A Four-Star Family, Part IV
Families in the military often make their homes in places they don’t always choose and in homes that often do not belong to them. Bruce and Vicki Carlson began their family and a career in the Air Force in a little rented house in Enid, Oklahoma, where he went to pilot training. When General Carlson retires in November as commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, they will move from a beautiful home at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
The Carlsons invite people into this home and other homes where they’ve lived as base commander and encourage them to look around. In their down-to-earth style they often say to guests, “This house belongs to you, too. It belongs to the United States Government.”
Even while they’ve shared lives and home in public service, their personal decor shows who they are and what they value—family portraits, a patriotic wall, and welcoming throws that wrap them in remembrances of places they’ve been. “You can tell when you walk into a their home that their family is important,” says Helen Carlson, Bruce’s mother.
The core of this family isn’t in decorative physical symbols, but the strength they’ve developed through years of growing, living, suffering, sacrificing and playing together. “We had our challenges besides the normal,” Vicki says, but living by faith and prayer they have not only carried on, they have thrived.
Bruce flew the OV-10 Bronco into combat as a forward air controller in Thailand in 1975. (Read another veteran’s story about flying the OV-10). One of his more harrowing experiences in that same aircraft, though, happened when he was assigned to Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. He told the full story at Brigham Young University on Nov. 7, 2000. He said,
I was returning one Saturday evening from a two-week flying training assignment at a western base and stopped, along with a second airplane, in El Paso, Texas, for gas. . . . I called Vicki. She and our two-year-old son would be at the base in just a little under three hours to pick me up.
About 15 miles away from the air base, in darkness and in some rough weather, we let down to just below the clouds to begin our approach to the field. . . . We were flying just beneath the ragged edge of some very bumpy cumulus clouds, in and out of rain showers. . . About the time we were approaching the field to land, a concerned wife and mother looked outside at the impending stormy weather and felt prompted to kneel with her two-year-old son and ask a loving Heavenly Father to protect and bring home a dad who had been gone for two long weeks.
Just as I pulled on the stick to tighten up the turn, the main oil line failed on the right engine. . . . A relatively simple overhead pattern and landing to complete the mission had turned into a serious malfunction compounded by the inclement weather. . . . With the illumination of the fire warning light, I instinctively followed the emergency procedures. . . However, during the time I was concentrating on accomplishing the emergency procedure, I experienced a severe case of spatial disorientation–meaning I was no longer sure which way was up or down.
. . . with a clarity that I cannot explain but with a power I could never deny, I knew with a confidence that defied the situation that I must simply turn left. Despite being in the weather and lacking the visual cues essential to land from a overhead pattern, I followed the promptings and quite easily and quickly maneuvered out of the weather without further reference to the instruments, completing a descending turn to final approach and landing without further incident.
Vicki remembers, “I knew something was wrong. I was cooking. I said to Bryan, ‘We have to go in and say a prayer.’ The Lord truly let me know that I needed to pray for him right then. Now, I look at the way the Lord provided security to him in the ways that only the Lord could have done.”
Security encircled them again, several years later, when their young daughter Jani, was diagnosed with Legg-Calvé-Pethes, a rare disease in the ball of the hip socket. At the time, they were at Langley Air Force Base where a doctor had seen the condition and knew how to treat her.
During these and other trials, Vicki saw that, “always there was somebody there to take care of us.” After the fact, though, she could see that they had been assigned to a particular place where they could receive the help they needed. “Looking back, I should have realized that the Lord had us in his palm.”
Later, members of their family encountered more major health problems, including with their son, Scott, who developed cancer. That difficult experience was made better because they were in a place where they had lived already and could receive emotional support and good medical care. At the time, a man they knew from church approached Vicki and said, “I’m so glad you’re going through this, not me.”
To that, Vicki now says, “That’s a very normal reaction: ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it.’ But, It is amazing how the Lord will help you get through these trials.”
Ironically, it was through the everyday stresses of work and home and the more major challenges where they established the pattern for their home and family.
We’ve been in the trenches and you just do it. I learned that I can do it. I learned that it is hard. The only way you can do it is with the Lord’s help. Bruce can help. And I can help Bruce. But there really is not anyone that can do it for us. I need to work it through with the Lord.
These patterns of perseverance, repeated over decades, bring General Carlson’s career in the military to a joy-filled conclusion. His awards, decorations and achievements are numerous: Defense Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters and the 2007 Order of the Sword, Air Force Materiel Command.
General Carlson received the H H Arnold Award at the Air Force Association Conference on September 17, 2008.
The award recognizes the person or group with the most significant contribution to national defense. Named after the founding father of the Air Force, the award represents the values and contributions of Gen. Henry Herald “Hap” Arnold. It’s the most prestigious of the National Aerospace Awards the AFA gives out.
The award that can never be physically displayed on a wall is the reward of selfless service that both Bruce and Vicki have given to each other, their family and many others. On selflessness he has said, “Spontaneous selfless acts rarely just happen. Instead, they are built on a strong moral foundation and constant obedience to sound principles. They are perfected by doing the right thing—over and over again.”