U.S. Strategic Command

 

Speeches

Air Force Association - Aksarben Chapter Annual Awards Ceremony

By General John E. Hyten | U.S. Strategic Command | April 20, 2017

Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. --  (As Delivered)

 

General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM): Thank you very much. If you have to follow Jimmy Weber, that’s not a good thing. When [retired] Col. [Chris] Canada told me that he was switching the order and it would be Jimmy after the break right before me, I said that’s great, but that’s not good for me. I’ll tell you what, as far as I’m concerned I’d just like to listen to Jimmy sing all night. So thank you very much.

 

I’m not going to speak from the podium. I’m just going to walk around and talk to you folks. It’s a small crowd; we’re all friends, lots of blue uniforms, which is always good to me. Thanks to the Air Force Association for what you do. I’ve been a member of the Air Force Association since I was a second lieutenant. Because back when I was a second lieutenant the commander of the unit came up to me and said hey, you need to be a lifetime member of the Air Force Association. And, well, I really don’t have $200 to be a lifetime member of the Air Force Association. He said, I don’t think you understood, you will sing God Bless the USA. So I became a life member.

 

And it was a little bit awkward for me, because my plan was clear, because I was going to be in the Air Force four years and then get out. So why would I want to be a lifetime member of the Air Force Association? But the good part is I get a magazine every month and the Air Force Association advocates for us, educates us, inspires us, and really does things that we can’t do. So one of the things they do is they provide scholarships for some pretty amazing people. We’re going to recognize those people here in a second, so I’ll say congratulations to each and every one of you because you deserve it. Congratulations. 

 

There’s two things that all four-star generals have in common. It was said by a friend of mine, I’m stealing this from [Gen.] Frank Gorenc, who’s a really good friend of mine, retired now as commander of United States Air Forces Europe. But two things we have in common. Number one, we’re all circling the drain, which means we’re old and done; and number two; we all wish we were you. We wish we could go back and do it all over again.

 

So the first thing I want to talk about tonight is the continuation of thanks, and the person I want to recognize is a teacher that’s sitting right here, Steph Larson.  It is Steph, right? The actual name is a little longer, so I’m glad it’s Steph, it’s short and thanks very much for doing that. But she is a physics and math teacher. Actually a physics teacher, but she was a physics major from Nebraska-Lincoln, minored in math. It’s a great thing for Laura and I because our son was a physics and math major.  It’s a spectacular major. He decided to become a golf professional for some reason. We need those too, but we need teachers. And recognizing her, and recognizing her for what she does with the science club at the high school, and what she’s done to motivate kids. Some of the kids that might grow up and be in the Air Force someday, but however they are, they will grow up and they’ll have all kinds of opportunities that will open up to them because of what you do. So thank you very much for everything you do. We’ll never be able to thank teachers enough.

 

I want to talk about teachers a little bit more because one of the major blessings of my life was I had some amazing teachers. I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and my family moved to Alabama in 1965.  My dad came with the Apollo Program. He was an engineer that came with Apollo and got to work on the Saturn V. And I was a kid, and I got to see the Saturn V built at the Cape. I got to see the F-1 engine, the giant main engine, a million-pound thrust engine tested at Huntsville. And every time that engine was tested in Huntsville it would vibrate the entire town. The entire town would shake to the core.  And if you didn’t have things tied down, whatever was on the shelf in your kitchen would vibrate off the kitchen shelf and crash onto the floor. And I always remember, the amazing thing to me is nobody ever complained. And my mom lost dishes and glasses. I asked her a couple of years ago, you know, is it just me, because I was a little kid? Was it me? No, she said, we didn’t get mad because we were going to the moon and everybody knew we were going to the moon, and that’s just what it took to go to the moon. 

 

But because of my dad and my mom, and then some unbelievably special teachers. The first teacher was Mrs. Bradshaw, 5th grade. Because she inspired me to take advantage of some basic skills I had in math, and she saw something in me. And because of that, I got to do some amazing things. And one of the amazing things I got to do was in August of 1969, so you’ve got to remember your history real quick. August of 1969, I got to meet Wernher von Braun as a 5th grader. I got to meet him because I was the math and science kid at my school and my teacher, Mrs. Bradshaw, said you can go out. 

 

Because, the miracle of 1969 was, in July of 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. And in August of ’69, Huntsville, Alabama, opened three new schools for math and science.  Chaffee Elementary School, Ed White Junior High School, and Grissom High School, and I got to go to Chaffee and Grissom.  Chaffee, White and Grissom were the three Apollo astronauts that died in the accident in January 1967. And they died in a Saturn 1B, on the top of Saturn 1B at the Cape. And two and a half years later, on a completely new rocket never built before by man, twice as big as the Saturn 1B, we flew that rocket and went to the moon ‒ the three men on top of that rocket. Two and a half years after that. And in the same two and a half years, in a small town in Alabama, a state that is not known for education, they built three new schools and they named them after those [Apollo 1] astronauts, and I got to go. And they were focused on math and science. Because they were focused on math and science in August, von Braun came to honor the three Apollo astronauts and a bunch of students got to go be there and cut the ribbon. And I was one of those kids because of Mrs. Bradshaw.

 

And then I thought, I’m growing up, I’m going to high school, and there was a woman named Mrs. Stolman who was a math teacher at Grissom High School. And by junior year, because I’d been pretty good at math, I had basically finished the math courses that the state of Alabama taught, because we went to public high school. We were done with math. Alabama didn’t teach calculus at the time. No calculus was taught in high school. And Mrs. Stolman looked at me and a couple of other kids and said, you know, you ought to learn calculus. So she went and found books and she created a course out of nothing, and took her own time, and she taught me calculus. And I’ll tell you what, if you’ve ever taken the SAT, you’ve taken the achievement tests that go with the SAT, you better know a little bit of calculus in order to do pretty well. And because she taught me that, and because I did pretty well, I got into Harvard University.

 

Then I couldn’t figure out how to pay for Harvard University, because I don’t know if you know that, but it’s very expensive. I was looking around, trying to figure out how I could possibly go to Harvard because my family, they could not afford it.

 

I went to Mrs. Mary Louise Johnson, the senior guidance counselor.  She said you know, you can apply for ROTC scholarships. I said how, Harvard doesn’t take ROTC, because in 1969 with the riots in Vietnam, they burned down the ROTC building and they didn’t allow ROTC back on campus. She said we can make something happen.  Why don’t you apply for the scholarship? 

 

At that time the scholarships paid for all the tuition, books and fees, plus $100 a month, which to me was, you know, more money than I knew what to do with. And Mrs. Johnson then helped me apply for a scholarship.  I applied to Harvard, I got into Harvard, and then she worked with me to petition Harvard University to allow me to cross-enroll at MIT. And I would take ROTC at MIT and I’d come to Harvard and take the rest of my classes, and I’d go back and forth between Harvard and MIT twice a week.  Mrs. Johnson did that for me.

 

When you think what a teacher does, and how a teacher changes your life, and what a teacher can do for you is just unbelievable. And we don’t thank our teachers enough, we never do. Teachers are some of the most amazing people in this world and they don’t get paid a ton of money. And they work extra when they see students that they like. And Steph runs the science club. And I’m sure they give you all kinds of bonus money for that. Oh they don’t, but those kids often develop a passion for science. They develop a passion for learning, and it opens up a whole world.

 

And then I went in the Air Force and I only owed the Air Force four years for that huge Harvard education. And I told everybody and his brother, four years and I’m out, I’m going. I’m going to go and make my fortune, I’m going to go get rich and do all kinds of things. I had all those plans, it was clear and so I’d go. I just told the Air Force I want to travel and see the world. I grew up in Alabama, go to school in Boston, I was going to travel and see the world. I told the Air Force on my dream sheet, I don’t care what I do, where I go, so I get a four-year tour at Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama. You can’t make this stuff up. But it’s okay, because I was only going to be in four years. Then I was going to get out.

 

So I was born in El Segundo, California. My dad moved to Huntsville when I was in first grade. In first grade in Alabama you have to declare, so I declared for University of Alabama, so roll tide. But the interesting thing about what was going to happen is that I was getting ready to get out, and everybody knew I was getting out. I go to my commander, and the commander says, so, if there’s one thing that you could do in the Air Force that would keep you in the Air Force, what would it be? I said I’d love to get in the space business. I was an engineer in Communications Command. I’d love to get in the space business, because that’s what I‘m going to do if I get out. So long story short, I ended up getting an assignment in the space business. So I was in El Segundo, California, the next year. The only other place my family had ever lived. Join the Air Force and see the world.

 

So then I’m working, and I become a chief engineer on the F-15A anti-satellite program, we actually shot down the satellite back in the 1980s. I was the chief engineer on the Air Force Strategic Defense Initiative, the initial Star Wars program as a captain. It was an amazing thing and I kept getting these amazing jobs, so I think I’ll stay for this next job.

 

And then I get a call one day and the call says, hey John, this is so and so, I’m calling from Systems Command Headquarters.  You grew up in Huntsville, didn’t you? I said yes, I did. Well this won’t be so bad, click. Next thing I knew, I had orders to Huntsville, Alabama, to work for the U.S. Army. What the heck is that? Join the Air Force and see the world.

 

So I had met Laura at this time, and all of a sudden I realized I was going to be in Huntsville for a while, and so I invited her to come out to Huntsville because I didn’t want to be alone for the entire time I was in Huntsville.  And she was a very successful commercial lines underwriter in the insurance business.  She packed up a U-Haul trailer, moved across the country, and we camped out in Huntsville until I could move back to the Air Force. And then I finally got back to the Air Force.  You know where the Air Force sent me? El Segundo, California. Over and over again. 

 

But the interesting thing, I pulled it out just tonight and I meant to bring it with me, but I left it at home because I found it the other night. When I was a captain, my bosses made me come up with a plan.  The plan was, what is your career going to be like? What are you going to do each step? And it’s really important for everybody in here, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a sergeant, a cadet, wherever you are, you should write down that plan, because that gives you goals and things to work for. And I looked at that plan I wrote down, and I realized that absolutely nothing I’d wrote down in my plan happened. Not a thing. The end state of that plan was I was going to be a program director of a major space program someday. That’s what I wanted to be, because I was going to be an engineer.

 

When I was in Huntsville, that’s when I decided to get out of the Air Force because I, you know, I was going to get out of the Air Force and make my fortune. And I got this great job at Omaha.  I interviewed with companies and I found a job, triple my salary, signing bonus with stock options, member of the country club, all of the things I thought I wanted. I came home and I told Laura, I’m going to get out of the Air Force and go to work for this company. She said, I thought you loved the Air Force. I said I do love the Air Force. She said, why are you going to quit? Well, I’m not quitting, I just have a better opportunity. She said, you’re quitting, why are you quitting the Air Force? I said well, it’s more money. She said, so you don’t think we have enough money? What don’t we have enough money for? I said well, we’d have more money. She said yeah, well, so we could have a bigger house.  You don’t like where we live either? I said no, no, I like where we live.  She goes is there anything you don’t actually like. After about an hour of continuing beratement from my lovely wife, I realized that I love the Air Force, so why would I quit the Air Force? 

 

Then I said if I’m going to be in the Air Force I’d love to be an operator. And so you heard Jimmy talk about Gen. [John T. Chain, Jr., commander of Strategic Air Command]. The first time I ever came to this town I had to go to building 500 across the street as a captain who was in charge of the missile warning elements of our space enterprise, and I had to brief Gen. Chain in the middle of Desert Shield, before Desert Storm, whether our satellites would see Scud missiles or not. And by the way, we hadn’t tested then so we didn’t know, it was all engineering analysis. That’s probably the most scared I’ve been in my life. More scared than I was when I was deployed, more scared than I was with rockets dropping on me. Walking into his office to explain to him -- he didn’t want to see charts; he didn’t want to see anything. He just wanted me to explain to him whether we could see them or not. And when I was done explaining, he said captain, look at me. Are we going to see those missiles or not? I said yes sir, we’ll see those missiles. He said, all right, I’ll trust you. And I walked out of that office leaving about five pounds of sweat on the chair. The most scared I’ve ever been.

 

But we saw the missiles and we were able to provide warning to Israel and Israel stayed out of the war.  And we were able to provide cuing for the Patriot missile batteries so the Patriot missile batteries could respond. And everything changed. 

 

And then life changed and I became a squadron commander here at Offutt. And I became a group commander, wing commander, and a MAJCOM commander. And the most unbelievable thing that ever happened is when I became the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, the most powerful command in our country. It’s impossible. If anybody here thinks they’re going to grow up and be a general, you’re an idiot. If anybody in here thinks it’s impossible to grow up and be a strategic commander, it’s not. I’ll tell you one thing. I never thought I would grow up and be a general. The end of my line was 20-22 years, and if I could be a program manager, I was done. That was the end state of everything I could think about. It’s funny how life turns out when the only thing you’re really focused on is doing the job you’re asked to do right now.

 

I always think, you know, in many ways it’s worked out fabulously well, but in some ways it didn’t because currently we’ve bought two retirement houses so far. [Which could have been done twice.] We sold the first one, we still have the second one. So financially sometimes it’s not the best move. But I’ll tell you what, from just an attitude perspective, from an understanding perspective, you just focus on where you are right now; do the best you can with what you have. It’s amazing how all of the other opportunities just open up for you.

 

Tonight we’re going to recognize some really special people, really amazing people, that are just starting off on their journey. Even the old teacher, who I recognized here tonight, who’s been teaching all of five years, she’s just starting to understand the magic of what a teacher can bring. And the cadets, everybody here in the room, some of them are going to go be pilots; some of them are going to be air battle managers; some of them will be engineers; some of them will be a flight line operator, some of you, you’ll have everything in this room possible. The one thing I’ll tell you, the one thing I learned, the one thing I was taught in my first job, of all places, Gunter Air Force Base, Alabama, is that I love the Air Force. And the best thing about being the commander of U.S. Strategic Command is I get to wake up every morning and put my uniform on and come to work, and I don’t have to take it off.

 

I don’t know how it lasted 36 years, and I don’t know how it’s going to keep lasting. But I get to do it, and it’s a blessing, and I get to do it with my best friend on the planet every day. And I’ll tell you what, every day I just think when I wake up, the only time I’m scared when I’m a general is when I look up in the morning and make sure my uniform’s straight before I go to work. Because those four stars really do intimidate me because I don’t feel like I deserve them. So every day, I’m trying to figure out how do I, somehow live up to the pictures of the predecessors that are on the wall, including Gen. Chain and a lot of really scary people.

 

Actually, not that scary, unless you’re a captain, then they’re scary as hell.

 

That’s all I really wanted to say tonight. I just wanted to say thank you to the teachers in this room.  Thank you to the Air Force Association. Thank you to all those who served before me,  and most of all thank you for those people in this room who have decided to commit to the U.S. Air Force and begin the journey, and the journey of service to our country because it’s one of the greatest things you can do. Whether it lasts four years, 20 years, or 36 years, it’s something I think you’ll always look back on and be proud of what you did. So thank you very much.