By Brig. Gen. Joseph S. Ward Jr.
Commandant, Joint Forces Staff College
I often heard him refer to himself as “Airman Ordinary.” He did not feel special. He did not feel privileged. He was simply proud to serve. “Airman Ordinary” is anything but ordinary. He just completed more than 46 years of active duty service–the longest serving Airman ever, in our great Air Force history. He is a man that stands alone among Air Force giants. No one has ever served longer and perhaps no one ever will.
It was a rainy day in Washington DC on the morning of 16 Nov 2011. Traffic was particularly slow due to the slick road conditions and less than optimal visibility as my wife and I made our way to Bolling Air Force Base. Upon entering the Officers’ Club, one could feel the excitement. The atmosphere was alive with anticipation–this was not going to be an “ordinary” retirement ceremony.
Old friends were greeting one another. It was an Air Force family reunion of sorts. There were more “stars” in the room than one could possibly count. It was a day of historic proportions. It was a day to honor and recognize Major General Al Flowers for his extraordinary accomplishments and contributions to our Nation.
There was a special moment as we watched closely the passing of the flag–a long line of Airmen from the rank of Airman Basic all the way up to the rank of Major General. It looked like links of a chain joining all ranks in perfect unison. It represented teamwork in harmony as the flag slowly made its way forward. The last in line was General Flowers’s son, Lt. Col. Al Flowers, Jr., who ultimately rendered honors to his father. The Secretary of the Air Force resided as the officiator of the ceremony and was visibly emotional throughout holding back tears as he delivered his remarks. To be sure, Al Flowers is truly an American hero.
In the beginning
I first met General Flowers when he was a Major and I had just pinned on Captain. Our career paths continued to intertwine in the following 20 plus years, twice I had the distinct honor to have served for him at the Pentagon as my director supervisor.
So what can we learn from this remarkable Airman? What can we take from his sterling example as a servant leader to help make our Air Force even stronger?
Having spent some 13 years serving in the enlisted ranks gave General Flowers a deep and sincere appreciation for the enlisted force. He understood that they are the backbone of our armed forces. In every decision he made, he thought first and foremost on the potential impact to our enlisted corps.
Not only did he think of the enlisted in all of his decisions, he also took great care of his fellow Airmen. He lived the Air Force wingman concept.
I recall an event some 12 years ago when I needed to “pull an all-nighter” at the Pentagon. I was responsible for putting together the slide deck for a budget briefing to be given first thing the next morning and the briefing contained 30 primary slides with an additional 300 backup slides.
Leaving the 2-star’s office at around 1700 hours, then Colonel Flowers asked me if I would be able to accomplish the task prior to tomorrow’s meeting. I told the Colonel I would get it done but he needed to let me work without interruption. I had another officer to assist and we both went at the task with a sense of urgency.
Finally around 2100 hours, Colonel Flowers departed the office. It was soon midnight, and we heard someone at the door, it was Colonel Flowers still in uniform with two large bags filled with Kentucky Fried Chicken and all the “fixings.” It was the best chicken dinner I’ve ever eaten. Colonel Flowers stayed with us through the entire night…keeping the coffee pot filled and providing words of encouragement. General Flowers lived by the rule that “officers eat last.” He always took great care of others. By all measures, he was the consummate wingman. He embodies the true essence of servant leadership–it is part of his core.
In every speech I have heard him deliver, he always made it a point to give thanks. He is a man of faith–his strong belief in religion served as his foundation and his guiding light in all he did. His faith kept him on the right path as he has marched his way into the Air Force hall of fame.
He always emphasized the importance of developing and maintaining a positive mental attitude. It has often been said, “Attitudes cannot be taught but they can be caught.” General Flowers believes that a positive attitude is a force multiplier.
We don’t work in isolation; we are all part of a team. Each member of the team affects those around him and it is far better to be in the company of those whom are positive and upbeat. General Flowers always views the glass as half full.
This past year he was hampered by an ailing hip that required replacement. He will tell you that 35 years of playing basketball finally caught up with him. And for those of you who have worked in the Pentagon, you know the challenges of getting from one place to another. For those whom have not worked in the Pentagon, there are 17 miles of corridors and thousands of stairs.
General Flowers was visibly uncomfortable as he made his way back and forth to meetings throughout his busy schedule but I never once saw him have a “bad day.” He had some of the most demanding positions in the Department of Defense yet his attitude remained positive–he focused on his blessings. He loved to serve in our great Air Force and he made everyone around him feel good about the contributions they were making. He also had an unsurpassed work ethic.
Keys to Success
He has been asked repeatedly, “What is the secret to having been so successful for such a long period?” He always gave the same answer. “The secret to becoming the longest serving Airman is quite simple. The magic formula has two ingredients…begin early and stay late.” He combines country wit and humor with time-tested wisdom. He mentors many and always stresses the importance of performance as the ultimate key to success.
Entering the Air Force at age 17 and departing active duty at 63 years of age is certainly beginning early and staying late. Each and every day of active duty service, General Flowers began his day around 0400 to catch up on email and he would be at the office by 0600 to begin his duty hours. He normally departed by 1800 to encourage others to get home to their families but he continued to correspond well into the late hours. Along the way, he blazed new trails for the Financial Management career field.
He was the first Airman outside of the Special Operations community to hold the position of the Director of Resources and Planning for SOCOM. He was also the very first financial management Airman to serve as a Numbered Air Force Commander, a job he relished and was well suited for.
As the 2nd Air Force Commander, he was in charge of the thousands of newly accessed Airmen and most who were in some stage of training and education.
His office had a museum aura…filled with memorabilia from his 46 years of service. I once asked him what he valued the most. He quickly picked out two items and said anyone would be welcome to take the rest. The two items included a Technical Instructor hat encased in glass that was presented to him by the Lackland BMT community. The other item was a photo of him taking the first salute on the parade field at Lackland upon assuming command. It is a place he reveres. He will soon call San Antonio “home” as he transitions to retirement. It is the home of that sacred parade field where he began his march–it is the home to our heroes of the past and it’s the gateway for our future heroes to take the oath and begin their Air Force journey.
One of our Air Force core values is “service before self.” I cannot think of a better example to emulate. He surpassed the 40-year mark some six years ago. He could have retired at 100 percent of his basic pay in 2005. Instead, he continued on. For the past six years, he could have received more in his checkbook as a retiree than as an active duty Airman. He opted to take on incredibly demanding positions that required household moves during the past 3 holiday seasons. In total, he moved his family and household goods 28 times over the past 4 plus decades–that may be yet another record never to be matched.
He will tell you, it is not about you and me. He will tell you it is about those we have helped along the way–those we have mentored, those we have helped prepare to succeed us. He has helped bring out the very best in so many. He has encouraged countless legions of Airmen to do their best and to continue enjoying the ride.
I recall a meeting I had with him in 1999. I had just completed a tour as a squadron commander and then transitioned to the Pentagon. For me, it was like going from “hero to zero.” I struggled with my new role in sharing a cubicle with a Captain making PowerPoint slides day in and day out. My attitude was on the decline and I was tempted to take the 15-year retirement being offered at the time. Fortunately, General Flowers intervened and encouraged me to press on and finish the race. He thought I mattered…when it mattered and I am forever grateful for his mentorship and friendship.
There is an underlying theme worthy of mention in this fitting tribute to Airman Ordinary. The American dream is alive and achievable. Not all begin their respective military journeys with equal advantages. The military starting point does not discriminate–all begin the race on the same footing, all compete for promotion without prejudice. Everyone has a fair chance to climb the military pyramid of success and many start from humble beginnings. Some from having worked the tobacco fields of rural North Carolina. From harvesting tobacco for 25 cents a day to becoming a 2-star General in the world’s premiere Air and Space power–General Flowers’ story is a testament to what makes the American experience so very special. It has often rewarded so many in past and present generations who arrive early to work and leave late. Hard work and a positive attitude will continue to pay dividends to future generations.
I fear that he will solely be remembered for having been the longest serving Airman–it will be well documented in our professional military education material. But we must not focus just on his longevity record. Records are meant to be broken. Those of us that served with him must keep the spirit alive; we must continue to tell his story as he passes the torch. His simple and straight forward blue print for success is something we can all learn from: a strong work ethic coupled with an earnest desire towards self-improvement and a genuine concern for others while maintaining a positive attitude will yield great results! We must follow his lead in helping others reach their potential and thus bringing our Air Force to even greater heights of excellence. The positive difference he made in the lives of those who served with him are his legacy and his legacy will live on.
(Brig. Gen. Joseph S. Ward Jr. is the Commandant, Joint Forces Staff College,
National Defense University, Norfolk, Va.)