A Four-Star Family, Part II

Read Part I in the series.

As the wife of Air Force General Bruce Carlson, Vicki Carlson knows better than anyone that her husband “will give 110% to whatever he is asked to do.”

Although she has supported him through the moves, advancements and challenges of nearly 38 years of service in the Air Force, she is quick to say, “I am not a queen.” Instead, she thinks she’s been the balancing act throughout her husband’s career.

Balancing began even before they married when Vicki learned that Bruce wanted to join the Air Force ROTC, and she wasn’t sure she wanted him to do that. She called her dad, Clarence Martens, for advice. He had been a B17 pilot in the Air Force, so his counsel to Vicki came from a place of experience.

I just called him and he said, “You cannot be the person who keeps Bruce from doing this. So you have to decide whether you love him enough to marry him or if that is not what you want to do, allow him to go and do what he wants to do.” I will always be grateful to my dad for that counsel. He probably was Bruce’s biggest cheerleader.

Her dad’s words and example solidified her commitment to her husband’s military career from the beginning and helped Vicki persevere through tough times and recognize the triumphs. At first, it seemed “no different than anyone who starts a job,” except for the added stress when Bruce was learning to land an airplane. Ironically, she never worried about him. “It was just his job.”

Since that time, General Carlson has flown more than 3,300 hours in a variety of aircraft including the  F-4, OV-10, A-10, F-16, F-111, EF-111, AT-38, F-117, C-21 and B-52. Read his official Air Force biography. Today, he still flies, but now it is only the C-21, a commuter airplane. Vicki admits that she worries more about her son flying than her husband. “As a mother of a son flying, I worry about him every day. I pray every day for my son’s safety.”

As General Carlson prepares for retirement at the end of 2008, Vicki considers the path they have taken together. “I’ve been going through pictures when (Bruce) was younger. Here is this young guy that I met in high school, and look where he is, a four-star in the Air Force. He has really done very well.”

She tells of the rare opportunity early in Bruce’s career to be mentored by General W. L. Creech. They had been at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in South Carolina from 1977-1980. A captain at the time, his name was put forth to interview with Gen. Creech, a four-star commander at Tactical Air Command (TAC) at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

Bruce was a young captain and interviewed for this job, and Gen. Creech told him,”I think you would do great, but you’re just too young.” A week later Gen. Creech called back and said, “I know what I said to you, but I want you to come up.” We spent two years with Bruce being an aide as a captain to this general, who was a giant in the Air Force. Bruce was able to go everywhere with him and watch things that would come to fruition 10-15 years later.

Some assignments brought these great positive experiences, and some assignments taught them how to cope with the emotional stress of a husband and father who was gone a lot or carried weighty responsibilities. And other assignments were just a time to get through.

Vicki found a support system in friends outside the military, in church participation and from her family, particularly her mother. At one point early on, Bruce told her, “You’re going to have to figure this out.”

Family support services were available on base, but for the most part, she learned to manage the anxieties she felt on her own. When Bruce was away from home, she also relaxed the routine and created a more laid-back  environment for her and the kids. “When dad was gone, we would eat things he didn’t like—macaroni and cheese and breakfast for dinner. We didn’t pick up all the time, and we didn’t go to bed with the same routine. We were a little more slack.”

When they lived at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in 1982-1985, Bruce had a lot of responsibility at work, and he also served as a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Vicki says,

He lived on Milk of Magnesia, and I had TMJ in my jaw. Our family was an absolute mess. Our flight surgeon lived next door, and I said to him, “This is hard. I feel like I am coming apart at the seams.”

What she discovered was that “when the spouse gets into a commanding position, this unpaid person gets thrown into it, too.”

Out of the blue, an assignment came up in Washington D.C., and they moved in 1985. The change eased some of the pressure from the family, and in the next three years they settled into new opportunities and relationships.

Time together helped. They worked on ways to give their marriage priority like getting a babysitter so they could be gone for a night. And experience helped. As Bruce progressed in his career and Vicki became more accustomed to her husband’s responsibilities, she found ways to cope. She says,

I call myself an escape artist. In the military, you know that after 18 months to 3 years, you are going to be leaving. I always say, “I guess I can stand on my head for these two to three years. I know that there is a change that is going to come.”

A Four Star-Family, Part II is the second in a series of posts from an interview with Vicki Carlson. Read Part I here. TJ will share more of the Carlson’s story next Wednesday, October 8, at tjhirst.com.

1 Comment

  1. Loretta Jensen
    Oct 5, 2008

    Good job, it is always good to read your writing. Some times I have to read several entries in one evening.

    The story of the Carlson’s makes me remember our 5 years in the Air Force. I too took the attitude that “it’s his job”. Since then I have found that other jobs, not in the military, have many of the same elements. For instance, the travel. When David had to be gone a lot. I always tried to run the family the way he would so that when he returned I could step back and let him take over.

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