A Four-Star Family, Part I

When Vicki Carlson met her high school sweetheart, he was going to be an accountant, and she thought they would get married and have a home. But then he decided to join the Air Force ROTC to pay for his education at University of Minnesota, in Duluth, and their lifestyle surpassed the ordinary one she imagined.

Now, she is married to General Bruce Carlson, the Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, who will be retiring at the end of 2008. In thirty eight years, their family has moved 21 times and lived in a variety of homes, most of which were not their own.

Neither one of them really knew what a military lifestyle involved when they started out. They attended a reception for the new incoming class of pilots. She was standing by the table eating from the shrimp bowl and a man approached her and said hello.

Afterward, she went to find Bruce and said, “What kind of rank is it if he has a bird on his shoulders?”

“Who the heck have you been talking to? That’s a colonel.”

Vicki now laughs about being a naive young spouse, ignorant of the rank system. She admits she didn’t have much understanding of what lay ahead.”You’re thrown into it, but everyone else is doing it. And, you learn to adapt your lifestyle to the career your husband has chosen.”

He graduated pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma in 1971, and they spent a year in Florida, then New Mexico. Bruce was deployed in December 1974 to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand near the close of the Vietnam War. He flew OV-10’s as a forward air controller and instructor pilot, and Vicki moved home to Minnesota to stay with her family.

He returned to the United States in the fall of 1975, and they moved to Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas and entered one of their family’s most stressful times.

Looking back, now, she realizes it wasn’t easy, but she learned independence.

I learned that I had to take care of those children on my own, wash the cars, do the BBQ, mow the lawn, do all of the medical. I could not depend on Bruce for most of the things in our home. That made me better at standing on my own.

We went all through his career with him coming and going—home for two weeks, gone for two weeks, home for three weeks, gone again. We moved every 18 months to two years, the longest time being three years. If we didn’t have a good strong basis for our family, every time it would have been harder.

As their three children, Bryan, Jani, and Scott grew older, they grew increasingly more helpful, too, and the family drew closer together, despite the many moves and sometimes “crazy circumstances.”

“Never did I think that I was supposed to do anything but to raise our three children,” Vicki says. Her presence established a sense of stability at home, for both her husband and her children. One day she was late getting home when her daughter, Jani, came home from school. Jani said, “Mother, you’re supposed to be home.”

Together the Carlson family created traditions of things they liked to do together like boating, and they also made rules to manage the questions and concerns that come to nearly every military family. As a result, they “had a consistent lifestyle when we had a lifestyle that wasn’t very consistent.”

Whenever they moved, they had a goal to get everything moved in and pictures on the walls within 72 hours. When a military family moves, an active duty spouse may go ahead of the family or a child may stay behind to finish in a particular school. Yet, the Carlsons “always went together” even if it meant sacrificing comfort for the sake of unity. Their eldest son, Bryan, was a senior in high school when they moved from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho in 1991. Even then, they moved as a family.

Later, when Bryan became an active duty Air Force pilot, himself, and went to South Korea for two years, he wanted to have his entire family around him. According to Vicki, Bryan told his wife, “I can’t do this without you.”

Admittedly, Vicki says that Bruce missed out on some important family opportunities like time at home or family vacations. “He gave all to the military, and he would not be where he is if he hadn’t done that.”

Those hard aspects of the military lifestyle affected each of her children in specific ways and have influenced how they raise their own families. Bryan chose to leave the active duty Air Force and is now in the National Guard. Jani, married a man that plans to stay in Texas, and she doesn’t want to be uprooted. Scott works in an 8-5 job as an Air Force civilian.

Through the years, the Carlsons both became aware of how a commander’s lifestyle impacts other people, and that influences how General Carlson leads.

As Bruce started going up in rank, he had young people working for him with families, and he would say, ‘Go home.’  We can help them by loving our family and seeing it as number one and allowing others to have that, too. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t demand that they do their job, but when the job is done, ‘Go home’.

Now that the Carlsons know a little better what this lifestyle involves, their priorities have become even clearer. Vicki says,

My first responsibility and my first thought always is my family. If you have put other things as a higher priority than your family, when you leave that base, you have left yourself at that base. If we had not established the firm foundation of our family we would be retiring in November and what would we have? Nothing.

Read Part II of A Four Star Family when this series continues next Wednesday, October 1, here at tjhirst.com.


  1. Rebecca
    Sep 25, 2008

    Military life is something I could never do. I have oodles of respect and admiration for those who can be successful at it.

  2. Loretta Jensen
    Oct 5, 2008

    I enjoyed reading your first installment on the Carlsons. You have a real gift for telling stories in writing. It makes it very interesing to read.

  3. Terri Heishman
    Oct 28, 2008

    I can relate to how demanding military life can be, but there’s no way I could survive it with a family to take care of as well. Vicki and Bruce were very strong to have such a firm family with a constantly changing lifestyle. I’m very grateful I don’t have a husband and kids waiting for me to come home, it makes being away so much easier in perspective!

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