Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

March 25, 2012

The legendary commands of Brig. Gen. Troy Tolbert

VALDOSTA — Editor's Note: The Valdosta Daily Times presents its annual Yearbook edition today. Inside you will find stories on people, businesses and more within a theme of Follow the Beat, categorizing sections under song names from the past 50 to 60 years. For a taste of these stories, we present here on Page 1A a portion of our look at the Moody Air Force Base wing

commanders who have made South Georgia their home in retirement. You will find profiles on the other wing commanders as well as numerous other stories in our special sections inside. All you have to do is Follow the Beat.

 

Joe Prater describes Brig. Gen. Troy Tolbert’s Air Force career as legendary.

A fighter pilot, a man whose memoir is titled “From Dirt to Duty” to describe his rise from rural Mississippi cotton fields to the rank of one-star general, Troy Tolbert successfully accomplished a rare feat in the Air Force.

He commanded three wings at three different bases. He served as wing commander at Moody AFB, Hill AFB and Langley AFB.

“That’s just unheard of,” says Prater, a former Moody wing commander who lives in Valdosta.

Tolbert says he brought a different command approach to each base. He adapted his style to the situations discovered at each location.

He arrived in the position of command with a wealth of experiences.

The son of Troy and Louise Tolbert, William Troy Tolbert grew up on a Mississippi farm churning butter and working hours of other farm chores. He was one of 14 students in his graduating class. He played football and dealt with a football injury.

Football took him to Mississippi State, but the injury led him to join the ROTC. He loved it which led to his career in the Air Force. He became a fighter pilot and served as a general’s aide. He had a harrowing introduction to his assignment in Vietnam, arriving at the time of the Tet Offensive.

He rose in the ranks and he set his eye on command.

“Any fighter pilot worth his salt wants to command a fighter squadron,” Tolbert writes in his book. “I was no exception. This is a big step toward bigger and better things in the future.”

Chosen for command, a series of events would lead to his assignment as wing commander of the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing at Moody Air Force Base. The wing’s previous commander had whipped Moody into being the premier F-4 wing in the Air Force, Tolbert says, and he wasn’t pleased by the prospect of being assigned to a base that was already considered one of the best.

Arriving at Moody in 1978, Tolbert discovered that the previous commander had successfully micro-managed the wing, looking over everyone’s shoulders, handling numerous details.

Upon inspection of the base, Tolbert realized that personnel knew what they were doing. He decided to take a different tact than the previous commander.

“I had the sense to get out of their way,” Tolbert told The Times. “... I would tell them what I wanted and turn them loose. A good commander needs to be a little lazy. He needs to realize the success of the wing and the base depends on everyone. The commander is one person in a base of 5,000 people. You have to learn to let people do what they’re trained to do.”

It worked. Moody and the 347th scored even higher under Tolbert’s command.

From Moody, Tolbert was assigned to Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah. There, Tolbert’s assignment was to be the commander of the first F-16 wing. The Department of Defense believed

 the new fighter jet should be flying more. Tolbert’s job was to ensure that it did. He accomplished the task.

From Hill, the Air Force wanted Tolbert to “fix” Langley AFB in Virginia. The base had a proud history but had failed its Operational Readiness Inspection. Given Tolbert’s successes at two other bases, top brass felt he might succeed in turning Langley around ... with a deadline. He had 120 days to “make Langley fly or they would fire me and find someone who could,” Tolbert says.

One of the reasons Langley couldn’t fly was a spare-parts problem. He located the desk where he believed the problem could be corrected. Tolbert took this person to lunch. The parts flow opened. The base’s repair capability improved.

Langley also needed to adjust its military bearing and attitude. He arrived to find mustaches and long hair. He pointed the entire base’s personnel to the barber shop.

Given Langley’s combat mission, Tolbert also ordered officers out of the short-sleeved, light-blue-shirt uniforms and into fatigues or flight suits. One lieutenant colonel continued wearing the uniform. Tolbert halted a presentation to ask the lieutenant colonel why he was not dressed appropriately. The officer answered that his wife could not find the other uniforms. Tolbert relieved the lieutenant colonel on the spot. If the officer could not manage an order regarding his wardrobe, Tolbert says, how could he be expected to command personnel?

Early during his Langley command, Tolbert called the base’s personnel together. He had them stand as he took the stage. The general admits now he had no idea what he would say to improve the base. He walked back and forth across the stage. Personnel waited his orders. He silently weighed what those orders would be.

Addressing them, he ordered that all personnel would move from working eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts until the entire base was deemed prepared to pass the ORI. Tolbert said the chief master sergeants would advise him when they believed the base was ready.

“That way I shifted the responsibility off of me and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the chief master sergeants,” Tolbert says.

At one point, Tolbert felt the 12-hour shifts had lasted long enough. He called together the chief master sergeants and asked if the base was ready to return to eight-hour shifts. The chief master sergeants told him no. The 12-hour shifts needed to continue longer to ensure readiness.

“As soon as they told me that,” Tolbert says, “I knew we would pass.”

 He had invested the chief master sergeants in the base’s success. And it worked. Langley passed the ORI.

Tolbert retired in 1982. He wanted a place to live where he and wife Louie could continue raising their three children, Terri, Tracie and Michael. They didn’t want to live in a big city but be accessible to larger cities. The Tolberts wanted a community with an Air Force Base. They wanted a place with strong educational possibilities for three high school-age students and a place where they could continue their college educations close to home or near home. He wanted a place where his son could play football.

They returned to Valdosta.

Tolbert worked in business as a partner in a convenience-store chain. He has battled cancer and battled the Base Realignment and Closure committee in the early 1990s when it listed Moody on its list of bases to be closed.

As he did with his three commands, Tolbert succeeded in both struggles. He survived cancer and he was a driving force in saving Moody Air Force Base.

Looking back on his three commands, Tolbert shakes his head and laughs.

Three bases and not one plane crashed, he says. That’s preparation, training — here his smile broadens — and luck.

For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Valdosta Daily Times e-Edition, or our print edition

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