Lifetime of service: Retired colonel caps three decades in military teaching Civil Air Patrol for students
By Bennett Leigh
Photos by Rachel Howard and contributed
Brian Williams retired from the military after serving 30 years in the U.S. Army, both active and in the Alabama National Guard – but found he couldn’t quite leave it behind.
When the Decatur High graduate, who had traveled and lived all across the globe, settled in Hartselle in 2016, he planned on spending time with his three children, fishing and being “fully retired.”
That didn’t last long.
“I had served in the Civil Air Patrol in high school and had really found my place,” he explained, “When I came back to Morgan County, I discovered the closest unit was very small, roughly three cadets, and the cadets did not often attend the weekly meetings. My younger daughter, Alleigh, expressed an interest in flying and becoming an astronaut, and she seemed to enjoy the meetings – but obviously preferred to have more cadets in the unit.”
So, Williams made an appointment with Dr. DeeDee Jones, superintendent of Hartselle City Schools, to talk about recruiting for CAP in the middle and high schools. “Dr. Jones kept asking questions and then asked me if this could be a class during school instead of an after-school activity. I thought about it and did some research, and the CAP Program in Hartselle was born.”
Williams teaches CAP classes at Hartselle High and Hartselle Junior High schools. The Ala-134 Fighting Joe Wheeler Squadron has won Squadron of the Year for the state two out of its four years. “We try to be the best in all we do,” Williams said, “from color guard to our new drill team. We have some great cadets and senior members, many of whom are cadets’ parents.”
Right place, right time
Commissioned into the Army at Marion Military Institute, Williams finished his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Alabama in Florence. His senior year there, he received a letter from the Army, letting him know he was selected for active duty as a regular Army officer. After graduation, Williams reported to Fort Benning, Ga., where he completed infantry school, then deployed to West Germany to “hold the line” against the Communist Bloc.
During his time in Germany, Williams had a once-in-a-lifetime experience: seeing the Berlin Wall come down.
“It started out as a training deployment for my battalion to go to Berlin and learn more about how to fight in cities,” he said. “One evening after duty, he was visiting with a friend stationed in the Berlin Brigade when his buddy’s girlfriend came into the room and said they all had to go down to the Brandenburg Gate to the Wall. Stepping out of the subway, they saw an ocean of people surging to the Wall. Reporters were there to cover the party-like atmosphere, and the crew of friends realized people were climbing up and over the Wall.
“Of course, we had to join in,” Williams said. “It was crazy. We had just gone on a tour of the eastern side and seen how depressing and sad East Germany was under the communists, but now as we climbed up and over this massive structure, there was nothing but joy.” However, Williams said they soon realized they – a couple of American Army officers – were on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, with Stasi – East Germany secret police – occasionally grabbing people out of the crowd and whisking them away.
“When the water cannon truck showed up, and we saw the water dribbling out, we knew it was time to head back to the west,” said Williams. That fateful night in October 1989 was something he said he will always remember – especially because his father served in the Army when the Wall went up in 1961.
After the Soviet Union dissolved, and the Cold War essentially ended, Williams said he took his cue to consider other career paths in life. Returning to the United States, he re-enrolled at UNA and earned his Master of Business Administration while serving in the Alabama National Guard. “I loved the Guard – especially the unit I was in, the 20th Special Forces Group,” Williams said. “Getting to jump out of airplanes, travel to Central America and getting paid to do these things part-time … These were some of the best experiences I had in the Army.”
Working a civilian job in Birmingham, then-Maj. Williams was offered an opportunity to return to active duty in Washington D.C., as what is known as a Title 10 Guardsman. He and his wife of six months, Jennifer, moved to northern Virginia, where Williams worked as a manpower officer at the National Guard Bureau near the Pentagon.
After being selected to go to Command and General’s Staff Officers College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Williams joined other majors for what is often called officers’ finishing school. It was there, as small groups were assembling for a lecture on military history one morning, that he and his fellow soldier-students witnessed on television the first plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. “We knew something bad was going down,” he said. “We were absolutely dumbfounded when the instructor came into the room and told us to turn off the news because we had to get through our lesson – a history professor ignoring history happening before us to follow his lesson plan.”
That day changed Williams’ life, as it did for so many others across the country. “I received orders back to D.C. and immediately was sent to the Pentagon to work in the Army Operations Center,” he said. “It was brutal work.” The 12-hour shifts, with two-hour turnovers each shift, seven days on, three days off, were unstainable long-term. “We were going to war and had to get troops trained, equipped and out the door,” said Williams, “but flipping constantly between day shift and night shift wore you ragged real quick.” He said those seven months were the longest of his career, missing time with his family: “It was three lumps in the beds when I went to work and three lumps in the bed when I got home.”
Williams spent the next few years bouncing between the Pentagon and nearby assignments in D.C., working on the Joint Staff and promoting to lieutenant colonel before getting reassigned to NORAD/USNORTHCOM in Colorado. “By the end of that tour,” he said, “my girls had spent four years in Colorado and could snow ski before they could ride their bikes.”
His second year in Colorado, Williams received orders to be a combat adviser in Afghanistan. He spent three months learning a little of the language, advanced combat lifesaving and how to conduct counter insurgency. Then it was off to war.
He said the first thing he recalls after landing in Kabul International Airport was the heat, stink and an immediate explosion near the runway. “Good grief,” he said, “we hadn’t even gotten off the plane and things were happening.”
Assigned to a small Forward Operating Base in northern Afghanistan, Williams started to grow the mission there. “I was put in charge of a bunch of shipping containers that had been remodeled to be quarters, with a generator on the place that worked most of the time,” he said. He and 17 other soldiers and one Navy cook were eight hours away from the nearest American base. Sleeping with his sidearm under his pillow and his rifle and body armor next to his bunk, it seemed surreal. “I improved the place, went out on patrols and got into some gunfights, and I grew close to the guys I was with,” he said. “It was dirty, tiring work, but those NCOs in the teams were magnificent. I trusted them to do their jobs, look after each other and get the job done, and they didn’t let anyone down.”
After five months, Williams was reassigned to be the chief of staff for the U.S. forces in the northern part of the country.
After Afghanistan and Colorado, it was back to D.C. and the Pentagon. Once he completed Army War College, Williams was promoted to colonel and started working on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he really got to “see how the sausage was made.”
“I had a pretty cool job: I was the guy who made sure my four-star boss was prepared for all the chief’s meetings, known as TANKS,” he said. He said being on the highest levels of policy in the Department of Defense was a huge learning experience. “In the end,” said Williams, “you realize it’s just a bunch of people sitting around a table, trying to figure out how to solve some pretty wicked problems and doing the best they can.”
After that assignment, Williams reported back to the War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, to be an instructor. “It was a great transition job,” he said. “I was in such a high-paced and stressful job where there was zero tolerance for mistakes in the Pentagon. This was more laid-back and gave me more time with the family.” Williams said he felt the stress fade and knew retirement was on the horizon.
Retirement brought one last move for the family of five to Hartselle, a place where they love the people, climate and small-town community feel. Active in Rotary, the American Legion and Hartselle First United Methodist Church, Williams has his plate full once again.
“I am often asked if I miss it, and to be honest, I really do,” he said. “I don’t think you can do anything for 30 years and not miss it. I might not miss some jobs, a few really bad bosses and the stink of Afghanistan, but I do miss wearing the uniform – every day.”