Highest-Ranking Black Air Force General Credits Success to Hard Work
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2004 In his early teens, John D. Hopper Jr. thought he'd grow up to be a scientist or schoolteacher. But that changed in 1963 when a liaison officer from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., visited him at Lyndon McKinley High School in Columbus, Ohio.
Lt. Gen. John D. Hopper Jr., the highest-ranking African-American in the Air Force, meets members of the Westwood High School Army ROTC detachment following his remarks at a 2002 African-American History Month commemoration in Memphis, Tenn. Photo by Master Sgt. Michael Briggs, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
No one could foretell that attending the academy would one day lead to him becoming the highest-ranking African-American in the U.S. Air Force. "The liaison officer got me interested, and I started focusing on the academy in my senior year of high school," said Hopper, now a lieutenant general and vice commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. With a budget of more than $7 billion, the command recruits, trains and educates more than 370,000 men and women for the aerospace force and the nation.
Hopper played basketball and ran track in high school, but when he tried out for sports teams at the academy, he didn't make any. So the high school honor society student focused on a group called the "Way of Life Committee," which was composed primarily of minority cadets.
"It was like a booster club that supported the academy's sports team," said the 57-year-old, 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound, native of Clarksville, Tenn. He calls golf his recreational sport, but he jogs and does an aerobic workout about 5 a.m. every day to keep militarily fit.
After graduating from the academy in 1969, Hopper went on to become a command pilot with more than 3,900 flying hours in 12 different aircraft. About 570 of those hours were spent flying combat missions in a C-130 Hercules over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and in Operation Desert Storm.
Hopper and his crew are some of the luckiest men alive, he said. Their aircraft was hit hundreds of times by enemy fire while flying an airdrop mission over Southeast Asia, but no crew member was injured. They had problems with the cargo aircraft's elevator, but made it safely back to Vietnam and landed at Cam Rahn Bay.
"We had about 500 holes in the airplane -- every fuel tank had a round through it," the general recalled. "They sawed off pieces of broom handles and stuck them into the leaking fuel tank. Nobody was injured, except for our nerves and our pride, probably."
During Desert Storm, Hopper flew C-130s while commander of the 1660th Tactical Airlift Wing (Provisional) in Southwest Asia. He also served as the commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy and on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.
Hopper graduated from the academy in 1969, six years after the historic graduation of the institution's first three African-Americans. "Today is better than 30 years ago for African-Americans," Hopper noted. "But even 30 years ago in the military, we pretty much had our act together in regards to treatment of minorities. So overt discrimination, I would categorically say, was a thing of the past. The battle to win hearts and minds is a continuous one, and we're farther along that path today than we were 30 years ago."
Hopper said no jobs were closed to African-Americans when he entered the Air Force.
Diversity makes the military services stronger, as much as diversity adds to the strength of the nation, the general noted. Having such ethnic observances as African-American History Month gives all ethnicities a chance to learn more about the different cultures that add to diversity, he said. Whether observances are held once or twice or 10 years in a row doesn't affect the need to have them, he added.
"The main thing we get from (ethnic observances) is education and a broadened perspective," he said. "I like to relate those particular observances to how people from different ethnic groups have contributed to the strength of our country and to our military."
As vice commander of the Air Force's training command, Hopper is aware the military's annual ethnic observances always reach people who might not previously have thought much about the various groups' contributions.
"In the Air Force, we turn over about 25 percent of our enlisted force every year," Hopper said. "So we always have new people coming in, and that's a lesson that never seems to lose its significance. So we're proud to take the chance to showcase the various diverse groups that make up our Air Force. And we brag about the fact that we can put those groups together to form the most powerful air and space team in the world."
The general, who accepts about five speaking engagements during African-American History Month each year, tries to draw parallels to the region of the country and how that relates to various ethnic groups and to American and military history. He also gives speeches each January in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
"I'm privileged to be asked to speak at these events, and it's one of the things I ought to do," Hopper noted.
His advice to all young enlisted personnel and officers is to make sure they go through the doors that the Air Force opens for them.
"One of the things we're most proud of is the fact that we try to realize the full potential of the people in our force, whether they're officer or enlisted," Hopper said. "Part of doing that is to make sure that doors are open and that people are trained and have the skills to walk through them and take advantage of opportunities that are present."
For example, he said, the Air Force recently started sending noncommissioned officers to sponsored master's degree programs. "This coming summer, we'll graduate our first NCOs with advanced degrees," he noted. "Most of them are technical degrees in the computer sciences and the like. Some of the NCOs that will graduate are from our sister services. That's a real step forward in providing new opportunities for airmen, officer and enlisted, to improve themselves and to add to our capability."
The students are attending the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and advanced degree programs at colleges and universities around the country.
Educating and training Air Force personnel is what Hopper does for a living, and basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is where it all begins for the enlisted force.
"Basic training is one of our responsibilities, so every year, we'll train 37,000 to 40,000 new airmen," he noted. "All of the accession sources for officers are our responsibility, except for the Air Force Academy. So ROTC, as well as Officer Training School, is our responsibility. On the education side, we're also responsible for professional military education, including the Air War College, Air Command and Staff College and Squadron Officers School."
Undergraduate and graduate level pilot training are the most visible training programs, Hopper said. "We produce about 1,100 new pilots every year," he noted.
"Often the least publicized, but equally important mission we have is technical training, which is along the lines of vocational skills," Hopper said. "We touch upwards of 250,000 airmen every year." It takes more than 60,000 military and civilian employees to get the command's job done.
He was lucky to return from Vietnam unscathed, but the general said what we usually think of as luck often goes hand-in-hand with preparation.
"I had a great nurturing youth from my family and the educators in my small town in Tennessee. The Air Force Academy presented itself as one of those opportunities, and I happened to be lucky enough to be prepared enough to accept it." He said the Air Force has offered similar opportunities and he was lucky enough to be in a position to accept those as well.
"So luck, preparation and the grace of the good Lord have allowed me to live out my dream," said Hopper, whose wife, Patricia, is a homemaker. Their son, John M. Hopper, 23, is a recent college graduate. Their daughter, Jessica, 18, is a high school senior.
Hopper's late father retired from the Army in 1973 as a master sergeant. His maternal grandfather served in the Army during World War I. His late mother was a homemaker. His brother, Terry, served in the Air Force for four years in the mid-1970s. He's now a prison counselor in Tennessee.
Asked what legacy would he like to leave, Hopper said, "The legacy that hard work is the thing that can overcome just about anything. If you're willing to work hard enough, there's nothing that can keep you from achieving your goals."