I'm feeling really bad this morning. Yesterday was the 66th birthday of the United States Air Force. Having served exactly one third of those years I should have been aware of her birthday.
The Air Force has come a long way in those years. First organized as the Army Air Corp, pilots and their planes took a back seat to Army generals and Navy admirals who jealously guarded their power, believing that wars would always be won on the ground or on the seas. Then Billy Mitchell dropped a bomb on one of their precious ships and scared the hell out of the old guard.
Not until World War II would airplanes be considered an important instrument of war. And what a legacy those Army Air Corp folks left us when we assumed independency as the Air Force on 18 September 1947! With the exception of those Pacific marines I doubt that anyone had a higher death toll than those B-17 pilots flying missions over Germany. When your squadron taxi's off the runway and you know that half of you won't return, you're showing some real guts!
I've been fortunate, both as an enlisted man, and as an officer, to have worked with every Air Force fighter, bomber, trainer, or refueler in the Air Force arsenal. This includes old Korean War era F-86's still being flown by the South Koreans during my first tour there. As the prime logistics program manager for the old F-5 in Saudi Arabia in the 90's, I scavenged parts from the Arizona bone yard and supply warehouses in India and Pakistan and kept Saudi's F-5 Operationally Ready rate well over 90%...that for a plane that was nearly obsolete. As a young enlisted security cop in Vietnam I guarded 101's and F-4's in their revetments and their engine run ups took out half my hearing within a few months. During Desert Storm we generated hundreds of sorties by 27 international squadrons and pretty well had Sadaam's elite guard buried under the sand by the time the ground troops moved in...ask them..our ground troops went through Iraq like a hot knife through butter, the Iraqi's throwing up their hands in surrender to our approaching troops...anything not to get pounded again by F-15s, F-16's and B-1 bombers. And just for giggles we threw a few B-52 bombings at em as well.
As much as I gave to the Air Force, they gave me so much more. They took a dumb kid from a small town in California, made him a man, gave him tuition assistance and education grants so that he might attain a college degree by attending college classes at night and ultimately a commission as an officer. When the National Security Agency began doing an extensive background check for my Top Secret clearance they showed up in my home town and interviewed dozens of people who knew me. When they came to my house to ask my mom, she said "you tell me"..."you've had him almost as long as I have". I hope that brought a smile to the investigator's face.
So, yesterday I should have remembered the Air Force birthday. Maybe I can shrug it off as being 65 years old and perhaps not as sharp as I used to be. But I can remember as if were yesterday, the day I graduated from basic training and proudly wore my uniform home. Some ten years later I would walk off the parade field at Officer's Training School. I would retrieve my hat from the high toss in the air, grab my bags, place my hand in my pocket to retrieve a silver dollar, to be flipped to the first enlisted man that rendered me a salute...a salute to the brand spanking new butter bar lieutenant on his way to greater leadership opportunities.
Thereafter I would fill position billets as modest as lieutenant and as lofty as Lt. Colonel. I would serve both at base and major command level and I would learn something valuable wherever I served...until that last day of service when I, a little grayer, with far less hair, would stop and turn toward the flag and render a final salute to the flag I served for 22 years. The Air Force is smaller now; when I entered she was 800,000 airmen strong, now she is less one quarter of that. The Air Force took my youth, my innocence, left me lonely and often afraid in the far corners of the world...but I got as much as I gave, and for that I'm grateful and respectful and wish her all good wishes for the future.
Happy Birthday United States Air Force!