I recently had the opportunity to interview a truly inspirational veteran, retired Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers, who served just a little more than 46 years and retired in January 2012. Only a fraction of the information would go into a piece about him for Pioneers in Blue, but I felt it was a waste not to tell the masses what he had to say.
From the moment the Public Affairs team entered his house, he lent an air of warmth and wisdom. Before I even interviewed him, I knew I would be sharing his story. So, here I am writing a blog about this experience.
Flowers grew up in what he calls a “very impoverished” upbringing. “I’m a product of teenage parents. One was 16 and one was 17 when I was born; they kind of gave me to my grandparents to raise, who were very socially, economically and environmentally impoverished.”
He went on to explain his grandfather was a share cropper who one year only made $300 – some years they had nothing at all. He knew he wouldn’t be able to afford college but wanted to rise out of his situation. The Air Force gave him this opportunity, as well as providing a way to earn four degrees.
“I can’t be more thankful and more blessed for that opportunity. My message to anybody who’s thinking about the military and having second thoughts, if you don’t have another plan, [the military] is the way out of any situation. You can always rise above your situation – it just takes perseverance. You’ve got to perform, have a good positive attitude and stay with it.”
Flowers’ second assignment in the Air Force was to Da Nang, Vietnam, during the Vietnam Conflict. “I was there as a 19 year old who served in all of the Tet Offensives of 1968. My first few months in Vietnam were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, unlike anything I could imagine.”
As he sat there answering my question about his time in Vietnam, his eyes teared up.
“I had the opportunity – actually it was part of my job – to work on air and mobility teams. What we did in the evenings or early morning, we’d go out into the jungles and haul out dead bodies, wounded bodies, prisoners who had been captured. I won’t go into it, because I get very emotional about it. The number of young Americans we have moved, who I’ve assisted in moving, in transfer cases and body bags – I will never forget!”
Serving in both the enlisted and officer corps, Flowers had many accomplishments during his years of service – you can see them throughout his office. One accomplishment fulfilled a dream of his – when he was in charge of the Air Force’s budget as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management and Comptroller.
Another accomplishment resulted in a display case sitting in the corner of his office that included a military training instructor hat and rope he received from the MTI training corps.
“There’s another opportunity I had that I thought was very important and right up at the top of all of my experiences. It was as commander of 2nd Air Force – the numbered Air Force responsible for training Airmen.”
He said when he first arrived at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., his focus was on the enlisted force – how they were doing and what was being done to make Airmen. He was disheartened when he was briefed on the MTI force and found they were 58 to 59 percent manned.
“I took on an effort to improve the manning in the military training instructor force, and when I left 2nd Air Force, they were manned at about 98 percent. I am very proud of that. I think we did some good.”
Flowers also values his enlisted heritage, saying it helped him as an officer to understand how the enlisted force works. “That experience will make you a better person, will make you a better officer and will make you a better Airman. I’m very proud of that service.”
His service is what he hopes to leave as his legacy to the thousands of Airmen he crossed paths with.
“I’ve always believed the job of every supervisor and every leader was to make sure the folks you lead, mentor and train reach their fullest potential. It’s never been about me as a leader. What I want someone to say about me when they write my obituary and plant me in Ft. Sam National Cemetery in Texas is ‘there are thousands of officers, Airmen, NCOs and civilians serving who Al Flowers touched during his 46 years, 5 months and 24 days of service.’
It’s never been about me; it’s always about service and others. None of us are smart enough, none of us are bright enough and none of us are good enough to make ourselves successful; it’s other people who make us successful. I believe if you lead with integrity, do the right thing – I call it leading with heart – and have humility, enthusiasm, attitude and trust; if you focus on those four things and lead with heart, you’d be amazed at how successful the organizations you lead will be, how successful the folks will make us as individuals.”
As he sat there in his civilian attire, Flowers reflected on what being an Air Force veteran meant to him and how civilian clothes were now his uniform.
“I believe at some point we need to make the transition, once we retire. That uniform we wore proudly all the years we wore it and served in it. But, we have to move on. This is my uniform now – red, white and blue with the American flag and the Air Force symbol on the lapel, on the left side.”
Flowers wishes he could have stayed in for 56 years serving in the military branch he loves.
“I loved every day of what I did. Believe it or not, I would go to bed at night thinking about the difference I could make the next day and what opportunities and challenges [would be presented] that would allow me the opportunity to make a difference in our Air Force or an Airman’s life. I don’t know how many lives I’ve touched, I don’t know how many I’ve changed, I don’t know how many I may have saved, but I know that every one of them were important.”
Well, sir, you have definitely touched my life! I will keep the sound bite from the interview I had with you and play it anytime I get discouraged or lose sight of the path I’m on to reaffirm just why I want to serve my country in the Air Force. My hat is off to you Major General Flowers – thank you for your 46 years of service!
Photo 1: Maj. Gen. (ret) Alfred Flowers served from August 1965 to January 2012, serving in both the enlisted and officer corps. (Air Force photo)
Photo 2: Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers, U.S. Air Force retired, poses for a portrait during an interview for Pioneers in Blue, July 16, 2012, San Antonio, TX. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
Photo 3: Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers, U.S. Air Force retired, admires his Order of the Sword, July 16, 2012, San Antonio, TX. The sword was presented by the enlisted force of Air Education and Training Command April 6, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)