By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — In the mid-1920s Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History hoping to promote awareness of how African-Americans contributed to society. In February of 1926, a time selected for its proximity to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the organization celebrated the first Negro History Week.
The week became a significant part of African American life and in 1976 was expanded to a month. At that time President Gerald R. Ford encouraged all Americans to honor the often neglected contributions of black Americans throughout the nation’s history. Since then every President has issued a Black History month proclamation.
Black history and Air Force history cannot be separated.
C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson — The Father of Black Aviation — was the first ground commander and chief instructor for the famed Tuskegee Airman beginning in 1941. Anderson trained Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, first African-American general officer in the U.S. Air Force, and Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James who was the first African-American to attain the rank of four-star general and served as commander of NORAD/NORTHCOM.
Some others with notable ties to Peterson Air Force Base include Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal, the first black female U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft pilot. Tengesdal was a member of Team Pete as part of the NORAD/NORTHCOM J8 staff.
Retired Col. Robert Wright, Jr. is another. Wright was commander of Air Force Space Command Communications Support Squadron and commander of the Space Innovation and Development Center at Schriever AFB.
Wright comes from a strong military family. His father retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant after a 20-year career. His uncle served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, and he has brothers with Army and U.S. Marine Corps as well.
At first he didn’t want to join the Air Force, but while attending Boy’s State (a summer leadership and citizenship programs sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary for high school juniors) as a teenager in Nevada, he met a cadet from the U.S. Air Force Academy, an event that would ultimately lead to nearly 30 years in the Air Force. Wright said he learned about the Academy in detail and decided to apply. He got an appointment to USAFA, leading him to turn down an ROTC scholarship at the University of Southern California.
‘It was a good choice,” Wright said. “I was so impressed by that cadet.”
Wright got an early test of his resilience early on in his Air Force life. During his senior year at the USAFA his mother died suddenly from a heart attack. The blow was a tough one for the young cadet.
“I came close to quitting. It was a huge challenge, but in the end you look at it a couple of different ways,” Wright said. ‘No. 1 is your faith and No. 2 is ‘what would she want me to do.’”
Wright stayed at the Academy and graduated, moving on to a career that lead to what he calls his biggest challenge while in active duty.
“It was a challenge picking a career that would afford me operational experience. I was in the space business and, at that time, you went into either acquisitions or operations,” he said.
The first 12 years of his career were in acquisitions, which lead him to the Pentagon and serving as an aid to generals, but no operational assignments at an Air Force base. Eventually the Air Force began sending acquisitions people to missile bases to gain operational experience, but Wright didn’t grab that opportunity. However, he did get exposure to many different jobs and heard about the National Reconnaissance Office, one of 16 agencies in the Department of Defense intelligence community.
From there Wright went to U.S. Central Command working for three-and four-star generals, finally working in a combat command in Saudi Arabia. It was there he got his first operations job, as a squadron commander.
“Then (operational jobs) came rapid fire after that and I loved every minute of it,” Wright said. “I finally got to get operational and it was great.”
Wright counts a number of generals among those who positively influenced him during his career, but it was an enlisted non-commissioned officer who influenced him most.
“It was my father, beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he said. “He started his career in Korea and ended it in Vietnam. He was the biggest influence.”
Another influence was retired U.S. Marine Corps. Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. Central Command. He said Zinni displayed pure leadership on a daily basis.
“For a young major and lieutenant colonel to have that interactivity with a four-star in a combatant command,” was a real benefit, Wright said. “I saw leadership and decision-making on operational matters every day that affected the United States, and all before I took my first operational command.”
Wright said Martin Faga, director of the NRO while he was assigned there, taught him a great deal about decision-making at the Pentagon and at the highest levels of government. Wright said he is still close to Faga.
The biggest reward Wright associates with his career is being able to help others grow and excel in their careers. Watching officers and enlisted people get promoted and in some cases getting to be the one who promotes them, is where Wright found joy in his career.
“Mentoring people and leading are the two greatest rewards you can have,” he said. ‘It’s important for people to be a mentor and to have a mentor.”
Giving back to society is the biggest message Wright wants to impart to those he comes in contact with. He lives that message, serving in leadership on the boards of three non-profit groups. When serving as a mentor his message is three-fold.
“Prepare yourself, take care of your family and give back,” said Wright.
After serving his country for three decades, Wright continues to serve. He defines himself by that service, saying he has achieved balance.
“That’s how I identify myself now,” he said. “It’s more with my non-profit development and career than as a successful (businessman). One feeds the kids, but the other, well both, feeds the heart.”
The theme of this year’s observance is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.” This theme reminds us that the imprint of African Americans is deeply embedded in the narrative of the American past, present, and future. Not only former Team Pete members like Wright continue to have a tremendous impact on the Air Force and the mission, but current and future members help to shape the narrative of the 21st Space Wing and our mission partners.