Commentary: A Breed Apart

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- I am constantly amazed at the great leaders of our nation who at pivotal times changed the direction of America because of their vision, creativity, and fortitude. Many of us may not be aware of one such leader, Gen. Bernard A. Schriever.

Schriever was born in Bremen, Germany, in 1910. He and his family came to America when he was 13 years old. He graduated from Texas A&M University as an aeronautical engineer. Upon entering the military, he started his career in the Army Field Artillery before enrolling in the Army Air Corps Flying School. During World War II, Schriever flew the B-17 in multiple combat sorties in the Pacific Theater with the 19th Bomb Group. Following his time as a bomber pilot, Schriever became a major force in Air Force space and ballistic missile research.

In 1954, Schriever was appointed as commander of the Air Research Development Command’s Western Development Division, where the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile was created. The ICBM would be able to travel thousands of miles to deliver nuclear weapons and the missile technology would also be used to launch satellites into space. As Schriever began to see the value of unmanned missiles in defense of our nation, some senior leaders, including Gen. Curtis LeMay, believed the focus for deployment of nuclear bombs was best served with the prestigious B-52 platform.

Schriever disagreed with that position because he had a unique vision for the future. He wrote in 1957, “In the long haul, our safety as a nation may depend on our achieving space superiority.” He also predicted in the same year that lunar expeditions and even interplanetary flight would someday be possible.

Interestingly, eight months after Schriever’s bold predictions, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, the Sputnik, into space. Schriever’s pioneering work led to the development of the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile and three intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman. Schriever was appointed as commander of the Air Research and Development Command in 1959, and commander of Air Force Systems Command in 1961. By 1963, AFSC oversaw 40 percent of the Air Force’s budget.

Schriever believed there were three keys which set visionary people as “a breed apart.” He stated, “The world has an ample supply of people who can come up with a dozen good reasons why a new idea will not work and should not be tried, but the people who produce progress are a breed apart. They have imagination, the courage and persistence to find solutions.”

First, he believed those who would reach the highest level in technology had to have imagination. In other words, one has to dream of what the possibilities are and not focus on the obstacles before us. Second, it takes courage to move forward with innovative and bold ideas. There will always be risks involved with every new endeavor, but pioneers exhibit courage in what they pursue. Finally, persistence is a necessary component if change is to take place. Greatness does not happen overnight, but is a result of dogged persistence. Solutions cannot be reached without persistence. The imagination, courage, and persistence Schriever and his teams displayed changed the world with regard to the defense of our nation.

In the end, Schriever proved to be correct in that the ICBM would become extremely significant in the Cold War and, ultimately, a key deterrent to nuclear war. After 33 years of military service, Schriever retired in 1966. Indeed, history now records Schriever was “a breed apart” and his contributions to our nation were instrumental to our defense. Most agree he and his team literally designed the weapon that changed the world, the ICBM.

In 1998, I had the pleasure of attending the base renaming ceremony, which Schriever attended. I was a flight commander and satellite operations officer at Falcon Air Force Base, Colorado, during the time when Falcon AFB was renamed to Schriever AFB. Even then, I did not realize the incredible impact he had on America in the very career field I was serving in as a space and missile officer.

As I reflect back on that day, I now realize I was in the presence of greatness. I encourage each of us to commit to work and live by the three principles Schriever espoused: imagination, courage, and persistence.