In 1984 a KC-135 tanker squadron from the Tennessee Air National Guard deployed to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. My F-15 squadron took full advantage of the visit, scheduling aerial refueling on every mission. The ANG tanker crews invited our wives to fly with them: that’s a photo my wife Donna took from the boomer’s compartment as I led a four-ship of F-15s to a rejoin on the tanker (I’m flying the second F-15 from the left).
After refueling and a 2 v 2 air combat training fight in a nearby working area, I led my flight to King Salmon Air Force Station in the western part of the state, where we landed and debriefed. Later that day we took off from King Salmon, refueled again, had another 2 v 2, and landed back at Elmendorf to debrief. It was a long day, and I didn’t get home until seven that evening. There was a blue flight line van in front of our base housing unit, and all the lights were on. Donna had invited the crew of the tanker over, and the house was full of tanker pilots, co-pilots, flight engineers, and boomers. In the morning there wasn’t a drop of booze left in the house. It was a party, and a good one.
It’s not all bad, being a veteran.
My family is full of them. Woodfords fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. Some of those who stayed behind in England came over as Redcoats; those who emigrated to America, my branch of the family, fought against them.
Later generations of Woodfords fought in the Civil War. Fay Woodford, my grandfather, was a doughboy in France during WWI (mom’s family had a military tradition as well, mostly Navy; her father, my grandfather Estes, enlisted as a sailor during the Great War). Dad’s older brothers went off to WWII after Pearl Harbor so he did too, forging a letter of permission from my grandmother because he was only 16. He was a Navy gunner in the Pacific and was there for the Battle of Okinawa. Dad mustered out at the end of the war, taught school for a while, said “fuck this” and went back in, this time as an Air Force officer.
Even though I grew up in it, the military and my family’s ties to it weren’t things I thought about until high school. I liked the life of a military brat, but I was becoming politically aware, and later, in college, I vowed to break the chain. I was going to be a college professor. That didn’t work out, though, and after a year of teaching school I too said “fuck this” and joined the Air Force.
Here’s a sketch of my military history, if you’re interested. I’m working on a memoir, but you can’t see that yet, even if you are interested, because it’s nowhere near ready for prime time.
Like most Baby Boomers, I was raised to believe my country did the right thing in WWI and WWII, that we fought the good fight against enemies who, had they prevailed, would have made the world a far more horrible place. I still believe that today.
I believe my own Cold War service was necessary and good, that my country once again did the right thing opposing and containing communism, and that the world today is a better place for it. I was absolutely opposed to the Vietnam War, and had a lot of misgivings about joining the USAF while that war was still on. I was on board for Desert Storm, even though participating at a remove, doing my part to keep the lid on North Korea as a fighter pilot on Okinawa while others fought in the desert. I’ve been against nearly every military action my country has carried out since Desert Storm. Things are more muddled now. North Korea and ISIS aside, there are few clear enemies, and no point to the endless suffering we’ve caused in different parts of the world.
Overall, though, I was happy in the Air Force. It was a rewarding career. I’m proud of what I did for my country. I’m proud of the military, in particular its leading role in racial integration, and the culture of professionalism and selfless service it embodies. I’m proud to have been part of a profession people look up to.
As in most Western countries, our military is firmly under civilian control, and one thing we’ve never had to worry about in the United States is a military coup, or the hereditary military dictatorship that follows. I wish I could say our military is not corrupt, but corruption has long been a part of military procurement, encouraged and abetted by politicians and contractors on the take. I wish I could say our military takes sexism and sexual abuse as seriously as it takes racism, but I can’t. I wish I could say today’s volunteer force represents a cross-section of American society, but it has become increasingly separate and insular, and I worry about that. I wish recently-retired general officers were not part of the Trump administration. I really worry about that.
Sacrifices? In my case, they were few and trivial. There were times I worked harder than I ever thought possible, and for little reward, but who hasn’t? Over the years friends and colleagues died in aircraft crashes, but apart from those traumatic moments I was happy.
And in that spirit, I wish all my military brothers and sisters a happy Veterans Day.
© 2017, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.