General Gilmary Hostage III, Pratt '77, returned to Duke's campus Tuesday to accept the Air Force ROTC Distinguished Alumni award. The retired general previously served as the commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force base, where he was responsible for coordinating and maintaining combat-ready forces. He previously served as the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command in Southwest Asia. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: How did you come to Duke as an undergraduate?

Gilmary Hostage: Well, my mother wanted a doctor, and I was the oldest of ten kids and Duke had a medical school. She said ‘Hey, you need to apply to Duke.’ So I said ‘Yes ma’am.’ I applied to Duke and Dartmouth; Dartmouth said no and Duke said yes, so I came to Duke.

TC: How did your time at Duke influence you? How did you get involved with Air Force ROTC?

GH: I had wanted to fly since as early as I can remember. My mom has a picture of me as a youngster driving around on a red tricycle with a football helmet and sunglasses, pretending I was flying a jet around the driveway. So I always wanted to fly airplanes. I flew hang-gliders back in the 1970s, when they were brand new. I started earning money for my pilot’s license when I turned 16, and actually finished it in my first semester here with Paul Mickey, who was a Divinity School professor and also a [certified flight instructor]. 

I had always wanted to fly airplanes, but mom wanted a doctor. So I showed up in pre-med. That lasted a week. There was no way I was going to survive organic chemistry, so at the end of the week, I went to the registrar’s office and re-enrolled in biomedical engineering. I figured ‘It’s got medical in it, she’ll be okay with that.’ Sitting in organic chemistry the second week, I went ‘Uh oh, this is still not going to work.’ Then I bailed into mechanical engineering and was happy as a clam.

It’s the spring of my freshman year, I’m cutting through some of the buildings on the way to the engineering school, heading for class. Walking down a hallway, I hear the sound of airplane engines, look in the room and there’s a movie playing with these really cool jets. So I slink in the back of the room and watch the movie. The movie ends, the lights come up and there’s a dozen guys in light blue uniforms and short hair. I’ve got cut-off jeans, flip flops, a t-shirt and hair down to my shoulders. I look around and think ‘Oh, I’m out of place here.’ I get up to leave, and some crusty old guy up front goes ‘You, sit down.’ He sends the rest of the guys off and I talk to Major James R. Griffin for an hour. I sign my application the next morning. He says ‘Hey, we’ll pay you to fly the airplanes you watched in that movie.’ I said ‘Really? Sign me up.’ I show up back at home a couple months later and mom looks at me with the short haircut and says ‘what happened to you?’ I tell her I joined the Air Force.

There was no military history in my family. My dad did six months of Army ROTC after college, so no long lineage. I would have gone to the Academy in a heartbeat if someone had told me about it. I had no clue. It was just someone saying, ‘Hey, want to fly airplanes?’ And I said yes.

I graduated high school in 1973, so that was only a year after the Vietnam War ended. You still couldn't walk around campus with a uniform on, because people would throw stuff at you. In the aftermath of a war in Southeast Asia, the American public blamed the warrior for the warfare. We treated the returning Vietnam veterans terribly, and anyone who had anything to do with the military had to be careful in public. I was kind of, not clandestine, but we only wore our uniforms inside the building. By the time I graduated, it wasn't a problem; I walked to ROTC class in my uniform. My first year it was not like that.

I learned about the Air Force from the ROTC classes, and got a great education here at Duke in the engineering school. But I was going to fly airplanes and I was as happy as I could be.

TC: What do you think have been the biggest changes in the Air Force since you joined?

GH: We could be here for days. One thing that I find fundamentally different—I made the comment that when the Southeast Asia veterans returned, the American public blamed the warrior—one thing that has fundamentally changed, and 9/11 caused the change because the public was galvanized around ‘We’ve been attacked, and who is going to defend us?’ Well, the same guys who always defend you, the ones in uniform. We were treated polar opposite [from the Vietnam War veterans]; there were big welcome-backs. You still can’t walk through an airport in a uniform without someone every 10 feet patting you on the back and thanking [you] for your service. The American public is very appreciative. They still don’t like the politicians and the generals. They still blame them for wars, but they don’t blame the warriors anymore, so I think that’s a fundamental improvement in our country.

They appreciate the young kids who go off and put their lives at risk to protect the freedoms that we enjoy. That’s a wonderful thing, and I hope we don’t lose it, but unfortunately, it’s perishable like all things. That’s the way it was when World War II ended, and then we saw that 30 years later with Vietnam, it was completely reversed, so it can happen again. You hope that America will never forget, but one of the blessings with liberty is that nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do, so unless it’s in the forefront of their minds, it’ll probably fade.

TC: What was your role like as the commander of Air Combat Command?

GH: Three years ago, I retired from active duty. I was commander of Air Combat Command as my last job. That is the command that owns all the non-nuclear combat forces in the Air Force--all the fighters, all the non-nuclear bombers, all the airmen who go out on the battlefield with the Army. It was about 139,000 people at that time, and if you add the Guard in reserve, it’s about 175,000. There are about 135 installations around the country that our command was responsible for.

My job at ACC was to organize, train and equip. Prior to that, I was fighting with all the forces they sent to me in Iraq, Afghanistan and northern Africa. I was getting from Air Combat Command fresh, ready forces who were set to go into combat and sending homes forces who had been there for six, eight, ten months. That’s the role of Air Combat Command—to provide combat-ready forces to the theaters around the world where they’re needed. It’s a lot more fun to be the guy on the other end doing stuff, but it’s a fundamentally important because without it, we have no fighting force.

TC: What are the biggest leadership skills you’ve learned from your roles in the Air Force or saw others exhibit?

GH: I spent 40 percent of my time as a senior officer, doing personnel stuff, looking around at the people I’m responsible for and looking for the ones who exhibited those qualities of leadership that set them apart from everyone else. The nice thing about the Air Force is that there’s a distillation—you have a very highly qualified, capable force, but not all of them are leaders, but they’re really good at the things they do. The key is to find those people who can organize and get teams to function effectively, do the mission they have to do, be happy about it and be good at it. Training and mentoring young people who have the right skill sets and right mindset on how to be leaders becomes a fundamental part of the job. 

TC: What are the biggest challenges the Air Force faces today?

GH: The military is not political at all. We swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to serve the president, not to support Congress, but to support and defend the Constitution. That society gets to decide what to with their military and how to resource it. The military budget, because it is the largest discretionary element of our national budget, is the one that gets all the attention because if you cut it in half, people would still get medical care, food stamps, all those things. We’d just have less defense. 

Well, if you’re not being attacked today, less defense doesn’t look like it’s a bad thing. If the attack happens the next day, you feel really bad about it. That’s the problem—you don’t get to predict, you don’t get to control—you only get half the vote on whether the war happens because the enemy has the other half. We’ve gone through these waves of fiscal constraint. Mostly, it’s been a downward wave since the end of the Desert Shield/Desert Storm operations. When I joined the Air Force, it was 750,000. We’ve shrunk to 330,000. We’re trying to grow to 339,000 but the money isn’t in the budget. Yet the [list of] things we’re asking the Air Force to do have quadrupled in that same time period.

TC: What does it mean to you to be back on campus to receive this award?

GH: I love Duke. Duke was so much fun. I grew a lot here. I grew up in a big family, but big families tend to be focused inward. Realizing how big the world was out there, coming to Duke and meeting all the people that I ended up going to school with and living with was really fun. Coming back here was really nostalgic just to walk up to my old dorm and remember living there, and then the drive over to East Campus—I lived just a block off East Campus as a senior with seven other folks in a three-story house we rented. That was a great time.