Defense Dept.’s longest-serving general and African American retires

When Al Flowers was born, his grandmother brought him home in a shoe box and sat all night by the wood stove to keep him warm.

When he was 10, he went to the tobacco fields with the adults, “cropping” leaves by hand and dumping them in a cart drawn by two gray mules.

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He lived in a tin roof house with no running water and bathed in a No. 10 washtub.

Coming of age, he thought: There must be something more.

There was.

This month, Maj. Gen. Alfred K. Flowers, 63, retires from the U.S. Air Force as the military’s longest-serving active-duty general.

He is also the longest-tenured active-duty service member in the Air Force, and the longest-serving active-duty African American in the six-decade history of the Defense Department.

For 46 years, from his days as an Air Force warehouseman, to Vietnam, where he helped gather the bodies of the dead, to his current job at the Pentagon, where he is the Air Force budget director, he has wanted for nothing else.

“Best decision that I’ve ever made,” he said of signing up at age 17.

It was good for the service, too.

“Al has been an incredible resource,” said Michael B. Donley, secretary of the Air Force, who has known Flowers for 20 years. “He’s seen lots of budgets going up and down over the years. ... We know we can go to Al to get a straight answer. ... He’s a total pro.”

Flowers’s son, Air Force Lt. Col. Alfred K. Flowers Jr., likened him to the Tuskegee Airmen, the fabled black aviators of World War II, and the 19th-century Buffalo soldiers. “This is someone who has truly defined history,” he said.

Although the elder Flowers never piloted a plane or fired a missile, he has been responsible, at all levels, for handling money that made those kinds of things possible.

As deputy assistant secretary for budget, Flowers is responsible for much of the creation, care and execution of the Air Force’s roughly $119 billion annual budget.

And raised amid scarcity as a child, he said he has been scrupulous with the dollars. “You are entrusted with the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “I’ve never taken it lightly.”

His son said the general has been exacting with everyone’s money — once, on a car trip, returning to a store with a soda that he realized he might have forgotten to pay for.

The service, for its part, has given Flowers his calling, his wife, Ida, and, he says, as an African American, a sense of fair play.

“A bullet doesn’t know color,” he said. “So black, white, brown, all of us are subjected to the same things.

“And the military, I think, has been one of the organizations in the forefront of integration and equal opportunity,” he said.

“If it hadn’t been for equal opportunity, I wouldn’t be where I am.

“I have never, ever wanted a handout,” he said. “All I’ve wanted was the opportunity to do my best. And if the door was open that’s all I needed.”

A chance at a better life

Flowers is a tall, soft-spoken man, with graying hair and metal-rimmed glasses. He wears the two silver stars of a major general on his dark blue flight cap and on his service dress jacket.