri and me to accompany him and his family to Belgium. As a young captain I hated to stop flying but serving as his aide for three years from '71 to '74 shaped my life in ways I'm just coming to recognize. It was like working for my father - - except my father would've fired me several times a week for my boneheaded performances! I was able to watch and learn from a patient, caring, highly intelligent, charismatic leader - - from a close distance. And I got to take in the perspectives and skills of a very senior officer. Every other AF four-star had an aide or two in the grades from major to colonel. I was a captain but it didn't seem to bother my boss!
The SHAPE tour led to a three-year assignment to F-111D's at Cannon AFB. I was a young major and a flight commander in the Fireball Squadron - - the 522TFS. Two of our babies were born in the base hospital and I was happy as a pig in slop. Then, a two-star called me from out of the blue one day and said, “Are you ready to come back to SAC?” I said, “No, Sir!! - - we're very happy here in TAC and in F-111's!” Didn't do any good; after a short stint at the Armed Forces Staff College (and a third baby), we found ourselves at SAC Headquarters near Bellevue, Nebraska in 1978. I guess I accommodated to the drudgery of life as a junior staff officer in SAC Plans; I was a decent writer and could stumble through a briefing with some practice. In 1980 my boss told me I was going to Plattsburgh AFB, NY as an FB-111 squadron commander.
Our family was surprised at how cold minus 34 degrees was! Plattsburgh was a wonderful, old base that dated from Revolutionary times. Commanding a small squadron of flyers in a sophisticated fighter-bomber was compellingly fun. Though I'd never flown the airplane, it was close enough to the TAC F-111 that the transition wasn't too tough. But the mission was completely different. The two years of command “up north” left me with an even greater appreciation for service people who serve under tough conditions. In a squadron you develop as strong a bond, as deep a concern with those who serve beside you as you will ever have with anyone outside your family. And you discover your life is bigger and more satisfying the more that it is part of something beyond your self interest.
No sooner did I figure out the dynamics, hard work (and luck!) needed to command a squadron, it was time to move….rats! So, two years under my belt found us trudging back to Omaha in 1982 and a job in SAC Plans again. One day our two-star DCS called me to his office and said I was to interview for the job as executive officer (exec) to the CINCSAC - - and did I have any personal reason for not performing those duties if I was selected? Arrrggghhhh!! The CINCSAC was General Bennie Davis, a 1950 West Pointer with a stern visage and a no-nonsense approach to his command and his responsibilities. He had played tackle on West Point's fabled post-WW II football teams blocking for Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard. He was a rough and tough as they came. More personally, he had shredded his current exec, a Zoomie and three-times-early- promoted colonel who was about four times as smart as I on my best day. This colonel lived in fear of his boss and just couldn't do anything to please The Man. You betcha, ….. I sure want THAT job!
So, I dragged myself to the interview with seven or eight other young colonels. And prayed that I could keep my head down below the surface so he couldn't see me drown. Swell - - he selected ME!! Double ARRRGGGHHHH!! To this day I don't know why but General Davis seemed to like me. In all candor, I think he appreciated my willingness to make a decision. May not always be the right one but I didn't and don't mind stepping up and calling ‘it' as I see it. He didn't ask often but when he did, I gave candid counsel. 1983-1984 saw me working 14-15 hour days but the opportunity to watch another four-star from a very close distance, and learn - - or try to learn - - the intricacies of the USAF's biggest command was precious.
Selection for National War College (NWC) found me spending a year with another group of men and women who really had their stuff together. Many of those classmates are still wonderful friends and I cherish the memories of our time together at Ft. McNair. Incredibly, we went from NWC directly to command a bomb wing at Griffiss AFB in western New York. I was apprehensive as I didn't want to disappoint my family or friends, and I sure didn't want to let down those who gave me such an opportunity. At Griffiss, our DO was my Academy classmate, Bruce Smith. I discovered yet another talented guy with whom I'd shared our Class of '64 experiences. The wing fairly hummed; several very talented officers and NCO's saw to it that we didn't get in trouble during the 18 months. Griffiss had its challenges because the bomb wing hosted several large “tenant” units, and their problems were our problems. Another terrific learning experience and one I will always cherish. We found that 150 inches of snow every winter also made for a lot of “fun” operating very big airplanes (KC-135 tankers and B-52 bombers). And, as ever, Terri was a marvel while simultaneously raising three kids and making fast friends in the local civilian community and the distaff side on-base.
Didn't get it right the first time, so 1987 saw us move to Barksdale AFB. LA and command of the 2nd Bomb Wing - - and host to the Mighty 8AF Hq as one of the base's tenant units. One day, General Jack Chain, the CINCSAC, visited and spent much of the day with the 8AF commander. A subsequently confirmed design flaw caused a massive fire aboard one of our KC-10s which had just completed an afternoon mission. One man, Sgt Joey Burgio, died of smoke inhalation and the aircraft burned to the ground with the four-star and three-star watching the whole thing. This kind of event usually isn't a good omen for the commander of the unit to which the aircraft belongs. Especially in SAC. I “handled” the local media pretty well and we muddled through the experience while keeping the operation on an even keel. Once again, some really talented people came together to perform incredibly under tough circumstances.
There were about 6000 colonels in the Air Force when I was selected, along with 55 other men and women, for promotion to brigadier general in 1987. With those kind of odds, I attribute selection for flag rank to incredible luck and little else! I could've picked 150 others who were better qualified than most on that list. Guess who else was on that promotion list? Joe Redden. Joe became the TAC Inspector General (IG) and I became the SAC IG; we talked almost every day. USAFA classmates, Steve Croker, Al Rogers and Bob Dempsey were all flag officers at Offutt while we were there in 1988.
A bolt-out-of-the-blue came in the form of an assignment to AF Legislative Liaison (SAF/LL) in the Pentagon. Even a careless reader will recognize that I hadn't served a single tour in the Puzzle Palace. A first tour as a brigadier general isn't an ideal way to learn “the ways” of HQ USAF. Or Capitol Hill. The 1989-'91 jobs as deputy and then Director of SAF/LL were very tough years. The Cold War was over, and force structure was being cut as fast as the responsible parties could manage it. Those cuts affected certain Senators and Representatives in profound ways (manpower and aircraft reductions in their districts and states, plus base closures). I've had the ‘pleasure' of being YELLED AT by some very senior folks in our government. At times, I was pretty sure I'd been reincarnated as a rented mule.
Fortune smiled and sent me to Barksdale as the Vice Commander of the Mighty Eighth Air Force for a year and, then to Beale AFB as the commander of Second Air Force. The latter was an ‘experiment' to see if there was any synergy to putting U-2, AWACS, Joint Stars, UAV's and other “intelligence assets” into the same organization. There was but the turbulence in down-sizing the Air Force let the opportunity slip by. We moved back to Washington so I could report to the Central Imagery Office - - part of the vast intelligence community. Almost weekly I said, “We can do THAT!!??” America's national technical abilities are simple awesome. And the professional intelligence people we have are a national treasure. I'll just leave it at that.
A short stint in 1995 as the USAF Deputy Inspector General was followed by an assignment to Langley AFB to relieve another superb USAFA classmate, Thad Wolfe, as the vice commander of Air Combat Command. Just before we retired in 1998, I reported to Secretary William Cohen and he interviewed me as the AF nominee to command Strategic Command. I guess I screwed up the interview because the SECDEF picked the navy guy and he got his fourth star!! The reward, though, was to retire to Austin, Texas and become a world-class expert at eating barbeque and Tex-Mex food!
I've carefully avoided discussing our kids. Each of them went to four different high schools because I kept moving to different assignments . They never complained or whined. Our eldest daughter, Jennings, graduated from Baylor. Our son, Mason, graduated as a Distinguished Graduate (unlike his old man) from USAFA's class of 1998. Our youngest daughter, Lindsey, graduated from TCU. I've been a part of and commanded many award-winning outfits through 34 years of active duty. Each of Terri's and my children makes those military accolades pale by comparison, and I'm prouder of them than any of the trophies and honors that came to the units of which I was a part. They are great citizens and they love their country. And they are fun to be around! Terri gets all the credit.
In a bookstore, recently I came across a 1940 paperback entitled, New Soldier's Handbook - - a kind of Contrails for Army inductees. The first lines should resonate with most of us:
“You are now a member of the Army of the United States. That Army is made up of free citizens chosen from a free people. We will defend our right to live in our own American way and continue to enjoy the benefits and privileges which are granted to the citizens of no other nation.”
What we have achieved in this country is very much worth defending, in my judgment. The thought that every American doesn't share that thought really saddens me. Our prosperity, our safety, cannot be protected or enhanced by retiring from a troubled world, or building imaginary walls to the progress of history. It was our founding fathers' belief that America and the world would be far better and more secure if the natural and inalienable rights of life and liberty, the principles of free people and free markets, were possessed by all humanity. And we have sacrificed greatly to secure those rights for people we never knew in places we had never heard of before. Americans have done so in defense of our interests as well as our ideals, but we have done so. Very few other nations can make that claim. I'm terribly proud to have served in the forces which guard our country and our way of life. I would change very little had I the chance to do it all again.
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