Seventy years ago, Lenard Ellison made the decision to join the
“I was 17 and my mother helped me join the Army in
August 1947 to get out of the south due to racial tension,” the
retired technical sergeant said.
However, things changed for
him on Sept. 18 when the United States Air Force became a separate
service with the signing of the National Security Act of 1947.
“I was offered the opportunity to join the newly created Air
Force, was shipped to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and was in one
of the first two flights to graduate from Air Force Basic Training.”
Upon completion of basic training, he reported to his first duty
station, Walker AFB, Roswell, New Mexico.
“I began my career
in the motor pool maintaining vehicles, changing tires, and
providing transportation for pilots,” he said. After a couple of
years I was finally sent to a technical school where I trained in
power production for a missile team.”
He would soon begin the
first of two tours at Carswell AFB, Texas, which was part of the
Strategic Air Command at the time.
“I worked on the Mark-17
bomb, you see on your way into the base today,” Ellison said.
“During that time, most African-Americans could only work in the
motor pool or in the kitchen, so it felt like a big accomplishment
to be able to do something else.”
While the military afforded
Lenard a better life, it didn’t eliminate the injustice of racism or
other hardships of the time.
(R-L) -- Retired Tech. Sgt. Lenard Ellison in front of a
building at Beale Air Force Base, CA. in the late 1960s and with his
weapon in Saigon, Vietnam circa 1968. Ellison, the patriarch of his
family, began a family tradition of serving in the Air Force that
continues today. Since 1947, there has been an Ellison in the Air
Force. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from courtesy photos
provided by the Lenard Ellison family)
“Unfortunately, there was still racism in parts of the
military, and it was difficult to make rank as a black
man...but my toughest challenges were my three combat
tours,” he said. “I was in Korea when the Chinese entered
the war and pushed our forces back across the Yalu River. I
also did two tours in Vietnam. My first tour I was wounded
and was sent home early, which meant I did not get my points
and was sent back for nine months in 1968 to finish my
During this time, Lenard experienced things
that would change and help him understand what is important
“My combat time in the Air Force especially
deepened my faith in God,” he said. “I was wounded and I saw
others killed. One of my friends had one day left before he
was going home; he was killed in a mortar attack on his last
day in country. You never forget events like that, it
reminds you to never waste opportunities; anytime you have
an opportunity to help someone, reach out and help them
regardless of color or race.”
While he was away
serving in combat, his wife, Ollie, was at home taking care
of the family.
“I could not have done this without my
wife, who passed in 1983,” he said. “She was a stay-at-home
mom who was dedicated to our children. I did five remote
tours and I have five children, you can do the math. It
takes a strong woman and a strong faith to keep a family
together. I credit my wife and her faith in God with keeping
our family together.”
After serving for more than 25
years and retiring at the rank of technical sergeant, Lenard
shares his views on the Air Force and his family values that
shaped their legacy.
“Air Force heritage is about
being part of something bigger than you,” Ellison said. It
gave me confidence that I could have a better life and
provide a better life for my family. We believe in the
values of America. If you work hard you can use the
opportunities in the Air Force to make something more of
Working hard and serving their country is
exactly what the Ellison children chose to do.
my children took advantage of the opportunities America
provides,” Ellison said. “Four of them proudly served in the
Air Force, while my youngest son served as a police officer
in Portland, Oregon. They all felt the call to serve and
make America better. I was very proud of them for their
desire to serve.”
The first son of Lenard Ellison to
serve was Tony Ellison, who retired at the rank of master
sergeant after 24 years in the Air Force.
back and remember my father’s humbleness and tireless quest
to be the best civil engineer he could be, even under the
most arduous of circumstances,” Tony said. “Constantly
seeing father’s example of total quality commitment to the
Air Force had a very positive and humbling effect on our
family as most of my siblings and I followed him into the
Air Force, as did his grandchildren and great
Tony’s son, Kenneth Ellison, joined
the 442nd Fighter Wing a few years after Sept. 11, 2001.
Second Lieutenant Rodney Ellison Jr. poses with his dad, Chief
Master Sgt. Rodney Ellison, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas in
2003. Both followed a legacy set by the patriarch of their family,
retired Tech. Sgt. Lenard Ellison, of serving in the Air Force.
(Courtesy photo by the Lenard Ellison family)
“I joined the Air Force Reserve in March of 2004,”Kenneth
said. “At the time, I didn’t really have anything to show
for myself and didn’t want to end up in a dead-end job
making little money and not being able to care for my
family, so I joined to make something of myself.”
a third generation airman, Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Ellison knows
that people in the Air Force help to shape the future of it.
“I believe many of our family members have joined
because they know the Air Force will take care of their
Airmen and we take pride in knowing that we continue to
serve the Air Force to help make it the service it is
Lenard’s second son, now retired Command
Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Ellison Sr., joined the Air Force
“I was influenced by my father and my brother and older sister
who had already joined,” the retired chief said. “I knew there were
opportunities to learn a trade and have the ability to advance and
prepare for, what I hoped would be life after four years in the Air
However, four years turned into many more because of
the positive experiences he had.
“Once I got to my first
duty station I began to feel like I was part of something larger
than myself and I had some great supervisors who took care of me,”
he said. “I loved it.”
With his father’s lessons guiding him,
he would go on to serve 31 years in the Air Force.
for our family it was always about that calling, that calling to
serve,’ Rodney Ellison Sr. said. “That was something my father
instilled into us…if you want to make the world better, you have to
engage. It doesn’t matter how you engage, but engage in a positive
way that impacts not just your life…so the Air Force gave my family
that opportunity to be part of something larger than ourselves and
to grow with the Air Force.”
Just as he followed in his
father’s footsteps, so did his son, Maj. Rodney Ellison Jr., who
graduated from the Air Force Academy and is now the Air Force
Reserve’s 10th Air Force public affairs officer.
grown up in an Air Force family and joining the service himself, he
now has the opportunity to see the results of his father and
grandfathers dedication to service and the legacy his family is
leaving for future Airmen.
“Whenever somebody finds out that
he is my father they will tell me a story of how he [Chief Ellison]
impacted and helped them, so I would hope there is a legacy of
leadership and empowerment,” Maj. Ellison said.
to serving alongside his relatives, more people have been added to
“The best part of being in the Air Force for me
is the brother and sister-hood,” he said. “I have so many friends
that I now consider family because of what we have gone through
being in the Air Force together. It’s a bond, I don’t know if other
people can relate to how strongly connected you are to the people
you serve with.”
So far, there have been seven Ellison’s to
serve in various career fields and in all three Air Force
More than 70 years after enlisting, Lenard
Ellison accomplished more than just a better life for his family, he
led them in service to their country.
By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Harvey
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