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Breaking barriers in the skies

The untold story of a McChord black Vietnam Air Force veteran

Willie Middleton a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. poses for a picture at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, March 1, 2024. Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Kylee Tyus

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD - In the year of 1969 Summerville, South Carolina native, Willie Middleton, made the decision to join the U.S. Air Force scripting a unique narrative extending beyond the confines of the Vietnam War era.

Middleton's dedication to mentorship, continued education, and entrepreneurship has forged the path for future airmen and leaders of the United States for decades to come.

His journey started when he attended Phelps Vocational High School in Washington D.C., where he graduated with a specialization in 'Auto Body Repair' as an Army ROTC 2nd Lt., Middleton's passion for aviation took root during this time fueling his dream of becoming a pilot.

"My goal was to be a fighter pilot and then to become an astronaut," said Middleton. "The only obstacle was a black person couldn't even get into the Air Force Academy at this time."

The absence of training opportunities for African Americans seeking to enter the pilot program led Middleton to pursue a different path. He became an engine mechanic on fighter jets, a role that allowed him to contribute to the Air Force while navigating the challenges of racial discrimination.

"I knew the time period I was in, when it came to racism there was nothing you could do," said Middleton. "Just like today there are certain things you can't avoid."

After serving a contract as an active-duty airman, he joined the reserves and became the first black flight engineer in the 97th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Middleton did not let the challenges he faced stop him from seizing all the opportunities he was given. During his career he pursued his education in as many ways as possible through aviation mechanic school, the Community College of the Air Force, and the NCO academy, all at no cost thanks to the Air Force.

Transitioning to the reserves he continued working in aviation, refueling corporate jets for notable figures like Ray Charles and Elton John. After 32 years of military service, he retired on Sept. 22, 2001 as a Master Sgt. Ron Sims, King County Executive, declared this day as "Willie Middleton Day".

Reflecting on his journey, Middleton highlighted the impact of historical events such as the struggles faced by the Tuskegee Airmen upon their return from war. He underscores the systemic barriers that limited opportunities for black individuals in the military, including exclusion from various educational institutions.

Despite the adversity, Middleton remained resolute in his aspirations, driven by a profound desire to overcome the racial barriers that defined his era.

"Now people of color get the same opportunities in the Air Force because it isn't based off of the color of their skin, their gender or sexual orientation, it's based off of your work and your skills," said Middleton.

Today, Middelton has his own business providing financial services, utilizing the experience that he has gained over his lifetime. Additionally, he is also a member of the Red-Tailed Hawks flying club, a non-profit organization that offers flying lessons for youth between the ages of 11 and 19 at Boeing Field, Wash. There he assists in mentoring and inspiring the younger generation of future airmen and pilots. 

"Working with the Red-Tailed Hawks makes me happy to see young kids living out their dreams in a way that I couldn't at their age," said Middleton.

He emphasizes the importance of respect, knowledge, and continuous learning for future airmen and leaders. Middleton encourages individuals to stay updated with science, technology, engineering and math courses and human relations training, stressing the significance of communication and understanding in leadership roles. He shares this sentiment with young people during school presentations, highlighting the educational benefits and global experiences the Air Force offers. He emphasizes it can provide opportunities for those unable to afford college.

While Middleton's faith in God serves as his guiding principle, he also emphasizes the importance of listening. According to Middleton, speech is good, but listening is just as if not more important. His dedication to service, mentorship, and continuous learning illustrates his commitment to empowering the future generations to come.

Proud of the progress in African American representation, Middleton reflects on his Air Force career with gratitude, emphasizing the opportunities it provided regardless of a person's differences.

"The Air Force was good to me," said Middleton. ‘That's why I stayed in for 32 years."

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