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/ Published September 13, 2021
Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.
Dr. Margaret Sankey: Welcome to Wild Blue Yonder On the Air, Air University's podcast. Today's guest is General Larry Spencer, who retired as the 37th Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. His memoir, Dark Horse: From the Horseshoe to the Pentagon is soon to be released from Naval Institute Press. And we're excited to have him on today to talk about his career. Thank you for joining us.
General Larry Spencer: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
Sankey: To get started, I was really interested in reading your book that your family has a long tradition of military service, but you came to be an airman through very different circumstances. Can you tell me about your enlistment?
Spencer: You're right, my grandfather served in the Army in World War I. My dad joined the Army right out of high school and served in the Korean War. And all of his brothers served, most in the Army, but none in the Air Force. And frankly, joining the Air Force or the military wasn't on my mind after high school at all. If I can take you back to the '70s when I graduated high school and there were Vietnam protests, the Civil Rights Movement and other societal turmoil, there was a lot of anti-military sentiment at the time.
The official military draft was over, but I still had to register once I turned 18. So I had registered. But I was not planning to join the military, not because I didn't like it or I didn't respect my dad and my granddad's service, but it just wasn't the thing to do amongst my peers. The problem though was when I graduated from high school, I was a little lost and kind of in a fog. I had no idea what I was going to do. I had college football scholarship offers, but as the oldest of six siblings and considering my parents lack of college experience... My mother hadn't graduated from high school and my father had spent all of his time as a soldier in the army. It was just a confusing time.
And no one knew how to help me. So temporarily, I was living in my parents' basement. I took a job as a GS1 in the Census Bureau in DC, and I got off work one day and walked to a local shopping mall not far from the Census Bureau. And if you think about the times, the early 1970s, I remember what I bought. Now I know this is hard to imagine now, but back then, I had an afro hair style like you wouldn't believe. And so here I am walking around the mall with my bag and long hair...I wish I could grow an afro now, but those days are long behind me.
So I was in the mall... I remember I bought a purple jumpsuit and a matching pair of high platform shoes. And so I was walking through the mall, and I noticed the Air Force recruiter's office and the really cool pictures of airplanes, and I just paused there for a second and was looking at the pictures. The Air Force NCO that was in the office came out, and started talking to me and asking me questions. I don't think it was necessarily inappropriate but certainly a good tactic to get me in because he said, "Well, do you play football?" And I said, "Of course." And he said, "Well, would you like to play football for the air force?"
That got my attention. So I went in, and we had a conversation that explained I could enlist now and then go to the air force academy and play football. And you know, all that was technically possible, but not practical. So, after literally stumbling into his office, about an hour later, I stumbled out of there and I was in the Air Force. It happened that quickly. It's inexplicable, even today. My parents and friends didn't know anything about it. It just happened. And the next thing I knew, I was on my way to basic training.
Sankey: The Air Force though really did deliver on a promise of seeing the world because you went from rural North Carolina to Taiwan. What was that culture clash like?
Spencer: Yeah, it was a clash in a lot of different ways. So once I enlisted my first assignment was at Pope Air Force Base, in North Carolina. I met my wife there. We got married and we had a child. And so my son was two or three months old, and I've got now a new wife, and out of the blue my boss calls me in, and said, "Guess what? You're going to Taiwan for a year, and you have to leave your family behind." That was devastating for my family and me. I begged to get out of it, especially when we discovered my wife was pregnant again, but I got no sympathy.
And so here I am with a new wife, a baby, and another one on the way and they said, "Sorry, you're going to leave your family for a year." So that in and of itself was traumatic. But then to get on the other side of the world, and I was just a young airman and 18-19 years old, was quite a shock. In hindsight, however, I learned a lot from it, and it was a great experience but at the time, it was pretty tough for a really young person who was literarily torn away from his brand new family.
Sankey: All through your career, you've had some fantastic mentors. And while you were an enlisted airmen, there were some folks who really saw leadership potential in you and urged you to go for a commission. Can you tell us how you crossed the divide and became an officer?
Spencer: Yeah, that was interesting. And people ask me a lot... “You were enlisted for a little over seven years, what was the difference?” “What was that like?” Actually there were some similarities, but there were a lot of differences as well. By the way, when I went to basic training, it was the first time I'd ever flown an airplane. The first time I'd been to an airport. So to fly on an airplane for the first time was exciting. But when I got off the airplane, prior to 911 when visitors could wait at the arrival gate, we stepped off the airplane into the terminal, and there was a drill instructor waiting, screaming and yelling at us.
To be honest, it was a bit embarrassing as other passengers in the airport were snickering at all of us getting yelled at. So the NCO with a smoky bear hat paraded us down to baggage claim and got our bags, and we got on a bus to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to start our training. What was interesting is everything we had to do in basic training, they told us how to do it. They told us how you fold our clothes. How you march. How you do this. And how you do that. And by the way, I enjoyed it.
Having grown up in sports, to me, it was just like a coach trying to make us better. So I enjoyed basic training. But now fast forward to Officer's Training school, it was quite a different approach. First, I landed at the exact same airport almost exactly eight years later. But this time, there was no one there to meet me. So I walked to baggage claim, got my suitcase, and I took a cab to Lackland AFB. I arrived as a Staff Sargent; so the first order of business was an upper classmen literally, with just an old razor blade, cut my stripes off. And then we were separated into groups of two, whereas in basic training, you're in an open bay.
And so I got in the room with my roommate, and in walks our instructor for the next 90 days. She was a very sharp second lieutenant. Her name was Carol Mercer. I'll never forget her. Very, very impressive and spit and polish...just the epitome of what an officer should look like. And she walked in, handed us a thick book and said, "I'm coming back in 30 minutes and inspect this room. There was no, this is how you do this, or this is how you fold your clothes. None of that.
And it was amazing how different it was. They were really trying to develop leaders. So the big difference was in basic training, they told us what to do and how to do it. In officer's training school, they provided written guidance and we had to figure out how to do it. And by the way, if you had to vary a little from the instructions, they were okay with that as long as you accomplished the mission. So quite a different approach, but I actually enjoyed both.
Sankey: Your absolute love and respect for your parents shines through your book. And for most of your life, you really knew them as products of the silent generation. They're very stoic. They're very reserved. But then as an adult, you learned some really striking things about them... More about your father's service in Korea, your mother's really brave stand at her high school. What was it like then seeing them as an adult?
Spencer: Yeah, that was quite an experience, because growing up in Southeast DC, on the horseshoe; my father was active duty Army. In place of his left hand, he wore a hook because his hand had been amputated as a result of wounds in the Korean War. However, a dilemma for my siblings and me was he never told us about the circumstances of his injury. And so we were just at a loss as to exactly what happened. But even worse than that, I got teased all the time. Kids were cruel, and they would make Captain Hook jokes, you know about my father and just said all kinds of cruel things. And so that was kind of tough.
And my mother, I knew she didn't quite complete the 10th grade, but I never really understood why because she never talked about it. It never came up. And so, rather shockingly when I was selected for the rank of Colonel, I went by my father's house because he wanted to go to the pinning on ceremony. He handed me a book out of the blue. He'd never done that before. And the name of the book was Firefight at Yechon. And it was about a company of soldiers and their experience during the Korean War.
So he said, "Hey, go read this." And I said, "Oh, okay." I didn't think much about it. I actually kept it on my nightstand for a couple of weeks, and then one night I decided to read it. And I was shocked. As I began to read it, I couldn't put it down because I was struck by the intensity of the Korean War effort and the way it was described and how violent the war was. Then I got about halfway through the book, and it stopped me in my tracks because there were about three pages dedicated to my father.
The book had been written by my father's company commander, who was a lieutenant at the time. If you think about that period in history, President Truman integrated the military around 1948, but for practical purposes, the military was still segregated. So my father was in a segregated unit. And his company commander was African American, but white commanders commanded them. And as I was reading these three or four pages, it just blew me away because it finally revealed my Dad’s war injury. I'll just briefly describe that he was driving a bulldozer, and they were actually trying to move the bulldozer from one town to another, which was about 100 miles. And so it would take a long time for a bulldozer to reach its’ destination because it didn’t travel very fast.
And so the rest of the company departed on the trip. And it was just he and another Sergeant that were left to move this bulldozer. In the course of them driving at night, he fell off the bulldozer. It’s not exactly clear to me if it was because of enemy fire or they fall asleep or what exactly happened, but he fell off the bulldozer, as it was still moving and he fell onto the tracks and instinctively rolled himself off the tracks on the ground, and in the process, caught his left in the gears of the bulldozer, and just mauled his hand.
He was there on the ground, it was cold, and he got gangrene in his hand. Eventually he fell into a coma. They put him on what was called back then an iron lung to keep him alive. He was transported by ship to Japan, where a surgeon amputated his left hand, and sent him back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for recovery. And again, you have to realize that I was a colonel in the Air Force, and this is the first time I get to learn this.
Similarly with my mother. At this point, I'm a four-star general and the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and my uncle called me and asked me to speak at his former high school, which is now a museum. It was Moton High School, in Farmville, Virginia.
And so I said, "Sure." So I started doing some research. And again, I was just blown away because I was able to dig up some old films, and my mother was in some of these films. Briefly, my mother was attending Moton High School when the law of the land was separate but equal, which meant that schools could be segregated as long as the resources and the instruction were equal. Of course, they were not.
And so the school my mother was in, I believe it was built for like 150 students or so, had 450 students there. The roof leaked so they had to take umbrellas with them during class if it rained. They had no gym and no laboratory. And some of the students actually went to class in broken down school buses. And so they decided amongst themselves as a school body that they would protest. And so they protested, and stopped going to class, and that progressed to teaming with the NAACP, which in-turn teamed up with a Supreme Court case, Brown versus the Board of Education that overturned segregation in the schools. So as it turned out, my mother was part of this land breaking Supreme Court case and I had no idea. She'd never said anything about it.
Sankey: If I can bring in another remarkable person from your life... That is, I was really moved with your description of how you met your wife. That you had developed a really close friendship and then decided to marry and clearly built a relationship that withstood some incredible stresses of a military career. Can you talk about her?
Spencer: Sure and it’s likely that the folks that will listen to your broadcast have an appreciation for the role that families play in the military, but most Americans do not have that appreciation of the sacrifices they make. Spouses are as much a part of the military as the member that's in the military. And so in my case, I was a young 18-year-old, single, stationed in North Carolina. One day we decided to go out with some of my friends to his girlfriend's house. When I walked in, there were other young women there. I was always kind of shy, so I walked in and noticed Ora’s great smile, and she actually came over and started talking to me. That turned into a series of dates, endless phone calls and late at nights. And she really became my best friend.
She really did. And growing up as I did, particularly as an introvert, I didn't really have a lot of close friends. And she was the first person in my life that I felt like I could just talk to about anything. And it was something I really appreciated. And so we never talked about getting married because we were just such good friends, and we would go out and have fun. And she would tell me about her dreams. And in fact, she wanted to join the Army. And I would tell her about what I wanted to do. Now I wasn't married and didn't have any kids, but I had a dependent and that dependent’s name was, a 1968 Chevrolet Nova. And I sunk all my money into that car. The stereo in the car was worth more than the car itself.
And you could hear me coming a mile away in that thing. But we were riding around one night and out of the blue, I just said, "You know, this friendship means more to me than friendship." It has turned into love. And said... I don't know... I'm taking a chance here because I don't know if you feel the same way, but I've been thinking about asking you to get married. And of course, she said, "Well, are you going ask or not?" And I said, "Well, yes." And then she said, yes. And so we got married.
And I think what's really important about that is that friendship was first, and that came in handy because we had 24 moves over my career. And as I talked about... We weren't married very long before I had to leave for a year and she then had a baby, plus another one on the way. And by the way, when my second son was born, they wouldn't let me come home. So I didn't meet my second son until he was two or three months old. So she had to deal with all of that.
And so all of the military moves, places we've never been to before, out in the middle of nowhere, to places like DC, deployments, overseas, all of that, because we had that friendship first that allowed my family structure to stay intact and stay strong while we went through a military career. I'll tell you a quick story... And this was actually after I'd retired, but I would put this under the category of don't try this at home. We have a home in North Carolina that we rent out that I pretty much manage myself. And we decided that the two of us would go down and re-dry wall the garage. And I guess my advice to anyone is to not try that with your spouse unless you both are really patient. We got through it, but I can remember it like it was yesterday. Dry wall is heavy, and it's messy. We would hold this stuff up, both of us and I'd say, "Okay, now hold it right there, don't let it move." I'd go up the ladder and then she would let it drop down. So I figured if we got through that, we could get through anything.
Sankey: That really is a true test of teamwork. It's really interesting that as an introvert and as an airman, you did your intermediate developmental education with the Marines. What do you think having that joint component has done to let you see how our sister services were and how joint relationships should be?
Spencer: Yeah, it was great. First of all...I respect all the services. But I developed a special affinity for the Marine Corps when I attended their Command and Staff College at Quantico Virginia. That said, I must admit I did not enjoy one of their events that involved living in a tent out in the woods of West Virginia for week but overall, I had a really great time. And that experience helped me throughout my career as I went into joint assignments, and I understood how the Joint Force works together. And quite frankly, one of the things it did for me was it broke down this sort of parochialism, I had that caused me to believe the Air Force is the best service and we had the best people. Don’t get me wrong, I bleed Air Force blue, and we have very smart people. We have innovative people. Except I realized we're not the best by ourselves; rather we’re part of a joint team, and together, we’re all the best.
And so it really helped me put in perspective, the other services with the Air Force, that they all have dedicated hard-working, committed people. And our country is fortunate to have them. That said... I'll tell you a quick story of something that happened in Marine Corps Command and Staff College...All of which I write about in the book.
So at the college, there were 12 Air Force, 12 Army and 12 Navy members as joint service students. And I was the single Air Force rep in my group of about 15. Keep in mind that Marine Corps operations were completely new to me. Things like how to take a beach or the trajectory of ammunitions coming out of a howitzer were completely foreign to me. And so our first test was a take-home where they gave us a set of friendly forces and enemy forces, and they instructed us to draw up on a white board our plan of attack and one of those involved literally attacking and taking a beach.
And so I wanted to do well, and I was excited because I was learning some new things. So I literally did not sleep the night of the assignment because I stayed up all night working on it. And it was beautiful. I had crayon colors and different color markers and big arrows, and it was impressive. And so I went in to class the next morning and I put my white board on a stand and covered it. I then went out for a cup of coffee and when I returned, everyone was in the class. And my instructor, who was a really good guy, a lieutenant colonel, said, "Okay, Larry, you're up first. Tell us how an Air Force guy is going to take the beach.
I was so excited to go first but as I lifted the cover off of my war plan, my excitement turned to anger as I discovered my classmates... I'll just be kind, had made some alterations to my plan. So they got a marker and marked up my white board and they said the first thing an Air Force guy is gong to do when we take the beach is go find a luxury hotel. So they drew a picture of a Ritz-Carlton on my war plan. They then said, the second thing an Air Force guy would do is build an O club. And so they drew a picture of an O club. And then they said, finally any Air Force guy, once you take the beach, is going to take the day off and play golf. And so they drew a picture of an 18-hole golf course on my board.
Now you could hear the laughter all over the building. Except for me of course because I didn't think it was all that funny. But it turned out fine. The instructor had already looked at my plan and he knew the work I'd put into it. So it was sort of lighthearted. But even though it took me a while to get over that, I met some life-long friends there that I followed throughout my career. And again, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Marine Corps, and other services, which I gained from the opportunities I had to work in a joint environment.
Sankey: Your book is your memoir. But what I really found very compelling is that you attract a series of extraordinary mentors. Just people who see something extraordinary in you and are there at the turning points of your life and your career. Would you like to talk about some of them?
Spencer: Sure. And I'm actually glad you said that, because my intent of the book was not to focus on me, but to use my experiences to help others in their professional and life journey. But mentorship for me has been an absolute game changer, from the time that I entered the Air Force as a young airman until I retired, and in fact, I have mentors today that I rely on. More importantly, I spend a lot of my time trying to mentor others, because I experienced first-hand how important that help can be. To give you a couple of examples from the book, when I arrived at my first base, aside from attending basic training, it was the first time I had ever travelled outside DC., and my orders took me to Fayetteville, North Carolina.
I didn't know anything about North Carolina or Fayetteville, and by the way, I was in my full service dress uniform, and it was in the wintertime, and back then, I wish they still made it, we had what they called a horse blanket, which was a really thick overcoat. Which was great. So I'm in my horse blanket coat and I still have my green duffel bag from basic training. I step off the bus, and I'm a deer in the headlights. And it was so obvious that a cab driver came up to me and offered me a ride to Pope AFB. So he took me out there, and this may be hard to believe, but I'd never ridden in a cab before, just like I'd never flown in an airplane before. So I'm sitting in the back of the cab and I'm noticing this machine that's clicking off money, and I'm getting nervous because I had maybe $5 on me and we hit $5 before we got three or four minutes into the trip. And so I was so nervous, but I didn't know what to say anything because I didn't want him to put me out on the street.
So he took me to the base, and I said, "Sir, I have to apologize, I've only got $5. I really feel awful, but if you will give me your address, I promise you, I will mail you the money." And he turned around and said, "Look, don't worry about it." He said, "Thank you for your service, I was glad to bring you out here," and so he let me go, and I really appreciated that. But it was at the end of the day, and back then, they had something called a CQ or a charge of quarters that was on duty 24 hours a day. So they couldn't in-process me because the duty day was over and it was a Friday. So they gave me a temporary dorm room, but no ride, no nothing. There was no sponsorship program back then and no one contacted or met me. So here I am dragging my duffel bag in my service dress uniform over to a dorm. I got into the dorm and it was late at night, so I got up the next morning and I'm thinking, man, I’m hungry and I'm ready to go to the dining hall.
Back then, this changed over time, but back then, they actually had a meal card that was separate from the military ID card, and of course I didn't have one and the guy at the door would not let me eat. I showed him my ID card and explained my situation but he would not let me go in, and I was to afraid to argue so I went back to my dorm, and other than water from the water-fountain, I didn't eat the entire weekend. To be clear, I've made up for it since then, but I was just so new and confused, I didn't know what to do. Needless to say, Monday morning in my service dress uniform and horse blanket overcoat, I went back to personnel, got in-processed and once again, with meal card in hand, I headed towards the chow hall. I'm finally on my way to get my meal and a Chief Master Sergeant, yelled out at me.
He could tell I was new because I was dragging a duffel bag, and he just wanted to help, and he said, "Airman, come over here," and back then I did what most one-stripers would do, I turned around and went the other way. So he yelled out again and said, "Airman, don't you walk away from me." So I had no choice. I grabbed my duffel bag, went over to him and I saluted, which I shouldn't have done, and of course, he gave me the classic response, "You don't need to salute me, I work for a living. So you don't salute me." When I explained myself he understood he was furious that no one had met me. So he threw my duffel bag in his pickup truck, and we went to the chow hall, and ate lunch. After that, he took me to my new unit and got me settled in with another chief that was there.
Chief Master Sergeant Brown ended up being not only a mentor then, but a mentor through most of my enlisted career, and because I ended up leaving Pope going to a couple of assignments, and coming back, he had also come back as the senior enlisted member for the entire base, he later helped me get my college degree completed, and helped me complete the application for Officer Training School. So those type of mentors have been there for me my entire career, and they are still there, and I feel like it's almost a duty of mine now to give back, because they were so instrumental in my career, and continue to be instrumental in my life.
Sankey: Throughout your career, you've also encountered people on the other side of that coin whose unconscious bias has really come through in ways that showed that they didn't think you belonged in some of the places that you were, whether it was at the commissary or at the Pentagon, how has that affected you?
Spencer: Yeah, great question. And particularly in the context of all the George Floyd issues, protests and everything that's going on around us last summer. People often ask me, "were you discriminated against while you were in the military?" And my response is twofold. First of all, it's kind of hard to say that I was discriminated against having been promoted to four stars. So that would be hard to claim. But setting that aside, my response is absolutely not. In fact, every supervisor I had was very supportive and went above and beyond to help me, and I feel very, very fortunate for that. That said, I did encounter many episodes of inappropriate language, racist and bigoted comments and views and unconscious bias that affected my wife and I personally. I'm not blaming anyone. And I do not believe the Air Force or the military is racist organization. But as in our greater society, there are a small percentage of people who do harbor racist views and Ora and I had to navigate our way through that as best we could. Just to give you an example while serving as Vice Chief, and this was not long before I retired.
I was living at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, and I had a really busy day ahead, and so I wanted to go get a quick work out at the gym. I pulled into the gym parking lot around 5:30 in the morning. I was dressed in my workout gear, with my uniform in a bag, hanging up in the car. I pulled into one of only two general officer parking spaces, step out of the car, and there's a gentleman who was parked in the row behind me that saw me get out, and he immediately got out of his car. I don't know why he was sitting there, but he came up to me and started chewing me up one side and down the other, because he said, “how dare you park in a general officer spot.” And he actually lectured me on why it was important for general officers to be able to get in and out of facilities, because they had such busy schedules. Interestingly enough, there was a Chief Master Sergeant that I knew personally who was walking by at the time, and he was livid because we knew each other, and he started to come over to give this guy a piece of his mind, but I held up my hand and said, "Hey, no, I got it," because I wasn't mad.
And I wasn't mad because it had happened to me so many times before, and so at the end of his tirade, I looked him right in the eye and I said, "What makes you think I'm not a General Officer?" And it was amazing to see the light bulb come on in his head that. He suddenly realized that he just assumed I was not a general officer based on my race. He was particularly embarrassed when I pointed out the four-star emblem on my car windshield. And here's the thing that's interesting about this particular incident. This gentleman was African American! So this during a period of our history when we had an African American president, and this young man could not see someone who looked like him as a general officer! Unfortunately, this happened to me far too often during my career. It also happened to my wife, who had been at social functions on several occasions, with other spouses, where it wasn't unusual for a spouse to walk up to her and ask her to go get them a drink, assuming she was part of the staff.
So yeah, those kind of things happened, and they continue to happen today. I don't blame the Air Force for that, but I do think it's something that the Air Force and the military in general don't talk about enough. It's frustrating to me that there are folks who don't think those things happen, and they think we're making these stories up, and we're really not. So yeah, it's been quite a journey for me and I'm still on that journey. But that's one of the examples I discuss in the book that I think people will find a bit unique, because those are things I had to navigate around as I progressed in my career.
Sankey: And that really frames perfectly the powerful message of your meeting with Congressman John Lewis about being able to see people like you in positions that you would aspire to. Could you tell me about that meeting? That one made me cry.
Spencer: Well, [chuckle] that wasn't my intent, but throughout my career, I've been very fortunate and blessed, there's no question about it. But one of the things I got to do in the jobs I had was visit the Hill a lot. I went over to Hill for budget testimonies and meetings, and met with both members in the Senate and the House, and I considered it an honor to do so. A celebrity does generally not awe me, but when I had the opportunity to meet with Congressman John Lewis, I was awed. And I didn't say a lot during the meeting because I was just so blown away by this small in stature gentleman that had given his entire life to make our country better. As I walked into his office, it was like a museum, a Civil Rights Museum. Every inch of his wall was covered with pictures of himself and Martin Luther King Junior, pictures of himself with President of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, and just an amazing Office of history.
In fact, a couple of my other staff were with me, and we all were blown away. To his credit, he took almost two hours with us, and he talked us through his experiences. One in particular, I remember, he told us about the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge where he ended up getting a concussion and had to be hospitalized. He said when he got over the bridge, there was a gentleman there on a horse who said they had to turn back, and he said, "Okay, we're not going to fight you, we don't want any violence, would you allow me to just pray first.” At that moment, as he knelt down, they hit him over the head with a club. Most of us talk about how we can make society better, how we can help our country get better, but here's a guy who dedicated his life to doing just that, and I was just blown away by him because he's such a humble person who wasn't seeking any credit for himself. His life was dedicated to making our country better. It's kind of funny in hindsight because I thought I would get profound with him because he had been so profound with me.
So I asked, "Congressman Lewis, "where are the John Lewis's of today? Back during the Civil Rights Movement, there was Martin Luther King Jr, there was himself, all of those icons that everyone turned to as leaders of civil rights movement. Where are those leaders today?" And his answer was, "I'm looking at one right now." And that response stopped me in my tracks. His point was we all have that responsibility, and I shouldn't look at him or others to do something, I should and others should do as he believed, which was, don't walk past a problem, even if that's only in my area of influence. For most of us, it's easier to remain silent and depend on someone else to do the hard work. By the way, after the George Floyd incident, I had a ton of people call me that I served with, essentially saying, "are things really that bad? Do you really get stopped by the cops, etc.”, and they were shocked to learn that yes, I indeed did deal with those issues.
So it was an opportunity to have that discussion, but they all admitted to me that they had heard conversations and been engaged with people who said things that cause them to cringe, but the important thing was they didn't say anything, because it may have alienated them with their group, and so they just remained silent, and I'm afraid that a lot of us do that, me included. We hear things, we see things, and it's just easier to walk away. And that's what I learned, I think mostly from that visit, that all of us, including me have responsibility to make our country better, and it takes courage to stand up to someone that I may know and respect who says or does something inappropriate, and say, "You know what? You shouldn't have said that. And you know what? That's offensive. So please don't do that again." And so I try to be better at that, but this Hill visit was one of those opportunities in my life that I will never forget.
Sankey: As a leader, you've taken the opportunity to always push for a diverse set of voices at the table, demographic, but also, in terms of your experience in your career, why should non-pilots be part of making the Air Force a stronger, better organization?
Spencer: Yeah, that's a good question. Because I look at diversity with a big D, that includes race, ethnicity and gender, and it also includes background and experience. Diversity just makes good common sense to me because if there's a problem and you're searching for a solution, you would want varied and diverse opinions about that problem. Said another way, a leader can throw a problem in the middle of the table and get all types of views that are based on all types of life lenses and experiences. So I really think that it’s critical to have diversity at the table, especially the leadership table, from all different backgrounds. I'll give you a quick story from my book. When I was a second lieutenant, I was assigned to Robins Air Force Base Georgia. I attended my first staff meeting that was led by our two-star commander. As a second lieutenant, I was the junior person in the room, and I happened to be the only African American in the room, and I was seated in the back of the room. And so they're having this discussion around the table, and based on my enlisted experience, I knew a little about that issue, as it turned out, more so than most of the folks around the table.
But of course, as a second lieutenant, I didn't say anything, but I could see how frustrated they were. So the commander said, "Okay, well, we beat this enough for one day, let's sleep on it and come back and talk tomorrow." Like most staff meetings, it's common practice that once the meeting is over, the commander goes around the room to ask if anyone has additional comments to bring up. And so he went around the table and then swung his chair around and began canvassing the remainder of the room. At one point, he locked eyes with me and said, "Oh my, lieutenant, what are you doing here?" And I said, "I just arrived," and I told him where I worked. And he jokingly said to me, "Well, I guess as a brand new lieutenant, new to the Air Force, much less this command, I bet you have an answer to this problem." I responded, "Well sir, actually, I do have an opinion. I don't know if I have an answer, but I have a suggestion." He seemed a bit puzzled and it wasn’t obvious he really wanted my opinion; but he nevertheless, asked me to provide my idea.
I laid out my thoughts for him and he said, "Okay, thanks lieutenant, we appreciate it." He continued around the room, and suddenly, he swung his chair back around facing me and looked me straight in the eye and said, "Lieutenant, will you repeat what you just said?" And so I repeated it again, and he turned back around to the main table, and he said, "why didn't we think of that?" Now, to be clear, what I said was not rocket science or brain surgery…it was just that I had experience with that issue, and they didn't, and so that’s why I believe diversity is so important. Now, to be clear, diverse opinions or varied opinions aren't always the best ideas, but I think leaders should be inclusive, to ensure all views are considered. I certainly would not start up a new company without having a diverse staff, and I would invite and encourage everyone to contribute to make us a stronger organization, which I think diversity does, it makes organizations stronger.
Sankey: And we're just now getting around to talking about your career field, I really enjoyed your previous book, The Green Eyeshades of War, which you did with Air University Press about the history of financial managers in war, and throughout your career, it's been a big motivation for you to be a good steward of the government's money, what are some of the things that you found innovative ways to save money and respect the taxpayers?
Spencer: One of the things I talk about in my book is about growing up in Southeast DC and attending a school system that wasn't very good. And unfortunately, I wasn't a good student anyway, so I'm not sure it would have mattered. But one thing I remember was a story one of my elementary school teachers read to us in class. It was titled "The Ant and the Grasshopper", and it was one of Aesop's fables that essentially talked about being thrifty. And if you save money and work while the sun is shining, you'll be prepared when it's raining and snowy. My own father was a master at saving money by servicing his own car, doing his own plumbing and buying in bulk. So that children’s story, coupled with my Dad’s example is where my passion for efficiency was born, so I really got into tools like Lean Six Sigma and all that. So in the Department of Defense, and the Air Force in particular, I always found opportunities to be more efficient. This is not about being penny-wise and pound-foolish, because I believe in having the best air force in the world with the best equipment and the best-trained people.
And I'm not talking about skimping on mission requirements. But it seems to me we waste a lot of money in DoD. And throughout my career, I was constantly finding ways that we could operate more efficiently, and I have hundreds of examples. One that I discuss in the book was when I was a Squadron Commander at Seymour Johnson AFB. During that time, I actually ran a project for the Wing Commander on how we could get more efficient. In doing so, I gathered a team together, and by the way, this was a load of fun for me, because I went and got all those rebels on the base who would always go home and tell their neighbors and friends how inefficient the base was, and I said, "Okay, here's your put up or shut up moment, give me some examples." And I'm telling you, we started reviewing contracts as an example, and we reviewed the grounds maintenance contract that hadn't been reviewed in years, and we were paying for grass being cut where there was no longer grass, and we were paying to empty trash cans in buildings that no longer existed. It was incredible. In particular, I remember we had a dining hall on the flight line that was very close to the dining hall for the main base, and this flight line dining hall was mainly used by the fire department so they could respond quickly to an aircraft emergency.
And I understood that, except the dining hall was very expensive, because you have to maintain foods at certain temperatures and follow other food handling guidelines. This resulted in double work for the main chow hall and was very expensive. So we looked at the numbers and the mission requirement and suggested to the Wing Commander that we consider closing it. The wing commander was skeptical but essentially agreed to do so only if we could convince the fire chief. It so happened that the fire chief, who was a great guy, initially disagreed based on the point of proximity to the flight line. However, we countered with an example of how the fire trucks park a distance away from the flight during softball games and other sporting events. Our point was, why not do the same thing at the main chow hall.
We suggested that we cone off a place in the parking lot for fire trucks so in an emergency, the firefighters could quickly, and efficiency depart. The fire chief actually liked the idea but what really sold it was he really liked to eat, and there was more variety in the main dining hall, and once he saw the long rows of food options, he was sold. That decision saved a ton of money, but there were so many things like that throughout my career, and I didn't have to look very hard. If you ask my wife, she'll just tell you I'm cheap, which is probably true too, but this is something I've always been passionate about and it's something I've enjoyed and still enjoy today.
Sankey: And you allowed the desserts to do the convincing for you.
Sankey: So two themes kind of come together with that example, and we have a lot of discussions about what actually gets used on the base, in conjunction with what kind of Air Force culture do 21st century air men really want. Do they want to hang out at the bowling alley? What sort of assumptions are we making about the music they listen to, what kind of club they want to go to on base, and that's a big part of recruiting and retaining them?
Spencer: It is, in fact, just coincidentally, I'm going to lead a panel for the Air Force Association Symposium in September addressing that very subject, because you're absolutely right. Airmen are smart, they are a lot more diverse, and the traditional things that the military brought to the table don't necessarily appeal to young airmen today. I mean, think about back in 1946 or '47 when the Air Force was created, 1947. First of all, it was mostly a male service, most of the younger folks were not married and there were very few people of color in the Air Force. And so things have changed so much. There was no Internet, there was no Facebook…everything was different. When I joined the Air Force, especially when I got commissioned. I remember my first meeting with my new boss. I was a second lieutenant and he was a lieutenant colonel. He called me in to his office and told me to join the officers club because it was my responsibility to do so. Things are so much different now. You've got both spouses working, with kids, with after-school activities, and one or both may be enrolled in college courses, so attending the club after work is not something they are interested in.
So I agree. The Air Force is changing, but the personnel system has not kept up in my view and social media has accelerated that change. The military loses a lot of women, as an example, who after taking maternity leave, feel like they return and are treated differently. We should have a system that accommodates maternity and paternity leave and other opportunities for personal and professional growth. If you are running a company and one of your most valuable employees needed to step away for six or eight weeks, or even a year, you would probably find a way to accommodate them and welcome them back upon return. Again, I think the Air Force is changing but that change is much too slow in my view.
Just a quick story that I write about in my book is when I first got commissioned, and we had our first social function, I was excited because I had heard about these social functions, but we had not actually attended one. So we get this invitation in the mail and it says, "casual," dress. My wife is from North Carolina, and I'm from Washington DC., so our notion of casual was jeans and a shirt. However, as we were walking over to the club we noticed our peers dressed in, what is sometimes referred to as, “officer casual,” which was dockers, a golf shirt, and loafers, which no one had told us about. I didn't have any loafers at the time, but we had to run home and change. And so picture this, my wife and I walk into the club, as the only African Americans at the function. That's not a complaint. It just is what it is.
And we're listening to conversations about golf, and about tee times. Southeast DC is known for a lot of things, but golf is not one of them, and so I had try my best to appear as though I understood the conversation. I can't tell you the number of people that walked up to me and asked what my handicap was, and I had no idea what they were talking about. Fast-forward to today, I actually have a handicap, but I'm embarrassed to tell anyone what it is. In addition to the golf dilemma, conversations were taking place about things as trivial as TV shows they were watching that we had never watched before. At some point during the evening, the band cranks up, and they're playing country music. Now look, I've got nothing against country music, but again, growing up in DC and my wife growing up where she did, we just never developed an appreciation for that genre because we never heard it. But everyone around us was singing the words, and we're kind of looking around trying to lip sync as best we could. My point is, the Air Force has changed but many of the traditions have not. Again, this is not a complaint, but an illustration of how some members have to adapt and assimilate while the Air Force is catching up.
Because I don’t believe this challenge is understood by most people, I try to provide examples in the book of what that was like, not to necessarily change behavior, but to seek appreciation for it. I remember I had a boss once who asked me why is it that when he attends a social function, and a Black person enters the room, it appears that the first thing they do is seek out other blacks to talk to? I don't think he meant to be negative, but rather I think he was genuinely curious, and frankly, I was glad he asked. What I offered to him was and example of himself in another country, and he walked into a social function and looked across the room and spotted another American, what would he do? I explained because they had their country of origin in common, he would likely go over to that person.
As I explained, there would be nothing nefarious about that, and there is nothing nefarious about his example. Rather, it served as an initial comfort level for the start of the evening. And so again, one of the things I hope I do, or I hope I captured throughout the book, is to provide insight into some of those things. For example, if they find themselves in a male-dominated room and a young woman walks in who may appear a little bit uncomfortable, understand why and go out of your way to over help them feel more comfortable. So I hope that comes through in the book as well.
Sankey: Absolutely. One of the great examples of that was when you were at The FMB office at the Pentagon, you noticed that the culture there where it was a badge of honor to have a cot in the hallway and put in horrible hours and be away from your family, wasn't a good match for getting people to do their best work, how did you change that work culture?
Spencer: Yeah, thanks for that question, because I will very rarely talk about something I did, because it wasn't just me, it was the whole leadership team. But when I look back over my career, it's probably one of the things I'm most proud of, because the Air Force budget office, and I think it was similar in other services, were viewed as sweatshops. In those days, it was nothing to work weekends, late nights, and we actually had cots for people that needed to spend the night working on a hot project. As a result, there were folks who couldn't go to see their kid's functions, because it was expected that if we worked in Air Force budget, that was part of the job. I was determined, when I got the chance to lead FMB that we were going to make a change. We were convinced that we could get the mission done and still have reasonable schedules. So, we quickly discovered that much of what we stayed late for was self-generated. I can't tell you the number of times, as a captain in the Pentagon, while working in budget, that I worked all weekend or stayed up half the night to finish a project, put it in my boss's in-basket, and two weeks later, it was still sitting there.
As a result, no one in the field wanted an assignment in the Pentagon, and those assigned wanted out. In short, FMB was viewed as an awful place to work, and we were determined to change that. So we assembled the leadership team and we decided we would still work hard, but also play hard. We explained that there would be times we had to surge but we were not going to serge when it was not necessary. So, over time, we transformed the entire environment...so much so that our staff started to enjoy coming to work. And the leadership tool that I used more than any other throughout my career was leadership by walking around. So I would go around every day talking to people to ask how are you doing or how we could help? And it was amazing to see our staff go from a head down, stressed-out look, to smiling, joking, talking about the game last night, etc. And not surprisingly, we still performed at a high level.
One of the things the helped make our staff feel more comfortable with this change is we told them, if I called their office looking for them, and I was told one of two things: that they were at the gym working out, or home attending a spouse or children’s event, I would consider that a good thing. And it was amazing the weight that took off their shoulders. That it was okay to be a human being and work in the Pentagon. Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of folks who associate success with long hours, and associate good performance with long hours, and that's just not true. In fact, I told everyone in budget, if they wanted to impress me and get a strong rating, they should get their job done during normal duty hours and go home. So, I'm not taking credit for all that because it was the leadership team, but when I look back, I'm probably most proud of that because I think we actually transformed some people's lives and helped them have a better work-life balance with their family.
Sankey: One of my favorite stories from your book, and there are several, but please tell us about how you escaped your own kidnapping.
Spencer: Yeah, so that was interesting, and when I say I've been fortunate in my career, I mean I've been fortunate in my career. I mean, coming up as a financial manager, we never had the opportunity to a Group Commander, or a Wing Commander. Previously, those opportunities were reserved mostly for pilots, and maybe some maintenance folks and space officers. But you would never see a Wing Commander who was a financial manager by trade. So as fate would have it, when I made colonel, the Air Force changed the process to open command opportunities to support career fields like mine. And I was fortunate enough be one of the first financial managers selected for Group Command. And, lightning struck twice as I was subsequently selected Wing Command at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. In hindsight, it was one of the most challenging assignments in my career because the Wing Commander I replaced had been relieved of duty and morale was really low. And the wing was due for a large operational readiness inspection, and they hadn't been inspected in five years. Even worse, the wing had failed a pre-inspection.
And by the way, I pinned on colonel literally weeks before I took over the wing, so all of my group commanders were senior in rank to me. So we had this inspection coming, and I'm telling you, I didn't go out the front gate for three months, because it was all day, every day in preparation. So the inspection team finally arrives, and picture this, we're in the base theater, and the inspector gets up and says, "I’ve got to be honest with you, we're going to be a little tougher on you because your Wing Commander,” and he looked right at me, "was the group commander at Tinker Air Force Base when we inspected them so we feel he may have an advantage so we're going to be tougher on you."
So the inspection starts and it's actually going pretty well. As part of the inspection, they decide, "this isn't what we thought was going to happen, so let's take him [the wing commander] out of the exercise, and we'll test his Vice Wing Commander”. So the next morning, and I didn't know any of this was coming, I literally walked out the back of my house that leads to my office, and these two ominous looking guys walk up to me and say, "Exercise, exercise, exercise, we're kidnapping you as part of the inspection, and we're taking you out of the action for now.” So they literally put a blindfold on my face and took me to a base lodging room. What was funny in hindsight was my wife saw this from the window of our house and called my office, which tipped them off.
In the meantime, while in the lodging room, the inspectors asked if I wanted any breakfast?" I said, "Sure." So they took my order, and they went out, I think to the bowling alley or somewhere to pick me up some breakfast. So I'm thinking, okay, this is an inspection, and we're supposed to play this like real. So I simply got up, opened the window since we were on the first floor, jumped out, and went to work. They were really upset with me, but they couldn't say anything because they told us to play it like it was real. And I said, "If you kidnapped me for real, I would try to escape." Having given it some thought, they actually complimented that event during the inspection out brief, which ended up going really well.
Sankey: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that the mainstream American population doesn't really understand the kind of commitment or sacrifices that military families make, and in the book, you bring up a really striking visit to Dover with the Air Force Secretary to see the return of some fallen service people, why do you think Americans should know more about what the service does?
Spencer: I think a perfect example is when I got to participate in a dignified transfer, which is essentially a short ceremony performed for those who are killed in the war zone. The remains are brought back to Dover Air Force Base, and there's a very short ceremony by which an honor guard team marches up to the airplane, brings the casket out, and they literally transfer it into a van that takes it off for processing. As part of that ceremony, they generally don't allow the public to attend, but they do allow family members to attend. I'd never experienced a dignified transfer before so this was a first for me. Coincidentally, we had a brand new Secretary of the Air Force so we got to experience this first together.
From the minute we landed at Dover AFB, the ceremony was conducted solemnly and professionally. After a short briefing about the ceremony, we met with the relatives of the fallen service member. What we witnessed was a combination of the family being distraught and emotional over losing their loved one, while at the same time they were proud of their service to the country. To be standing at the command of attention on the flight line as a C-17 rolled up, and watch the back door come down revealing the American Flag draped coffin was surreal. Out of the corner of my eye, we could see and hear the sobbing family members.
The gravity of the ceremony hit me when the airplane door opened and suddenly, the ceremony became very real. This represented a service member who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and I wondered how many Americans were even aware of this Airman’s name. As I talked to the secretary on the flight back, I commented that I wished my comment every American could witness what we had witnessed. For many Americans, this war is something that's sterile and happens overseas, and is barely mentioned on the evening news shows. Most Americans wake-up every and go to work, go on vacation, go out to dinner, with little consciousness that there are service men and women serving in harm's way. And in cases like we had just witnessed, some of those service members won't come back. We have people serving around the globe in dangerous circumstances and I wish more Americans understood and appreciated that.
Sankey: You're also one of the busiest retired people I think I've ever met. You've continued to serve Air Force people and interest in what you do now, revitalizing the AFA, as well as the Armed Forces Benefits Association. What has it been like to move to the civilian business world?
Spencer: Yeah, great question. The transition for me was relatively easy. Based on the work ethic I learned from my grandfather and father, I've always been a hard worker. My wife calls me a workaholic, but I don't think that is quite accurate, but I am one of those people who can't sit at home. Even during the height of the pandemic, when everything was closed down, most days I came in to work. It was safe because nobody else was here, and it's not about the money. I enjoy being active and keeping my mind challenged, which is one of the reasons I was really honored to take the job of President of the Armed Forces Benefits Association, and now dual President of the 5star Life Insurance Company, because we serve those who serve the nation. More specifically, we serve military, first responders, federal employees, government contractors and their families with low cost term life insurance and other benefits. To be able to serve them is really an honor for me. But in addition to that, I'm on three public boards and I'm on several advisory boards. So yeah, I do stay pretty busy. It's rare that I'm sitting at home doing nothing…not because I have too much to do, but because I enjoy it.
For me, to go on a cruise, or take off for a week and go to Paris, would drive me crazy. I can't think of anything more stressful than that. But you put me at my house on a nice day outside with my 1972 Monte Carlo, washing and waxing that car; I'm at complete calm and relaxation with the biggest smile on my face. During those times, my mind is focused squarely on that car, and I’m literally oblivious to everything else going on around me. I've always been like that. Simple things relax me. When we had our house built in Lorton VA, two things I insisted on was a three-car garage, and I wanted a front porch where I could have a rocking chair. For me, sitting out on the front porch in our rural neighborhood, watching the deer and turkeys and other wildlife is complete relaxation for me. To go for a walk is more calming than and fancy, or expensive vacation. So I do love to stay busy, even when I'm at home, absolutely. And by the way, my father and grandfather were the same way.
Sankey: My last question for you is something that I absolutely saw when I read your book, but now having had the pleasure of talking to you for an hour now, is that the guiding star in your life has been be-kind, throughout your life, people have given you a second chance or given you a hand and you've paid this forward, how should someone emulate that to be a better leader and a better person.
Spencer: Yeah, 100%. And I’m glad you saved the best for last because during my career, especially early on, I got a lot of second chances. It's funny to look back on it now, but I mentioned to you when I first joined the Air Force, I had a big Afro hairstyle. Unfortunately, when I joined the Air Force, like my peers, I maintained that Afro and went through all kinds of elaborate, tricks to disguise the bulk of my hair. And I also talk about in the book when another Chief Master Sergeant caught me in a moment where I wasn't able to disguise my hair, and actually put me in his pick-up truck, and took me over to the barbershop and paid for my haircut. And by the way, that was another turning point in my life and in my career. That Chief Master Sergeant made such an impression on me that I decided to follow the Air Force grooming rules and be the best Airman I could be. I think sometimes we forget that most Airmen are 18, 19-year-olds, and sometimes get into mischief, just like there 18, 19-year-old counterparts on college campuses.
Young folks are prone to do things that they probably shouldn't, so I think it's really important for commanders and first sergeants to discern between a character flaw or someone with an integrity issue, versus just being young and doing what 18, 19-year-olds do. That's been a big push for my entire career, in making sure I connect with the young folks in my unit, and helping them work their way through that initial challenging period. You also mentioned being kind and considerate to others and there have been many people who were kind to me. I'll give you one example that I cover in my book. When I was returning from Taiwan, I was around 19 years old. My return flight seating placed me in s middle seat in the back of the airplane. So at a little over six feet tall and the person in front of me with their seat reclined back on my knees, and back in those days you could smoke on the airplane, it was very uncomfortable. While sitting in the Los Angeles Airport, I was rubbing my knees and a gentleman sitting across from me asked if I was okay.
And I said, "Yeah, I'm fine, it’s just that my knees are hurting because I completed a long flight but, I'll be fine." So we talked for a few minutes and he told me he was a businessman who travelled a lot. It was getting close for my flight to board so I went to the restroom. When I returned, the gentleman was gone. As they started to board the flight, the attendant announced first class boarding so I sat there waiting for them to get to the last boarding category. Suddenly, the attendant came over to me and said, "Didn't you hear the call for first class?" And I actually laughed, and said, "Ma'am, I would love to be in first class, but I'm not." And she said, "Yes, you are. That gentleman that you spoke with upgraded your ticket."
Once seated, I leaned over to the guy, and thanked him profusely for the upgrade. I explained that I could not afford to reimburse him, but I'd love to pay him back somehow. He told me that he understood how tough long flights could be and as a young businessperson, a lot of folks helped him, and were kind to him, and as a result, he pledged to help someone each day if he could. He said, "Look, if you want to pay me back then you adopt my pledge. Try to help somebody every chance you get. So, since that time, I've tried to do just that. Whether it's been in a McDonald's restaurant where I have paid for meals for the homeless to mentoring young airmen who were going down the wrong road.
For example, as a commander I invited young airmen to my house, and I frequently visited the barracks to ensure I made myself available to airmen who needed support. Even today while living in DC, I go out of my way to simply let others merge into traffic, which is a small thing that can go a long way to make someone feel better about their day. What's frustrating, especially when you consider how divided our country is now, is if we would just be nicer to each other, we might not be so divided.
Think about that. What if we all were more civil to each other and treated each other with kindness? So I'm glad you asked that because thinking back about our conversation on Congressman John Lewis, we may not be able to change the world, but we can change our piece of the world. As individuals, we can change one person at a time. And that's what I try to do by being kind to people…make our world better, one person at a time.
Sankey: I can't think of a better way to wrap things up. General Spencer, thank you so much for being with us today. His memoir Dark Horse is out from Naval Institute press, we'll have a link to his Green Eyeshades of War with Air University Press. I hope you have a great day and a great commute home.
Spencer: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. I really appreciate everything that's done at Air University which is a great organization. So thank you so much for what you're doing. And it's just been a pleasure to talk to you, and to meet so thank you so much.
Sankey: Thank you.
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