May is National Military Appreciation Month in the United States and a time when we are all encouraged to show our gratitude to those both in and out of the military. For my blog on “Innovators I Admire” this month, I thought I’d research and highlight someone I have always looked up to in my family – my Uncle Richard!
Uncle Richard was born in 1945 which made him eligible for the draft during the Vietnam war. During the Vietnam war era, between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military drafted into service 2.2 million American men out of an eligible pool of 27 million. The war and the draft brought with it a lot of anxiety and anger to many American households who felt it was unbalanced towards the working class, while the wealthy would go to college. For my Uncle, this was never a debate or question. He was 23, had graduated from college and was working at McDonnell Douglas when his number came up.
In evaluating his options, he joined the U.S. Army and chose a path to minimize his time commitment to the conflict by choice – electing to drop Officer Candidacy School. The Army assigned him to the First Air Cavalry division, 1st of the 77th Artillery. Initially, he was stationed at Battalion Headquarters but grew strong friendships with the Bravo Battery unit and asked to be re-assigned to their team. His Sargent at headquarters captured just how crazy this decision was with a “Are you nuts?” Uncle Richard spent the next 300 days in the jungle with Bravo supporting his unit during times of intense conflict as well as intense quiet and boredom before completing his responsibilities and returning home safely.
For most of us, war is something we experience thru a movie like Platoon. For a generation of Americans, the Vietnam War was something experienced up close and personally. For my uncle, he got out alive, with no major injuries, and of sound mind. We didn’t talk about war stories or terrifying moments or horrible things he witnessed. For him, and to many veterans, these war anecdotes have no context for someone who had not experienced war themselves. To my uncle, his tour of duty was a good experience and one whose lessons he would use throughout his career.
Uncle Richard was always a funny guy. Humor came naturally for him and helped him remain positive in the face of any crisis. Returning from the war, Richard went back to work for McDonnell Douglas in their Flight Test Division overseeing the development of a lot of different airplanes and prototypes over an incredible 48 years. He worked on projects surrounding the F-4, Skylab, F-15, F-18, AV-8B, DARPA S/MTD, P-8, T-45 and others. From next generation fighters, to vertical liftoff planes, to short takeoff and landing planes, to large maritime patrol submarine destroyers, Uncle Richard left his mark on a number of important aircraft. With his positive outlook, sense of duty, and dependable trustworthy nature, Uncle Richard helped propel innovative American airplane superiority forward over almost 5 decades!
In today’s world, working almost 50 years at one company is unheard of. For my Uncle, it just made sense. He had built a good network within the company of close personal relationships which were important to him. The work was exciting and cutting-edge focused on modernizing the military and maintaining our air superiority which meant he had a hand in keeping our military safer. Having served during a crisis, and decorated for his service, he was in a position of trust for those who were serving – something he valued greatly and respected through his strong work ethic.
When I asked him about life’s lessons from his career and what he might say to someone who was just starting out, my Uncle talked about the importance of relationships and character. From his perspective, the world was a very different place today than it had been throughout most of his career. The so-called “Digital Age” was not one he looked at fondly. His advice was to make sure that you build strong relationships with those around you, and that you are a person of action. Relationships are created through exchange and providing value or compassion for another person through interaction. Personal character is about who you are and how your actions define your dependability, trust, appreciation, and fortitude. Make sure you do what you say, say what you do, do a good job and see things through!
Spending almost 50 years at one company is extremely impressive. To survive in the government contracting arena where programs (and your work) come and go driven by political winds is an even bigger feat. You could argue he had a lot of luck were the period across a few programs – but for Uncle Richard, 50 years meant dozens of programs and opportunities. To me, as I learned more and more about his career and experiences, I felt his success and long career were attributable to his positive outlook. In my research of innovators, this characteristic is the most important trait of a successful innovator. As an innovator, and survivor, who was always dependable and highly principled, I proudly add my Uncle Richard to the innovators I admire in May for Military Appreciation Month.