Highest-Ranking Black Air Force General Credits Success to Hard Work
(EXCERPT) 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.
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'
"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 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
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
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
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
"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."
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