Elkins native remembers expansive military career
Editor’s note: This is the final article in The Inter-Mountain’s 2017 Unsung Heroes series, which began at Memorial Day and continued each Monday through Veterans Day.
ELKINS — A four-star general who flew combat missions in Southeast Asia and eventually commanded all special operations forces in the United States military says his Elkins roots helped prepare him for leadership.
Gen. Charles R. “Charlie” Holland has served in several top command positions as well as piloted more than 100 combat missions, including 79 in an AC-130 gunship in Southeast Asia.
Holland now lives in Tampa, Florida, and travels around the globe regularly for speaking engagements, industry board meetings and defense consulting work while performing duties as a strategic advisor to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He also supports the U.S. Air Force during war games, despite retiring from active service Nov. 1, 2003.
Holland said he has fond memories of Randolph County, where he was raised on his family farm and excelled in athletics — particularly basketball — at Elkins High School. He said he had to work hard, and being part of a team prepared him well for a military career.
“Leadership is a contact sport,” he said, noting he learned a lot from his EHS coaches as a young man, and he used that experience later as a commander of military operations all over the world to serve his country. “You’ve got to be out there and involved with your people. … You have to know what their challenges are.”
After graduating from high school in 1963, Holland studied at West Virginia University and intended to pursue a degree in chemical engineering. His plans changed after he heard about the U.S. Air Force Academy, and he transferred there the next year to study aeronautical engineering.
He was part of the academy’s 10th graduation class.
“That opened up a lot of opportunities … the opportunity to travel all over the world and, of course, make a difference,” he said during a recent phone interview.
He noted the late 1960s were obviously a tumultuous time, with rioting, anti-war protests related to Vietnam and assassinations.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated my senior year, and that same year, Robert Kennedy was killed,” Holland said, explaining Kennedy was fatally shot June 5, 1968 — the day Holland and his classmates were graduating from the Air Force Academy.
“Vice President Hubert Humphrey was going to be our commencement speaker, but after that, he had to cancel,” Holland said.
He went on to note he and his fellow classmates were prepared for war, as much as they could be.
“There’d been a lot of turmoil. Every one of us who went through pilot training knew we’d be going to battle,” he recalled.
Successful military career
Sure enough, Holland soon was preparing for war.
After completing pilot training, his first assignment was flying C-130s at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, specializing in special air warfare missions. While there, he volunteered for duty in Southeast Asia and was assigned to AC-130 gunships. He said he went home for Christmas in 1972 before deploying. While in Elkins, he saw the news that an AC-130 was shot down, killing all 14 crew members onboard.
“Mother said, ‘You’re not flying those are you?’ I downplayed my response and told her not to worry,” he recalled.
However, he said on his first combat mission, which was called a “dollar ride,” he had the opportunity to ride along with a crew and see how everyone worked together. Their gunship ended up coming under heavy enemy fire.
“I thought I was going to get shot down on my first mission, and here I told my mother I was coming back,” he said.
Luckily, the airplane was not shot down, and Holland went on to complete 79 combat missions in the AC-130 during the war. He later earned more than 5,000 flying hours in various aircraft and helicopters.
Holland eventually served as an air operations staff officer at Ramstein Air Base in Germany before pursuing a master’s degree in astronautical engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology. He said that move involved “a lot of risk,” as he’d been away from the academic world and engineering for a few years.
It ultimately was a great career decision for him, as his next step after earning his master’s degree was working at the Space Shuttle Flight Operations Branch at Los Angeles Air Force Station in California. He helped with planning and shaping the nation’s space shuttle survivability program, as well as defending satellite programs and global positioning system technology.
Holland’s career then took him to serve in the Philippines, where he became commander of the 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron; as well as commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, in Florida; and other special operations command positions. His final assignment before retiring was as commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
His work included commanding anti-terrorism missions following the 9/11 attacks and working closely with then-President George W. Bush as well as Donald Rumsfeld, who was the U.S. secretary of defense.
Holland said the global war on terror obviously had a huge impact on the U.S. military, both with funding and the number of people who decided to enlist following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. His budget at the U.S. Special Operations Command grew from around $3 billion to close to $6 billion. He noted the growth continued, as the current budget is nearly $11 billion and the current special operations duties have quadrupled compared to prior to 9/11.
In his leadership role before retirement, Holland said he had probably about 40,000 people under his command, in roughly 70 countries.
“When you command at that level, you’re really able to see what our SOF warriors are doing around the world. They’re making great sacrifices, and it was most evident during my trips into Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.
Holland said he and other military leaders met annually with President George W. Bush in the White House Cabinet Room followed by dinner with wives in the Blue Room. In addition, he met with the president in other places in Washington, D.C., Fort Bragg in North Carolina as well as Florida.
“When we met in Washington, he would ask if I had everything I needed,” Holland said of the president.
Bush and Holland even had a friend in common — Fred Bradley, who once had been Holland’s roommate, served with Bush in the Texas Air National Guard.
Holland and other military officials also were invited occasionally to Secretary Rumsfeld’s house for parties, where the president, vice president and other top leaders gathered.
“It was just unbelievable, all the people that were in that house, with the Secret Service outside in full force,” Holland said.
Holland said he has been blessed with a successful career as well as a wonderful family, which includes his wife, two sons, two grandsons and one granddaughter.
He met his wife, Nancy, on Jan. 1, 1973, when she was working as a stewardess for United Airlines. They were flying from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, when they hit it off.
“We were talking on the airplane. She gave me (a note with) her name, and her rank was ‘single’ and her serial number was her phone number,” Holland recalled.
They wrote to each other during the war, and she went to the Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base to visit him in November 1973.
“My commander, he really liked her,” Holland recalled. “He said, ‘It’s time for you to settle down.'”
On the 22nd of that month, they got married in the Thai District Court, and his squadron’s Lutheran chaplain performed a marriage ceremony on base as well. After that, Holland said his wife returned to continue working for United while he was preparing for a classified mission.
Eventually, the couple was able to settle into married life once Holland was stationed in Germany.
“We were there three and a half years,” he said, during the mid-1970s. “It was just a great place to be. … That was a good way to start our marriage, because that was really the first time we’d been together for any length of time, and it was in Europe. That’s where our first son was born, who was also a 1999 graduate of the Air Force Academy.”
The couple’s second son was born while Holland was commander of the 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron in the Philippines.
Holland said he never realized how far his military career would take him, but he was inspired by his father, Lunsford, who was a first lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s.
Holland said his father met his mother, Xenada, while they both were attending WVU.
“She had her first date with my dad at the Military Ball, where he was the commander of the ROTC Detachment. She saw him in uniform, and that was it,” Holland said with a chuckle.
Holland is one of three children, including his sister, Lunada, and his brother, Richard, both of Elkins. All three attended WVU, and Richard Holland served in Desert Storm and retired from the Army National Guard as a colonel with 33 years of service.
Charlie Holland noted in addition to his family, he also likes to visit with close friends whenever he returns to Elkins — including a fellow special forces veteran, Jake Roberts, who was a high school classmate of Holland’s. They also played in Little League together.
“We usually get together whenever I get back there; he’s a great guy,” Holland said.
Holland is quick to deflect attention from his career, instead wanting to give credit to others.
“It has nothing to do with rank,” he said, adding every time he’s in an airport and he sees a man or woman in uniform, he makes a point to introduce himself and thank them for their service.
“You think about Veterans Day and the great sacrifices many people have made … and what they have done to protect our nation and preserve our Constitutional freedoms,” Holland said, noting every single person from every branch of the military deserves respect for serving their