I managed to remain in Washington D.C. on active duty for ten years. A longevity that was practically unheard of. I had an incredible time working for the National Reconnaissance Office. It was truly an unorthodox military career. After I left the NRO Ground Station, I worked for them in research and development and on their headquarters’ staff. In 1989 or maybe 1988, I was promoted to major. In 1992, I was selected to attend the Air Force Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama.
Command and Staff College was a ten-month assignment and one of the most challenging times for our family. Jennifer was entering the ninth or tenth grade, and transferring her to a school in Alabama was not our favorite idea for her or Jason. So, Lillian remained in D.C. She had a good job, and we had a nice house in a good neighborhood. This was a great assignment for me, but Lillian was left raising two teenagers on her own.
Once again, I was fortunate to be selected to attend a professional military development course in residence. Only the top 5% of majors got this honor. I was excited to go, even if Lillian was less than happy. My goal in attending the school was to decide how much longer I wanted to stay in the Air Force. While Lillian struggled to do everything at home, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Montgomery.
Downtown Montgomery is quiet, very quiet. Montgomery may be the capital of Alabama and at the heart of the civil rights movement, but downtown has only a few restaurants among huge government buildings. You may remember, Montgomery is where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. Today, a National Historic Trail commemorates the Selma to Montgomery marches calling for African American voting rights. What is so moving and powerful to me about all these memorials and museums is that they represent the period of our national history that I remember while growing up. I was raised to believe the world and especially the U.S. were better than that. I guess we’re not. As the engraving on the Civil Rights Museum says, “The struggle continues.” Today, Montgomery is still as segregated as ever.
In Air Command and Staff College, I quickly befriended two fellow students from my seminar. Floyd was an army major from the 82nd Airborne Division, and Brian was a Navy P3 aircraft commander. Both Floyd and Brian gave me a window into two completely different sides of the military. Floyd was 6 foot 5, African American and from a small town in Tennessee. Floyd graduated from Virginia State University, where he road tuition-free, thanks to his football scholarship. He, like me, left his wife and two kids at home to attend the school. Brian was one of the only single students in our class. He was my height and white, really white. His hair was the color of his Saab convertible. Flame red. We were an unlikely trio, not exactly the “Right Stuff.”
If you talked to officers that went to the school a year earlier, you heard about all the golfing the students got to do. It got so bad, the unofficial name of the school was Air Command and Golf. Apparently, a congressional inquiry put an end to all the fun. When my class showed up, our seminar leader handed us a list of over 100 books that we were expected to read. One of our classmates quickly pointed out, “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it.” This guy happened to be the smartest person in our seminar and probably the entire school. The first test we took was a diagnostic, 100 question, multiple-choice exam covering everything we would learn over the next ten months. He got a 98. I got a 6. I read the books.
I remember our first lecture in what we called the “big blue bedroom.” With seating for over 500 students, the walls were blue, and each of us had an assigned chair. The Air Force colonel, the school’s commandant, introduced himself and promptly stated, “Welcome to the twilight of your mediocre careers.” His point was enlightening, to say the least. Even though we were in the top 5%, less than half a percent would get promoted ahead of their peers. Only one percent would go on to be promoted to full colonel, and a small fraction of those would make it to flag or general officer. He ended his sermon with, “Have fun, learn from your fellow students and enjoy your time off.” So, I did.
From August until December, I learned as much as I could about the Air Force; I excelled academically and used my free time to run, exercise and enjoy my ‘running buddies.’ Then, the holiday break happened; I hopped a ride back to D.C. and tried to enjoy a few weeks with Lillian and the kids. Our evenings were filled with serious discussions about our future. If I wanted to stay in the Air Force and give the rank of full colonel a shot, it would mean a radical change for all of us. I had engineered back-to-back assignments in D.C., and my only other assignment as an officer was Omaha. The officers I was competing with had four, five or six different assignments, and many had served in Iraq during the war. While the NRO and especially the CIA valued my expertise, the Air Force needed me to have broader experience, and I would need to get it fast. To be competitive for the rank of colonel, I would need at least three more assignments in geographically different locations over the next four years. I have no idea if I would have even made colonel. If anyone tells you they could have made the next higher grade in the military, they’re hyped up on crack. I was a contender, but who knows?
Lillian had hit her stride and was climbing up the corporate ranks. Both Jennifer and Jason were settled in school and firmly planted in their Alexandria, Virginia world.
“So, what do you want to do, Gary?”
“Well, Gary, what would be best for you?”
“Really, Gary, what do you want to do?”
Looking back, if I wanted to chase the Air Force dream, Lillian would have to give everything up. If I wanted to pursue the Air Force dream, she would have done it. Of course, she would. But, more than anything else in her life, she has always supported me. Many of you reading this are feeling like Gary’s a bit of an ass. Sadly, I’d agree with you. And I’m a better judge.
So, I decided to retire. The Air Force was all I’d ever known. My entire adult working life was pursuing the Air Force dream. “Aim High,” and I did.