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A child's dream leads to more than 41 years of military service

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Wynndermere Shaw, Staff Sgt. Jason Grabiec and Master Sgt. Lealan Buehrer
  • 182nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Tiny hands reach to grab the control wheel while his eyes dance around the flight deck, filling with wonder. Control panel switches are just within fingertip’s reach. He can’t see over the dash, but the boy imagines what it might feel like to soar through the air. He is in love with the dream of flying.

This is how Air Force Brig. Gen. William P. Robertson described his first time sitting in the flight deck of a C-47 Skytrain while on a base tour as a young child. Robertson would go on to command the 182nd Airlift Wing for 13 years, then serve as the Chief of Staff for the Illinois Air National Guard. He retired on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, after serving as the Air National Guard Assistant to the Commander, 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) since November 2018.

Most recently, in addition to his duties for 12th Air Force, Robertson played an integral part in setting up the Air Force’s first joint task force at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in 2019. The task force’s first mission was to help manage the flow of military medical personnel and equipment to some cities hit hardest by COVID-19. While the effort was led by 9th Air Force and Northern Command, Robertson was “offered up” by then 12th Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Andrew Croft to then 9th Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Chad Franks.

“They really needed someone who had experience with the emergency response request process and working with local and state agencies. The National Guard are the experts within the DoD in that area,” Robertson said. He had led the Illinois Emergency Management Agency for several months under former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. “General Croft thought I was the right officer with the right experience at the right time to help that effort.”

While his experience with the Air Force’s joint task force helped put a cap on a long and successful military career, Robertson admits that he’s still adjusting to life out of uniform. “The military and the National Guard have been such a huge part of my life, so retiring has been a little surreal.”

After more than 41 years of military service, Robertson looked back on his journey and legacy. Inspired by his father who served as an armorer on the North American P-51 Mustang in the Air National Guard, Robertson enlisted on June 7, 1980, at the age of 20 as a security policeman with the 182nd Tactical Air Support Group.

“I always looked to my father as a really good leader, teacher, mentor and warrior,” said Robertson. “My dad really was the guy that I looked to for a lot of advice. He was just an outstanding leader.”

That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

After serving in roles including weapons and tactics officer and chief of current operations, Robertson was selected to be the 182nd Operations Group commander. During his tenure, the unit conducted a monumental Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment of six aircraft and more than 350 wing personnel to a bare base in Minhad, United Arab Emirates. In late December 2003, the C-130s flew in earthquake relief supplies to Iran, making Peoria’s C-130s the first U.S. aircraft to land in Iran since 1981.

Robertson became the 182nd Airlift Wing commander in 2004, serving in the role for an unprecedented 13 years. He led the wing to six outstanding unit awards and the first Consolidated Unit Inspection “Outstanding” rating that Air Mobility Command had given in 17 years.

Robertson’s journey to the top began with a decision to cross-train from the Security Police to the flying world in 1983. He originally planned to be a Peoria police officer as a traditional Guardsman, but others suggested he fly as a pilot in the Air National Guard.

“It was one of those things where the chips just fell into place and all of the sudden ‘Hey, there's this big dream out there that you’ve always wanted to fly,’ and that door kind of just opened up for me,” said Robertson.

There was work that needed to be done to reach his dream, but that didn’t stop him. He strove to finish his 4-year college degree at Bradley University in the ambition of being a pilot. “I crammed two years of college into a year and a half. The next thing I know is I was off to officer school, and then I was off to pilot training,” said Robertson.

After being a pilot for 34 years, Robertson has more than 4,800 flight hours and has flown eight different types of aircraft, including the T-41 Mescalero, T-37 Tweet, T-38 Talon, OA-37B Dragonfly, C-26 Metroliner, AT-38B Talon, F-16 Fighting Falcon and C-130 Hercules.

“It truly became a commitment for me,” said Robertson.

His command pilot career isn’t the only thing Robertson cherishes from serving in the Air National Guard. He also gained a great military family.

“The Guard’s family, and that's how it is. It's generation after generation serving,” said Robertson. “You meet a whole melting pot of Americans, and they all are going for the same thing: the defense of the county, community and state. We are all are here for the same reasons.”

Robertson’s daughter, Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Robertson, enlisted in the Air National Guard with her father by her side.

When looking back on all of those years, Robertson said he appreciated the great teammates alongside him and was grateful for their support throughout his career. “What an honor and privilege it is to serve your country,” he said.

Note to media: A photo of Brig. Gen. Robertson can be found at this link: https://www.il.ngb.army.mil/About-Us/Biographies/Bio-Article-View/Article/2200344/. Candid photos are available upon request or on DVIDS: https://dvidshub.net/r/ikzlsh.