Tucker’s Air Force career took him to Europe and the Pentagon
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series for 2018, which features veterans in our area sharing first-hand accounts of their military service.
BUCKHANNON — With commitment and a hardworking squadron, retired Lt. Col. Al Tucker and his team received a prestigious award while serving in the United States Air Force.
In mid-November of 1969, Tucker, a Wetzel County native, began his 22-year Air Force career which led he and wife Liva to relocate several times around the globe.
“I was in what’s called the civil engineering community — career field — and they’re responsible for operating and maintaining air bases,” he said. “So everything from new construction to maintaining the roads to keeping the buildings maintained and renovating — it could be aircraft shelters. It could be the runway — building new runways, which we did quite a few overseas.”
Tucker’s first assignment overseas was in Thailand during the Vietnam War from 1974-75.
“We were a large B-52 bomber base,” he said, noting he was part of an operation that maintained the base.
While in Thailand, Tucker said he experienced one of his “most incredible days,” the day Vietnam fell.
“The Vietnamese that were on our side, they were trying to get out because the North was taking over, and so any type of plane that they could fly and get access or in some incidences some got out by boat, but for us, we had all these planes flying into our airbase,” he explained.
Like a flock of birds, aircraft ranging from World War II vintage planes to the latest fighter plane flew in and out of the base the entire day, Tucker said.
“It was so interesting to see a one or two-seater fighter plane land and see a family of nine or 12 and how they crammed everyone in there, but they wanted to escape,” he recalled.
During that particular day, Tucker said so many planes landed at the air base “that we didn’t have any place to park them.”
“So we finally took bulldozers and we were pushing them into the creeks just to clear space so we could get more planes on the ground,” he said. “So that was an incredible day to experience and see all of that.”
Once back in the U.S., Tucker dove into the education aspect of the Air Force.
With a degree in industrial engineering from West Virginia University and a masters degree in engineering management from the Air Force Institute of Technology out of Dayton, Ohio, Tucker became the director of the graduate engineering management program at AFIT. That program became the first nationally accredited program for engineering and technology.
“That was really interesting to go through, but it was a neat challenge, too, because you needed to make sure that your program really met the requirements to meet accreditation,” he said. “Plus, I had great students in that program.”
In 1986, Tucker headed to his second and final overseas trip, which was to Ramstein, Germany. While in Germany, he took over the Air Force’s NATO infrastructure program, a construction program for war fighting facilities in Europe.
“I was involved with the administers of defense in the various NATO programs, and we traveled to these locations because we had facilities in all of those NATO countries from Italy to Norway to Turkey to the UK, and so it was a $5 billion construction program, and I had a team of people that were my project engineers that managed different countries,” Tucker explained. “So that was a wonderful job, and I was really enjoying it.”
By 1988, Tucker was approached by his general, who stated Tucker was needed as a base engineer and squadron commander in Bitburg, Germany.
“Bitburg was the premier air base in the sense that we were air defense, so our mission in those days was to deterrents against the Soviets,” Tucker recalled. “… Bitburg was the protector of Europe.”
During the Cold War era, Tucker explained Russians would fly their planes as if they were coming into West Germany and then turn around.
“But you never knew if they were,” he said. “So it would be our F15s that would scramble and go up and be face to face with those people.”
The Soviets knew that if they were going to defeat NATO in the United States they were going to need to “crush and destroy Bitburg,” Tucker said, reiterating this was because of Bitburg focus on air defense.
“So as the base engineer, if we ever had an attack it was my job to get out there and make sure we had a runway open to get our planes in the air,” he said. “So that was tremendously a challenging job, but I had a great team.”
During Tucker’s two years in Bitburg, he and his 600-person squadron received the General Curtin Award for the best civil engineering squadron in the Air Force.
“We were the first overseas engineering squadron to win that since the Berlin Airlift,” he said. “So that was a pretty incredible accomplishment.”
Tucker recalls receiving a phone call on Dec. 22, 1988, from a general at the Pentagon saying, “You guys are by far the best. It wasn’t even a competition.”
“So as soon I hung up with him, for the next hour the phone just kept ringing from generals at Ramstein and wing commanders and different people calling to congratulate us,” Tucker said.
Tucker still gets emotional as he reminisces about how his squadron celebrated following the announcement.
“It was amazing. Yeah, we got trophies and all of that sort of stuff, but it’s not the same as going through the journey with people,” he said. “So that was great. Getting the opportunity to do that and succeed and not to be recognized, but knowing that that team of people you have around can perform and do such amazing work, that was the real reward part.”
Looking back over all of his years and experiences in the Air Force, Tucker said the highlight of his career was working with such great people.
“Their dedication and (they were) the best and the brightest and willing to sacrifice themselves to do whatever to be successful,” he said. “And working around those kind of people and leading those kind of people, it’s an honor and a privilege to do that, but it’s so inspiring and motivating to yourself to be involved with people like that.”
After his time in Bitburg, Tucker returned back to the states where he worked as the director of Total Quality Management for Engineering and services at the Pentagon from 1990-91.Tucker was selected to be full colonel at the Pentagon; however, he declined the promotion.
“But my wife and I always said that we would just do 20 years and retire because I wanted to have a civilian career. I didn’t want my whole life to be military, and I loved the military and I loved the people,” he said.
Throughout his military experience, Tucker sought different challenges, where he broke barriers many said wouldn’t be possible.
“That’s why I accepted the position to go into education and become a professor. I was told if you go off into the schoolhouse, you won’t get promoted to lieutenant colonel; well I did get promoted to lieutenant colonel,” he said. “And then I opted to take the NATO construction program, and I was told if you go into that NATO construction program that’s kind of off to the side. It’s not like the main Air Force unit. You’re not out there being seen all the time. Well, I went down to do that job and I still got selected for full colonel.
“I just love the challenge, and don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Following the end of Tucker’s Air Force career, he went on to work for Sallie Mae, a financial services company servicing over six million student loans. Throughout his time at Sallie Mae, Tucker served as vice president for imaging systems, servicing systems, relationship management, quality management and customer support. Tucker, along with a group of individuals, designed an accessible software system for Sallie Mae.
“I was really fortunate when I retired to get two or three really wonderful employment opportunities, and my Air Force career, my experience and my education and my professional development just allowed me to be able to take on those positions and just be very, very successful,” he said. “I always say the thing that always prided myself in – not so much what I do – but it’s what the team does and so I’ve had success at winning teams.
“So that’s what the Air Force taught me — how to put a winning team together.”
Today, Tucker and his wife Liva reside in Buckhannon, where he partakes in servicing the community through the Buckhannon-Upshur Camera Club and the Buckhannon Band of Brothers.