General, Mrs. Carlson prepare for life after the Air Force

  • Published
  • By John Scaggs
  • Air Force Materiel Command Public Affairs
They have lived with the Air Force every day for the past 37 years. They endured the separations driven by his responsibilities as a fighter pilot, rejoiced when they became parents (three times in all) and prayed for friends - and subsequently the active-duty sons and daughters of friends -- who went off to war in the Middle East.

They have packed and unpacked thousands of boxes, the result of moves tied to 19 assignments. They survived 10 intermittent years at the Pentagon, despite acknowledging that working in Washington, D.C., "really ages people."

And when Gen. Bruce Carlson relinquishes command of Air Force Materiel Command during a ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Nov. 21, it will culminate a 37-year journey for him and his wife, Vicki - a journey whose origins began in the nation's 32nd state.

"Land of 10,000 Lakes" 
Although born in Austin, Minn., in 1950, -- that's where the closest hospital was -- then Vicki Martens spent her first 13 years growing up in Mason City, Iowa. Her parents both worked, which allowed Vicki and her older sister, Cheryl, to enjoy annual summer vacations in Minnesota.

"We were very fortunate, because my father had his own beauty supply business and my mother was a precursor to today's Martha Stewart - mom was on a local television program providing cooking and sewing advice," Mrs. Carlson explained.

Clarence Martens was a former Army Air Corp B-17 pilot. He subsequently worked as a shop teacher and kitchen cabinet maker before starting his own business. He moved his wife, Janice, and their two girls to a home 12 miles outside of Brainerd, a small town in central Minnesota. It was during her sophomore year in high school when Mrs. Carlson met her future husband.

"Bruce was a senior at the time and we met in December 1966," she said. "I had watched him as the emcee of the school talent show and he displayed a wonderful sense of humor."

General Carlson's parents, Clifford and Helen, had moved the family to Brainerd two years earlier. Clifford had served with the Army Air Corp as a B-17 crew chief before getting a job with the forest service.

"Each time dad was promoted, which was about every three or four years, we moved to another town within the state," said General Carlson, who was born in Hibbing, Minn. "We did not have a television in our home while I was growing up. My brother, Dave, and I developed a close relationship. We played outdoors as much as we could. Together we learned to fish and made spears and slingshots. We trapped beaver in the spring and muskrat in the fall. And in the winter we played hockey.

General Carlson ran track and, during his senior year, was captain of the swim team. He also was a reporter for the school newspaper, the "Pow Wow," which helped jumpstart his courtship of Vicki.

"Bruce took me to a high school wrestling match for our first date because he had to cover the match for the school newspaper," Mrs. Carlson said. "Things just blossomed from there."

Best laid plans ...
While waiting for his sweetheart to finish high school, General Carlson attended a junior college in Brainerd in preparation to become an accountant. However, after his second year, a lack of funds resulted in a trip to the University of Minnesota, Duluth, to seek financial aid.

It was important for college students to stay on track due to America's involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

"A student had exactly four years to get a bachelor's degree once you enrolled in college," General Carlson explained. "If you took one semester off, you stood a good chance of getting drafted.

"Since I had come from a non-accredited school, Duluth University officials said I was not eligible for financial aid," General Carlson continued. "But they told me I might receive some aid from the ROTC detachment on campus. Turned out the ROTC folks couldn't provide any financial aid, either, but they offered to send me to summer camp and promised I could be a pilot. I remember thinking, 'Well, that sounds interesting.'"

In June 1969, 19-year-old Bruce Carlson proposed to 18-year-old Vicki Martens. He popped the question one minute after midnight following the day in which her class graduated, honoring her parents' request that they wait until Vicki had, in fact, graduated before getting engaged.

But summer camp, and a life-altering experience, beckoned.

"I was taken for a ride in a T-33 aircraft, a jet designed to train Air Force pilots," General Carlson said. "That was it. I came back and told Vicki that I didn't want to be an accountant anymore, I wanted to be a fighter pilot."

His fiancée did not share the same enthusiasm upon hearing the news.

"I knew absolutely nothing about the Air Force," Mrs. Carlson said. "I told Bruce that I didn't want him to do it and then I spoke to my dad. My father told me that if flying was what Bruce wanted to do, I couldn't hold him back."

She said she realized her father was right and, more importantly, she wouldn't hold him back. Instead, she offered her unfailing support. They were married in Brainerd on June 27, 1970. General Carlson completed his accounting degree at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and was commissioned in June 1971 as a distinguished graduate of the Air Force ROTC program.

Flexibility is the key ...
Upon completion of undergraduate pilot training, the second stop on the couple's Air Force odyssey was Homestead AFB, Fla., where then Lieutenant Carlson continued his training in the F-4. Nearby was Miami, with its bustling beaches, shops and restaurants.

'Modest' and 'isolated' were among their thoughts upon arriving at their first permanent duty station in May 1973.

"I cried when we arrived at Holloman (AFB, N.M.)," said Mrs. Carlson when recalling their first permanent duty station. "It was partially due to being sick from being pregnant with our first child, Bryan, and because it was such a small town. It had a McDonald's and a Dairy Queen and that was about it."

General Carlson acknowledges that his wife cried throughout one week at the outset, but light-heartedly adds that Mrs. Carlson cried for a month following the conclusion of their second tour at Holloman AFB in November 1996 because she had grown so fond of the base and the local area.

Bryan gained a sister, Jani Jeane, in 1976. She was born in Austin, Texas, as then Captain Carlson was an OV-10 instructor pilot and flight examiner for the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron at Bergstrom AFB, Texas.

Their second son, Scott, was born in 1980 while the family was at Myrtle Beach AFB, S.C. Scott's father was an A-10 pilot and fighter weapons instructor pilot with the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

General and Mrs. Carlson say that while those assignments are special because of the birth of their children, they both are fond of their time at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. The couple's 10th permanent change of station was from July 1991 to June 1993.

"It offered a great environment for families," Mrs. Carlson said. "There was so much to do there. You could drive one hour in one direction and snow ski, and drive one hour in the opposite direction and water ski."

For then Colonel Carlson, who served as the vice commander for the 366th Fighter Wing, it allowed him to continue flying the F-16, his favorite aircraft.

But an assignment that took place a decade earlier was the one that significantly shaped General Carlson's leadership philosophy. In May 1980 he went to work as an aide to Gen. Bill Creech, the commander of Tactical Air Command, which was headquartered at Langley AFB, Va.

"He demanded that I sit in on every briefing or meeting with him," General Carlson said. "Initially, that generated some anxiety because that meant I wasn't at my desk and paperwork was piling up. Plus, I had just moved my family, which included a newborn.

"But by attending those meetings, I learned how he ran such a large organization and how he communicated with people," General Carlson said. "He was an incredible teacher and his lessons stayed with me."

'Materiel'-istically speaking
By the time General Carlson took command of AFMC in August 2005, the journey was nearing the end. It's lasted longer than some fellow officers thought it would.

"I remember that during undergraduate pilot training (at Vance AFB, Okla.), Bruce was told that he would never be successful in the Air Force if he did not meet for drinks at the officers club Friday evenings to network," Mrs. Carlson said. "As Mormons, we do not drink or smoke and Bruce did not participate. It was a bit disheartening to hear higher ranking colleagues say those things so early on. But Bruce refused to compromise his faith and today, I think his integrity is one of the traits Bruce is known for."

His values have been on display the past three years as he led a work force currently numbering about 74,000 people and managed $47 billion annually in research, development, test and evaluation while providing the acquisition management services and logistics support required to develop, procure and sustain Air Force weapon systems.

While AFMC has amassed numerous achievements during his tenure as commander, General Carlson cites two programs in particular: Centralized Asset Management (CAM), and the civilian orientation course.

Under CAM, dollars previously distributed to 17 different Air Force operating locations are now centrally managed by AFMC headquarters.

"That money takes care of all the flying operations," General Carlson said. "It pays for items such as fuel, technical orders and modifications. CAM is truly a revolutionary program because it brings enterprise-wide efficiency to Air Force sustainment. CAM allows AFMC to manage the Air Force aircraft fleet in a much more holistic manner. We can manage by Air Force priority, not by the competing demands of each of those 17 separate operating agencies."

As a result, the general said that AFMC was able to shift money between weapons systems and still turn $500 million back into the Air Force last year.

General Carlson points to Barbara Westgate, a member of the Senior Executive Service and former AFMC Executive Director, as the driving force behind AFMC's civilian indoctrination course.

"She oversaw the development of the course, which seeks to bring new civilian employees quickly up to speed on mission, culture and other key matters," General Carlson said. "It made sense to provide educational opportunities and groom our civilians for leadership roles, since civilians comprise more than 70 percent of the command's work force -- and AFMC employs 40 percent of the total number of Air Force civilians."

Created in 2005, the first-of-its-kind initiative now is being adopted by the Air Force to ensure all Air Force civilians have proper career training and are up to speed on mission, culture and other key matters.

Out of the blue (maybe)
A new journey lies ahead in Texas, where the Carlsons plan to build a home on land they own near Canyon Lake, north of San Antonio. They want to spend more time with their children, two of whom live in Texas, and with their nine grandchildren.

Mrs. Carlson said she plans to sew and read more, particularly fiction written by author James Patterson. She also wants to volunteer her services at a nearby church they've already settled on, and possibly at schools attended by her grandchildren.

However General Carlson, who officially retires from the Air Force Jan. 1, 2009, acknowledges he wouldn't mind remaining involved with the Air Force and defense business as a consultant.

"If my background in sustainment and joint operations experience with sister services can somehow benefit the Air Force, I'll help in whatever way I can," he said.

And after more than three plus decades of service before self, they can take comfort in knowing they will have more say over when they're apart, relish the fact that they will unpack boxes for the final time, and still have their lakeside view.