JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- Forty-one years, 167 temporary duty assignments, 22 base assignments, six deployments and three wars later, Col. George W. Hays, the director of Command, Control, Communications, and Computer Systems, Headquarters Alaskan Command, retired from active duty service July 1 as the longest-serving colonel in the Air Force.
"When I joined in 1971, I was a country boy from Eglin, Ore., who had never been to a big city, no plane or bus of any kind," Hays said. "Then I had to get on a bus to get on a plane to get on a bus and it all seemed traumatic, but it was pretty exciting. I didn't know exactly what to think."
Hays and his brother, who joined under the buddy system, were planning to serve only four years.
"I wanted to go on to college, however, my brother ended up doing 20 and well, you see where I'm at," Hays said.
Joining the military wasn't really popular due to the draft and the Vietnam War, but his father and all seven of his uncles served in World War II and his two oldest brothers were in the service as well. Keeping with family tradition, he said as a male family member he was expected to serve.
"My draft number was 157," Hays said. "I wasn't in danger of being drafted, but my brother's number was under 50, so we joined together. I wanted to go to Vietnam and wanted to do my time serving the country just like my family did before me."
When it was time for him to reenlist as a young buck sergeant, Hays realized that he was going to get a bonus. He had a wife and a daughter to care for, and finally started seeing money save up -- getting out of the military didn't seem like such a good idea anymore, he said.
"I thought, 'I can keep taking classes, get a bonus and care for my family,'" Hays said. "Then, during my second tour, I got to liking it a lot. So I decided I was going to make a career out of this."
Hays originally wanted to be a pararescueman and go to Vietnam to save lives, but didn't have the required 20/20 vision. He ended up with a communications job after looking into what his oldest brother did in the Navy.
"Nothing I wanted was available, and not too many people wanted communications back then," Hays said. "It's not like it is now where you have communications with all sorts of computer science and how it's really sought out in the outside world."
Back then, Hays recalled, it was offline encryption, often called "poking tape on a teletype," the old paper tape readers and the IBM 80 character cards -- something he said he enjoyed, once he got it into it.
As for the Vietnam war, Hays said he felt like he was a contributor, but he didn't really feel like he was in the midst of the war.
"I did get there," Hays said. "Just once I was there, they shortly split us off and I went to Thailand and continued to support the war from there."
Hays felt like he had to make more of a contribution. For him, combat was a right of passage in his family.
"With my brother in Vietnam, dad and all my uncles in World War II, if I wasn't in the combat zone I didn't have the right of passage."
Hays didn't know it yet, but he had a few more chances to go to war coming in his future.
In 1982, Hays decided his goal was to make the rank of chief in 20 years. He was set to go to the non-commissioned officer academy in March that year, and to then test for master sergeant when he returned. Two weeks before this, Hays received a call up to the commander's office. The commander wanted to nominate then-Technical Sergeant Hays for Officer Training School.
"When I was told this, I stuck to my goal and said, 'No sir, I want to be a chief in 20,'" Hays said.
His commander insisted that he thought Hays would make a good officer, and Hays soon changed his mind.
"I learned that I wanted to be able to take care of my people when I knew they deserved it," Hays said. " I knew that I could take better care of the mission and could contribute."
While as a lieutenant Hays didn't get the job he wanted right away, patience and hard work paid off, gaining him highly competitive positions.
As a captain, Hays spent four years with the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., in a position that required a hi-altitude, low-opening and static-line parachutist to lead a joint communications team. Getting the job wasn't easy, however.
Even though Hays never scored less than 100 percent on the rigorous special operations physical -- which included a six-mile run, 12-mile ruck march, sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups -- the local commander initially did not want to accept Hays due to his lack of experience. After learning of Hays' superior test scores, the commander commented, "I think you can learn," and accepted him for the position. Hays was in command of 67 communicators including 12 Army Rangers, six Green Berets, one Navy SEAL and two force reconnaissance Marines.
Hays didn't stop exceeding expectations. When a slot at Ranger school opened he applied for it. His superiors, who were both Army Rangers, leaned back in their chairs and expressed their doubts because he was an Airman. Hays blew away all preconceptions, however, when he graduated Army Ranger School in February 1989 as one of the first 13 Airmen to receive the Ranger tab.
"Having that Ranger tab became a huge credibility factor for me in the special ops community," Hays said. "So instead of just an Air Force captain with my jump wings, HALO jump wings, and master parachutist wings, I was now what they call a 'master-blaster with HALO wings and a Ranger tab.'"
In 1990, Hays was sent to Howard Air Force Base, Panama, in support of Operation Just Cause. During this time the dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega, was wanted by many countries. Hays saw Noriega after special operations troops arrested him January 3 of that year.
"They took him to a C-130 Hercules and flew him to the states to face charges in drug trafficking and murder," recalled Hays. "It was one of my greatest experiences in the military to be there for that event. Of course no one got any pictures of it, but it is forever ingrained in my mind."
During Hays' four years with JSOC, he completed 91 jumps, 36 temporary duty assignments and was afforded the opportunity to obtain foreign wings from Canada. For not getting the pararescueman position when he went to basic, Hays said he sure got his pick of wings to wear.
In 2003, Hays volunteered to go to Iraq. He was stationed at Headquarters European Command at the time and was a part of the "northern squeeze" in the pursuit of Saddam Hussein. Still, the advance from the north didn't fulfill his long-awaited desire to be in the midst of combat, so in 2006, he volunteered to go to Baghdad. He completed 81 combat missions and received the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
"There, I felt like I was in the mix of it," Hays said. "I finally really felt like I was in the war. I'd hear the gun fire and the bombs going off every night. For 365 days, I got what I had been looking for in Vietnam and Panama for some 35 years. I finally had my chance to make a difference in a war zone, to contribute something toward the war."
With a running log of far more than 20,000 miles since 1979, and many other personal accomplishments under his belt, Hays said he holds true to his "habits of success" motto.
"The No. 1 rule is to take care of your people and they'll take care of the mission," Hays said. "Give them the resources and training to do their job and discipline as well."
Hays receives a lot of surprised reactions about his age and when asked how long he has been in the service.
"If I talk to young people, they don't see how it could be possible because this is history book stuff, Hays said. "It's their grandfather's war."
When people ask him why he stayed in the service for so long, Hays said he explains that it's about enjoying the work and contributing to the mission.
"As an Airman, early in my career, I was doing exactly what I was told for the exact number of hours I was told and as soon as my shift was over I was out and on my own," Hays said. "After I decided to stay in and the subsequent deployments came, I felt like at that point that I owned the mission."
If you own the mission, Hays said, you do what it takes to get the mission done instead of just doing what you are assigned.
"It's not a rank thing, it's either an attitude you have or don't have," Hays said. "If you don't, in a lot of cases the mission doesn't get done."
Hays, who had his retirement ceremony June 22, plans to search for a job. No matter where he starts, he said he knows he will grow.
"Grow where you are planted," Hays said. "I got that saying from a wise chief master sergeant who used to work for me. I have had some jobs that I didn't particularly care for. No matter what job you have, do the absolute best job you can do with the most enthusiastic attitude that you can and I think that you'll be successful."
Out of 3,345 colonels, Hays was the longest-serving colonel in the Air Force with more than 40 years of duty. He started out wanting to keep with a family tradition and came out with three different sets of wings, a Ranger tab and a wide range of friends and knowledge.
"I still ... would join today," Hays said. "Although I will be hanging up the material which makes up this uniform, I know in my heart I will never hang up this uniform or my service-to-my-country way of life. I will always love and defend my God, my family, my friends and this great country."