Air Force Col. George Hays poses in front of old military memorabilia that captures his time in the Air Force May 29. Hays retires from the Air Force July 1 after 41 years of service. Hays was the director for command, control, communications and computer systems, Headquarters Alaskan Command and Joint Task Force Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Cynthia Spalding)
by Air Force Staff Sgt. Cynthia Spalding
JBER Public Affairs
6/28/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Forty one years, 167 temporary duty assignments, 22 base assignments, six deployments and three wars later, Air Force Col. George W. Hays, director of Command, Control, Communications, and Computer Systems, HQ Alaskan Command, retires from active duty service July 1 as the longest-serving colonel in the Air Force.
"When I joined in 1971, I was a country boy from Eglin, Oregon, who had never been to a big city, no plane or bus of any kind," Hays said. "Then I had to get on a bus to get on a plane to get on a bus and it all seemed traumatic, but it was pretty exciting. I didn't know exactly what to think because I had never had any experiences like this. My brother, who came in with me under the buddy system, and I were just going to do our four years and get out. I wanted to go on to college; however, my brother ended up doing 20 and well, you see where I'm at."
Hays explained joining the military wasn't really popular due to the draft and the Vietnam War, but his father, and all seven of his uncles were in World War II. Keeping it in the family, his two oldest brothers were in too, so it was expected if you were a male to serve your country.
"My draft number was 157," Hays said. "I wasn't in danger of being drafted, but my brother's number was under 50, so we joined together. I wanted to go to Vietnam and wanted to do my time serving the country just like my family did before me."
He said when you're young and enlisted and you finally start seeing money save up, getting out of the military doesn't always seem like the best idea to anyone. Young "buck Sergeant" Hays realized when it was time for him to re-enlist that he was going to get a bonus and that he had a wife and a daughter to care for.
"I thought, 'I can keep taking classes, get a bonus and care for my family," Hays said. "Then, during my second tour I got to liking it a lot. So I decided I was going to make a career out of this."
Hays originally wanted to be a pararescueman and go to Vietnam and save lives but didn't have 20/20 vision, so he ended up with a communications job after looking into what his oldest brother did in the Navy.
"Nothing I wanted was available, and not too many people wanted communications back then," Hays said. "It's not like it is now where you have communications with all sorts of computer science and how it's really sought out in the outside world. Back then it was offline encryption, what they call "poking tape on a teletype," the old paper tape readers and the IBM 80 character cards - that was my communications. I enjoyed it once I got it into it and thought that it was pretty cool."
As for the Vietnam war, Hays said he felt like he was a contributor, but he didn't really feel like he was in the midst of the war.
"I did get there," Hays said. "Just once I was there they shortly split us off and I went to Thailand and continued to support the war from there. I felt like there was some type of contribution that I needed to do, so it wasn't all about being macho. Maybe it was a right of passage, with my brother in Vietnam, dad and all my uncles in WW II, if I wasn't in the combat zone I didn't have the right of passage so to speak, so I volunteered to go to Iraq later."
Still a Vietnam veteran, Hays didn't know it yet, but he had a few more chances to go to war coming in his future.
In 1982, Hays decided his goal was was to make chief in 20 years. He was set to go to the non-commissioned officer academy in March and then test for master sergeant when he returned. Two weeks before this, Hays received a call up to the commander's office. The commander wanted to nominate then Technical Sergeant Hays for officer training school.
"When I was told this, I stuck to my goal and said 'no sir, I want to be a chief in 20'," Hays said. "Its one of those pictures you kind of keep in your mind, the commander kind of scooted back from his desk and said 'Well George, we need good NCOs too, but I think that you'd make a good officer'."
Hays said he soon realized that he did want to become an officer. He felt he would be able to understand where his Airmen were coming from both on and off-duty, the serious financial problems they have and sometimes some serious relationship issues, understanding their goals and what exactly they are looking for.
"I learned that I wanted to be able to take care of my people when I knew they deserved it," Hays said. "If I become an officer, I know that I could take better care of the mission and contribute. Those were my reasons then."
As a lieutenant, Hays didn't at first get the job he wanted. After patient waiting and hard work, he started to land some highly competitive positions. As a captain, Hays spent four years with the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., in a position that required a hi-altitude, low-opening and static-line parachutist, to lead a joint communications team. He had 67 communicators, which included 12 Army Rangers, six Green Berets, one Navy SEAL and two Force Reconnaissance Marines.
Hays said he didn't get this job with pure luck. The infamous physical fitness test is something Hays has excelled in ever since he joined. Never scoring below 100 percent, the special operations physical included a six-mile run, 12-mile ruck march, sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups. In-between his second and third interviews for the position, the commander had initially not wanted to accept Hays due to his lack of experience. However, after hearing that Hays blew everyone out of the water on this test, the commander commented, "I think you can learn" and Hays got the position.
Hays didn't stop doing everything he could then. Everyone in the unit was airborne. A Ranger slot was opened and he was given the spot.
"Everyone had excuses, and I went to the boss and said that I wanted it," Hays said. "And the boss said 'you're Air Force.' So I told him 'you know I'm in good physical shape. Boss, I have 30 days and 67 people working for me and I'll spend all my time in the field if I need to.'"
Hays explained how his bosses, both Army Rangers, "kind of leaned" back in their chair and looked at him saying same thing. Thirty days later, he left for Army Ranger School. This wasn't a school to teach him skills - it was a school to see if he could lead under simulated combat conditions, taking away his sleep, his normal food supply, and every day he'd go on a convoy, raid or ambush. Hays graduated in February 1989 as one of 13 Airmen to receive the Ranger tab up to that time.
"Even though it was joint, a majority of my people were Army, so having that Ranger tab became a huge credibility factor for me and the special ops community," Hays said. "So instead of just an Air Force captain with my jump wings, HALO jump wings, and master parachutist wings, I was now what they call a 'master-blaster with halo wings and a Ranger tab' and gained instant credibility."
In January 3, 1990, Hays was sent to Howard Air Force Base, Panama, in support of Operation Just Cause. During this time the dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega, was wanted by many countries.
"The day I landed, they closed the runway and some one said, 'Sir, come with me,'" Hays said. "We had to get down to the end of the runway and I noticed there was blood on the ground from the casualties. At that time, two UH-60 Black Hawks came over Hangar 4 and landed right in front. Some special operations guys got off first and then you saw a little short guy in kakis, Manuel Noriega, in handcuffs and we're all cheering. They took him to a C-130 and flew him to the states to face charges in drug trafficking and murder. It was one of my greatest experiences in the military history to be there for that event. Of course no one got any pictures of it, but it is forever ingrained in my mind."
After Hays's four years with JSOC, he completed 91 jumps and 36 temporary duties. He was also afforded the opportunity to obtain foreign wings from Canada. For not getting the pararescueman position when he went to basic, this Colonel said he sure got his pick of wings to wear.
"In Special Ops, the biggest problem was that if you were married you had almost no family life," Hays said. "In 48 months, I went TDY 36 times never being able to tell my family where I was going or how long I would be gone. Most of the time we'd leave on no-notice TDYs from work, sometimes we'd get called in the middle of the night. Every type of bag was always pre-packed. However, it was so exciting always doing something behind the scenes, a lot of people wanted to stay in special ops."
So when the first part of the Iraq war came in 2003, Hays said he volunteered. He was stationed at Headquarters European Command at the time and was a part of the 'northern squeeze' to get Saddam Hussein. Having to push in from Turkey still didn't fulfill his long-awaited desire to be in the midst of combat. In 2006 he volunteered to go to Baghdad. He completed 81 combat missions and received the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
"There, I felt like I was in the mix of it," Hays said. "I finally really felt like I was in the war. I'd hear the gun fire and the bombs going off every night. For 365 days, I got what I had been looking for in Vietnam, and Panama for some 35 years. I finally had my chance to make a difference in a war zone; to contribute something towards the war."
With a running log of far more than 20,000 miles since 1979, and many personal accomplishments under his belt, Hays sais he holds true to his "habits of success" motto.
"The No. 1 rule is to take care of your people and they'll take care of the mission," Hays said. "Give them the resources and training to do their job and also do discipline as well."
s anywhere from raised eyebrows to 'Oh my God, how old are you?' are among the few things Hays hears when people ask how long he's been in.
"If I talk to young people, they don't see how it could be possible because this is history book stuff; it's their grandfather's war," Hays said. "Then after I explain it, they ask why did I stay in so long and I tell them, 'because I feel like I am contributing. I think that the military feels like I am contributing and I am still enjoying it and having fun at what I am doing.' I think all three of those need a good balance in our lives and those three are in a good balance with me."
When Hays was asked to share something he's learned from his experience in a few wars, he stressed how important it was to maintain calmness. Having that in balance with a sense of urgency or otherwise one could lose their temper and your ability for rational thinking much more so than you do in a peace time environment.
"As an Airman, early in my career, I was doing exactly what I was told for the exact number of hours I was told and as soon as my shift was over I was out and on my own," Hays said. "After I decide to stay in and the subsequent deployments came I felt like at that point that I owned the mission. If you own the mission you do what it takes to get the mission done instead of just doing what you are assigned. It's not a rank thing, it's either an attitude you have or don't have. If you don't, in a lot of cases the mission doesn't get done."
Hays, who had his retirement ceremony June 22, plans to search for a job. No matter where he starts, he knows he will grow.
"Grow where you are planted," Hays said. "I got that saying from a wise chief master sergeant who used to work for me. I have had some jobs that I didn't particularly care for. No matter what job you have, do the absolute best job you can do with the most enthusiastic attitude that you can and I think that you'll be successful. It doesn't matter if you're placed in a really exciting job like jumping out of airplanes or being made a security manager when you thought that you were going to be a branch chief.
"I thought that it was going to hurt my career," Hays continued. "But after diving into it the program, it became successful and I won some awards and therefore I was given the position I wanted to begin with. Excel as far as you can excel in all your after duty things. For instance, in Special Operations, I had no idea that that PT test would make such a difference in my career."
Out of 3,345 colonels, Hays was the longest-serving colonel who was currently in the Air Force with more than 40 years. He started out wanting to keep tradition and came out with three different sets of wings, a Ranger tab and a wide range of friends and knowledge.
"I still would have joined today," Hays said. "It's due to the wide range of knowledge that I have been exposed to. I feel I became more prepared for the outside world because I served. It has been my distinct honor and privilege to serve this great country. Although I will be hanging up the material which makes up this uniform, I know in my heart I will never hang up this uniform or my service-to-my-country way of life. I will always love and defend my God, my family, my friends and this great country."
7/4/2012 11:04:40 PM ET God bless him and those who had the wisdom to allow him to stay in as long as he has.
Woody Sellers, Raleigh NC
6/30/2012 11:17:38 PM ET This is awesome I really enjoyed reading this story Thank you for your service
6/29/2012 12:43:29 PM ET WOW Congrats sir on a remarkable career and wish you and your family the best in your retirement.