I don’t make any decisions anymore. I haven’t for several years. I used to make decisions all the time. Very important decisions. In my working life it was all about decisions. Now that I’m retired, I decided not to make any more decisions. Lillian makes all my decisions now.
I like TV. Not network television or the news but Netflix and Amazon Prime. I don’t watch the news anymore. It’s too depressing. There is no good news in the world. All of it is bad. Politics is a blood sport, and the planet is going to hell. I don’t watch or read the news. I don’t want to fill my day with sad hurtful stuff. I’ve never heard a good news story. If you’ve heard one, call me. So far, nobody’s called. I like old movies. My job is to narrow the choices to twenty-five or so, then Lillian tells me what I’m going to watch. Lillian tells me what I’ll have for dinner and what time I’ll eat lunch. Lillian likes to make decisions. She was made for it. She should have been a general. All the prep work is done by others, then she swoops in and decides. My life is beautiful.
It was bittersweet leaving Omaha and the world of the Strategic Air Command. I had made it. I knew I would make it out of the bottom three. I completed a master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma. I was one of the top 5% in my year group to attended Squadron Officers School in residence. In 1984, I was selected as SAC’s Intelligence Officer of the Year. This was a big deal. The Commander in Chief of SAC, Four Star General Bennie L. Davis presided at the ceremony. From then on, my efficiency reports would be endorsed by three-star Generals. This was big stuff. But my only real claim to fame for any of this was that I was a hard worker and did my job well. Working hard at my job, doing it well, and doing it so my bosses didn’t have to do it for me. Remember, I was only in my job because I was granted an academic waiver. I was only in my job because I was good at doing my job. After six years, it was past time to leave Omaha, but where would I go? What did I want to do? I still didn’t know for sure. Soon I’d learn, working hard is only half of it.
Lillian and I have always been a partnership, alliance, and mutual support team. Lillian had her own aspirations as well. Blytheville had proved to me that if it wasn’t good for both of us, it would never be good enough for just one of us. Besides, while money can’t always buy you happiness, it can make your life a little more comfortable. Also, we’d been poor. Not Hillbilly Elegy poor, but poor enough to struggle to pay our bills or put gas in the car. We also now had two children.
War Story 53. Way in the future, we would have our kitchen remodeled. The husband-and-wife team that did the work dropped out of school in the third grade. When they finished our job, they came over for a glass of wine driving their brand-new corvette! Thanks to our remodel! Maybe education was highly overrated. Perhaps both Jennifer and Jason could start working sooner rather than later. Anyway, money or lack thereof was high on the list of worries that kept me up at night.
Life is complicated and so are many of the decisions we are forced to make. Please know, this is a very difficult chapter to write. Not the details but the sentiment. What did I want? What did Lillian want? How could we have our cake and eat it too? The best way to describe this decision is to lay out the world of possible futures. I do this only to show how complex life’s most important decisions truly are. The path I chose closed as many doors as it opened. I was also not in this alone. If it was just me, I might have traveled the world, flying with the Thunderbirds. But it was never just me. These decisions were about our future, the futures of four, not one.
Future #1. The Traditional Air Force Path: Before leaving Omaha, I scheduled an exit interview with the Chief of SAC Intelligence, Brigadier General William Doyle. I asked for this audience as a courtesy. I asked for this meeting to say how thankful I was to have the opportunity to serve in SAC Intelligence. Had I entered that meeting and asked, “what should I do next?” My life, mine and Lillian’s life, could have sailed down a traditional military path. Our next assignment could have been to a major command like Pacific Command in Hickam Hawaii. Or, it might have been a plumb assignment to the Pentagon and the Air Staff in Washington D.C. While this might have been the “right” decision according to the Air Force, it also presented some downsides.
First, most traditional Air Force careers required changes of duty stations every three to four years. This rotation to new assignments was felt to be crucial for providing the depth of experience needed in the upper ranks. For Lillian, this would mean beginning again and again, and yet again. Right before we left Omaha, Lillian had completed her bachelor’s degree. Turns out, the major she was most interested in and the one where she excelled, was mathematics. Now she wanted a career, her own career, and a career not dependent or limited by me.
Second, a traditional Air Force career would have been short-lived. By this time, I now had almost twelve years on active duty. A twenty-year retirement was now just eight years away.
War Story 97. Sometime during our six years in Omaha, I’d met a retired Chief Master Sergeant. At the time, he worked for a defense contractor at over three times his Air Force pay. He drove a brand new — you guessed it, a bright red corvette. His vanity plate proudly displayed, “38 and gone!” He was promoted to the highest enlisted rank in under twenty years and retired two years before he turned 40.
You mean, I was eight years away from potential retirement! Wow, that had an appeal all its own. Even if I stayed for a full thirty-year career, I would only be forty-eight years old. After that, I would still want and most likely would need a second career. Now at this point, you might be asking. Would a traditional Air Force career have put you in a better place for promotions? The short answer is, maybe? I say this in hindsight and with no regrets. As it turned out, I received all my promotions “on time.” With each passing year, my fellow officers proved more than capable, hard-working, intelligent, and more than deserving of advancements in rank. I certainly can’t say I should have been promoted ahead of anyone I’d met or worked with. Such was the group I was proud to be part of. At the top of my game, I was still just happy to hang on. Also, promotions are more for your future potential than solely your past performance. After all, hard work only gets you so far.
Would a more traditional military career have put me on the fast track? Who knows? Many people retire from the military and lament the last promotion they failed to get.
War Story 32. As a young photographer, I witnessed this firsthand. Early on, in Blytheville, I photographed the retirement ceremony of a Technical Sergeant. The presiding officer was the Base Commander. When the Colonel praised the accomplishments of the Sergeant, the retiree quickly responded, “with all these accomplishments, why the hell didn’t I make Master Sergeant?”
I witnessed this resentment again when the Lieutenant General, that’s three stars, in charge of the 8th Air Force made his farewell address to the B-52 alert crews. While I can’t remember too many specifics from his speech, I can say that his sermon was one of bitterness and regret. “When you regret not making your fourth star, you know you swim and dream in shallow pools.”
Early on, I learned it wasn’t the rank, but the challenges and opportunities to make a difference that made a career. Later on, long after retiring from the Air Force, I was seldom asked “what rank were you.” When upon first meeting someone, if their first question was, what was your rank” I knew to seek out the next pool. Nope, a traditional Air Force career was not my first choice.
Future #2. Leave the traditional Air Force behind and work for the acquisition program office and their headquarters whom I had worked with and often fought against on behalf of my command. Why in the world would I do that?! I will have more to say about the exact organization I would join in the next blog but for now, let me explain the choice in more personal terms. Terms that defined the decision and why I chose door number 2. Come on Oprah! Get on with it! After six years in Omaha, working on building and bringing in a new space system with a revolutionary ground processing network had taught me a lot. I witnessed firsthand the inner workings of not only Air Force Intelligence, but the workings of the other Military services as well as the workings of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
War Story 78. One year I was selected to attend the National Junior Intelligence Officer’s Conference in Washington DC. Here the best Captains, Majors, and comparable civilians from all over the government were gathered in DC to be wined and dined. We were given the cooks tour of all the major players and organizations in the Intelligence Community. We traveled to the Pentagon where deep underground, the fate of the world was plotted. We went to Fort Meade and learned about eavesdropping and the importance of discerning your adversary’s intent. We received the Presidential Daily Brief or at least a watered-down version from the same CIA analysts who briefed the President. This was an eye-opening experience. While most of the festivities are now a bit cloudy in my memory, I do remember walking down an underground hallway in the White House to the Situation Room. As we were shuttled along, I noticed a bowl of M&M candies with the Presidential Seal. Of course, I grabbed a handful of souvenirs.
The organization I wanted to join was at the center of the entire US Intelligence Community. They were responsible for building and operating a vast array of spy satellites. While the information from these satellites was used by the Military, NSA, and the CIA, it was this organization that flew the satellites and processed the data. This organization was highly classified. They worked in complete secrecy, hidden in plain sight.
I was out of my element. The organization required technical training and skill. An engineering or science degree was a minimum. I had a Bachelor of Arts in PSYCHOLOGY! Why did they want to hire me? There were few enlisted troops to manage. The organization built large complex things. They were the silent pioneers of the space race. The real ones who did the first evers. Long before NASA thought them possible. This organization had no 2LTs. I’m not sure they had Lieutenants at all. They selected the best officers from the Air Force. The ones with not only a technical degree but the ones from MIT and Stanford or the Air Force Academy. I was going to be a fish way out of water. I was hired because I had earned a reputation for getting things done. They made a huge exception to hire me. Appearently, they had stuff that they needed fixed and I fit the profile. At least that what they said. I put my uniforms away and bought another business suit.
Today, much of the secrecy has been lifted. At the time, neither Lillian nor my family could know anything about it. I wanted to go where the future was being built and make a difference. I choose door number two. I left SAC and traveled to Washington DC and a job working for the Secretary of the Air Force Special Projects. At least, that’s what my orders said.
I drove out of Omaha three months shy of my 30th birthday.