From Stripes to Stars: After 41 years, Citizen Airman completes his journey

Citizen Airman/Aug. 2017 -- As a 17-year-old high school sophomore, Udo McGregor knew he wanted to enlist in the military. In fact, he planned to attend summer school in Savannah, Georgia, so he could graduate a year early and begin his journey. His father, a soldier stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah and multi-tour Vietnam veteran, had some very specific words of advice.

“Son, don’t join the Army.”

Following his father’s guidance, McGregor, who, as a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, is scheduled to retire Sept. 1 after 41 years in the service, looked into what the Air Force had to offer. At the time, in 1976, against the backdrop of the post-Vietnam War era, he explained he faced a very different environment than service members do today.

“People really didn’t celebrate the military,” said the vice commander of the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. “They couldn’t separate the policies from the people who served. Returning Vietnam veterans weren’t welcomed home at airports like we are now, and serving military members slicked their hair down to be less conspicuous downtown.”

But that challenge did not deter him from striving to reach his goal.

As a military “brat,” McGregor knew the Air Force would give him the opportunity to travel far from home and see the world. However, after completing basic training in San Antonio and technical school in Wichita Falls, Texas, the newly minted airman basic, the oldest of five children, was sent all the way to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, only about 100 miles from where he joined up.

“It’s an old military truth that the assignment detailers have a sense of humor and only send you to the one place you didn’t ask for,” McGregor said.

The active-duty Air Force, and especially the helicopter maintenance section where he was first assigned, gave the general the opportunity and structure he was looking for, but the experience gave him a lot more.

“It was all the leadership and mentorship you could ever want,” he said. “Small unit dynamics, we all knew each other at work and socially. Even as a two-striper, my experience was that my tech sergeants and master sergeants challenged us to go do the work and then trusted us to get it done.”

That ability to handle responsibility and build a team was something that Mark Field, McGregor’s roommate and a fellow maintainer at Shaw AFB, saw in him early on.

“He was an (airman first class), and I was an airman,” Field said. “He cares about people. He goes out of his way to check to make sure his people are OK.”

In 1978, opportunity knocked, and McGregor was chosen to join the helicopter flight squadron as a flight engineer.

“Where else can a 20-year-old hang out the side of a helicopter during a low-level flight, fire a machine gun and direct hoist operations for rescue missions, all while wearing a flight suit, leather jacket and cool sunglasses,” McGregor said.

Though he’d been pursuing college classes at night during his time on active duty, in 1980 McGregor switched to the Air Force Reserve in an attempt to focus on his education full time. As a Reservist, he retrained to be a flight engineer on the C-141 Starlifter while stationed at Charleston AFB, South Carolina.

“I had planned on going to school pretty much full time, but there was a shortage of flight engineers, so I ended up flying the world for two years,” McGregor said. “My roommate in Charleston was Tech. Sgt. Archie Frye (who later would become a colonel). The two of us living in the same apartment, surrounded by other single apartment dwellers, was a mistake that lasted for two years.

"Archie was the first to realize neither of us was going to finish school if we stayed there. In fact, the flight surgeon told him he was going to die if he didn’t start sleeping, so he departed for school in Louisiana. And after two years of missions in South America, the Pacific theater and across Europe, I left for San Antonio.”

The Reserve gave McGregor the opportunity to switch aircraft platforms once again — from the C-141 to the C-130B Hercules — out of Kelly AFB, Texas, which was much more conducive to his status as a full-time student.

“I really wasn’t working toward a commission; I was really working toward a degree,” he said.

A few years later, his unit converted aircraft from the C-130B to the C-5 Galaxy. This change caused some of the senior officers to retire rather than retrain, which also provided McGregor the opportunity to earn an officer commission.

“There was a shortage of pilots,” he said. “I had just finished at the University of Texas in San Antonio, and I was asked to submit a package. I was thrilled.”

McGregor completed Officer Training School as the first honor graduate in 1985, then received his fighter, attack and reconnaissance rating from undergraduate pilot training at Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas. After nine years of enlisted service and seven years as a flight engineer, he felt ready to take on the task of joining the officer and pilot ranks. Within two years he had upgraded to instructor pilot, being only the second first lieutenant to achieve that distinction on the extremely complicated C-5.

In 1990, McGregor, along with other members of his squadron, was activated in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

“The flying was rewarding as the logistics system kicked into high gear, delivering everything needed to build up and sustain bases in the Middle East,” he said. “I flew helicopters out of Pope AFB (in North Carolina) on day one of Desert Shield. That’s how fast the mobilization process worked. All the training paid off as well, as we air refueled and worked aircraft into some pretty remote locations.”

The Desert Storm experience allowed McGregor to see the seamless nature of operations among active-duty members, Reservists and Air National Guardsmen.

“The mix is good,” he said. “In the theater, you can’t tell who’s Reserve, Guard or active duty. There’s really no difference in job performance.”

Although it’s difficult to tell the difference between people in the three components, the general said in many cases Reservists bring more experience to the missions downrange.

“They take the discussion from tactical to a higher level,” he said. “They tend to be more senior people who understand organizational structure in a broader sense. They tend to work with a lot less supervision.”

After deactivation, McGregor moved to the operations group.

“That was life altering for me,” he said. “I was deeply vested in squadron life and didn’t believe there was anything worth doing at a higher level. But it wasn’t long before I was briefing the group and wing commander and, as a captain, getting unsolicited career advice from them.”

He said, though, that the best advice he ever received came from Lt. Col. Henry Huggins, the command post chief, who told him, “If you work hard and do good work, you don’t have to worry about anything else, because everything else will take care of itself.”

Over the following years McGregor deployed to the Middle East three times. During his deployments, he brought his expertise and commitment to the mission and his Airmen to truly make a difference, said Col. Kevin Gordon, 15th Wing commander at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, who was McGregor’s deputy director of mobility forces for the Central Command in 2015.

“It was a fantastic experience, and I witnessed his determination to support the warfighter while striving to improve both effectiveness and efficiency,” Gordon said. “He championed a tanker relocation effort that saved money, time and resources and better supported the fight. It was a huge accomplishment that would not have happened if not for his determination and effort. That was just one of many efforts he led to provide better support and improve quality of life for Airmen.”

In addition to taking care of the mission and Airmen, McGregor, as someone who has risen through both the enlisted and officer ranks, has his own piece of advice for those who would like to be promoted.

“The person who gets promoted is the person who is best prepared,” he said. “Take care of your professional military education and work inside the system to make positive changes for your unit and your Airmen. When you work on lifelong learning and focus on doing your job, promotion is a byproduct of success in those areas.”

McGregor also recommends looking for opportunities outside your job and to volunteer for things that can broaden your skill set. He noted that members who can write and edit well, and understand finance, contracting and construction projects are the commander’s best assets.

Col. Frank Amodeo, 927th Air Refueling Wing commander at MacDill AFB, Florida, who served as McGregor’s 439th Operations Group deputy commander at Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts, in 2006, said McGregor gave him the chance to broaden his skill set, which has paid off for him ever since.

“From day one for me at Westover ARB, Brigadier General McGregor took me under his wing and ensured I understood the financial management of how a wing, and the Air Force for that matter, operates,” Amodeo said. “As a two-time wing commander myself, I continue to pass along that knowledge. Also, at Westover, Brigadier General McGregor knew I was knowledgeable in tactical airlift operations but had no experience at the unit level with the strategic capabilities of our global reach missions.

"He took me to Scott AFB (in Illinois) and the Tanker Airlift Control Center. Not only did I quickly become a better operations group deputy commander, but later, when I became the Reserve advisor to the commander of Air Mobility Command, I brought with me a well-rounded knowledge of how the Reserve supports all aspects of rapid global mobility.”

As a former colleague and longtime friend, Amodeo said McGregor, as someone with many skills and capabilities, is a great representative of the Air Force Reserve.

“He has excelled as a pilot, group commander and wing commander; in deployed environments and the joint community; and on the (Headquarters Air Force) staff,” he said. “This Citizen Airman has been a plug-and-play asset. That is precisely what we want in our Citizen Airmen: to have the same standards at a lower life-cycle cost. Brigadier General McGregor is not only a role model for up-and-coming Citizen Airmen, he has molded and improved the (regular Air Force) officer and enlisted corps, too.”

Being a role model and mentor to others are key aspects to McGregor’s rise in the ranks, said retired Col. Lou Shogry, who served as both the operations support and airlift squadron commander when McGregor was the 439th OG commander at Westover ARB.

“After closely examining his career, one will notice a common thread of excellence and a penchant for picking the right people for the right job at the right time,” Shogry said. “That recipe has resulted in many of his subordinates achieving great and successful careers in their own right. A model mentor, indeed. As I was coming into my first command, he told me, ‘Get in there and act like you know what you’re doing. No one else can tell, and next thing you know you actually will know what you’re doing.’”

McGregor explained he never expected to become a general officer. But when he did, he quickly realized the star came with a whole new level of responsibility and visibility.

“The people who you’ve known treat you differently,” he said. “They hold the rank in high regard; the rank, not the person. I wasn’t all of a sudden taller, better looking and funnier. Well, maybe funnier. But when you wear the rank, everything you do sends a message. And it’s not about attaining the rank, it’s about what you do with it.”

McGregor said his fellow senior leaders need to keep their focus on making real improvement through actions and not just rhetoric.

“We all say, ‘We care about our Airmen,’ and, ‘Airmen are the most important asset we have.’ But I’ll challenge anyone to show me the action that supports the words,” McGregor said. “If you can’t point to anything you have physically done to put those words into action, then I’m going to say you’re not leading; you’re not taking care of your Airmen.”

Throughout his 41-year career, McGregor’s most rewarding experiences have involved helping others, sometimes in small ways.

“I will have somebody walk up to me and say something like, ‘Remember that time you told me?’ And they will tell me what I said and say, ‘It changed everything.’ That’s as rewarding as it gets," he said.

“When you affected someone’s life because you took the time, had a conversation and you helped them figure out how to do something — even if it wasn’t a big event in your life — it turns out to be a big event in their life. That’s a powerful lesson to keep in mind. You have to keep your energy levels high, resist having a down day, aim your frustration where it belongs and give the best of yourself every day. This you owe to those you lead.”