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History Maker: Longest serving Airman examines challenges, triumphs across five decades of service

  • Published
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing

The longest serving Airman in the history of the U.S. Air Force presented what he learned over 46 years, 5 months and 21 days of active-duty service to deployed service members of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.

Airmen gathered around a large projection screen where Maj. Gen. Alfred E. Flowers joined then virtually to describe his career from Vietnam to the Pentagon, from airman basic to major general.

“So a little bit about my journey,” he began, saying he was primarily raised by his grandparents who were very poor. “I started out working when I was 10 years old with the men in the fields for 50-cents an hour. I had no clue of an American Dream in the extreme poverty I was raised in, my dream was survival.”

He joined the Air Force in his words as “a way out” at 17 years old in 1965.

As a man who entered the service during the civil rights era of the 1960s, who had up until that point lived in a segregated America, he explained the philosophy that helped him overcome racial prejudice when he faced it.

“You can’t worry about what happening to you and you can’t let what’s happening to you control what’s happening in you—in that you succumb to what happening to you—you’ve got to stay focused and move on.”

And move on he did, commissioning after five rejected applications to officer training school, past the rank of captain which one unnamed individual said he never would, due to his black accent and on to the rank of major general.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Kunkel, 332nd AEW commander, asked him what changes those many years of service brought to that 17 year old.

“I was not well educated when I left high school,” he said. “But the Air Force gave me that opportunity to go to college—education and the opportunity I got to serve in some extremely important roles—I got from the Air Force.”

In those roles he found his most rewarding experience, perhaps ironically as a minority of another sort.

“I was the first non-special operator to ever be the J-8 at U.S. Special Operations Command,” he said. “What you have to do in a case like that is earn the respect of the those that you are leading, and it took a while, but I did and I found it to be probably the most rewarding and insightful assignment in my career.”

Another Airman asked him what lessons he took from his time in the Vietnam War where he found himself two short years after he left home for basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas.

“It’s what we sign up to do, and we ought to do what we’re trained to do when we’re put in that environment,” he said. “War is not pretty—but sometimes necessary.”

Tech. Sgt. Parrish Jackson, 332nd executive assistant to the command chief, asked him who mentored him during his career.

“Believe it or not I had a lot of role models especially when I was enlisted or a young officer who didn’t look like me,” he said in reference to his African-American ethnicity. “They were people who wanted to do the right thing and be fair and allow opportunities to all, not just some.”

One of the closing questions brought a big laugh from the general when Staff Sgt. Kourtney Tolbert asked him how he remained mentally strong for nearly five decades.

He replied that, “you have to come early and stay late!” with a laugh, and then went on to explain that he worked hard to maintain a good attitude and achieve success in each assignment.