VA (AFNS - 1/10/2012) -- 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
By USAF Brig. Gen. Joseph S. Ward Jr.
Commandant, Joint Forces
Staff College, National Defense University, Norfolk, VA
Air Force News Service
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