More than three decades ago, in a lengthy conversation about Air Force Academy athletes, longtime AFA athletic director Col. John Clune made an observation that's never left my memory.
"You can say all you want about the future Air Force leaders we're developing, but as special as everyone is here, some of them are even more special," Clune said before the academy's 1981 graduation. "And we've got one in this graduating class who is like that. To be totally honest, I think Michelle Johnson could become the first woman to run this place as superintendent. That's how impressive she is."
Sadly, Col. Clune — who died of cancer in 1992 — won't be around this June to see his prophecy come true. Maj. Gen. Michelle Johnson, a basketball star and first female cadet wing commander who became a Rhodes Scholar and later a command pilot as she moved up the Air Force ladder, will be promoted to lieutenant general (three stars) when she takes over as the first female AFA superintendent. She'll replace Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, who wraps up his four-year tenure and plans to remain as an area resident after retirement.
That's not the only high-profile change coming to the local military community. Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson, who has done so much in 15 fast-paced months as Fort Carson's commander to enhance the Army's relationships across southern Colorado, is heading for a new assignment. His successor will be Maj. Gen. Paul LaCamera, a 1985 West Point graduate who comes from the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
For both Johnson and LaCamera, the tasks ahead will be treacherous.
As the nation dips its toes into the water muddied by federal budget cuts (we'll no longer be using the term "sequestration," which has been banished to the dungeon for overused clichés), all political sides actually can agree on one fact. These reductions will affect the military most, with half of the estimated $85 billion this year coming out of the Pentagon.
Here in Colorado Springs, military leaders have pegged the expected impact as $57 million for the Army at Fort Carson and $8 million spread among the Air Force's operations at Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever AFB and the Air Force Academy. All of that, to be clear, must happen by Sept. 30, after which more cutbacks would kick in for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
As the politicians play their games in Washington, D.C., we'll be feeling the impact more than most metro areas. And during periods of such uncertainty, the last thing any major military installation would want is a command change.
From the moment they arrive, both Johnson and LaCamera will face the challenge of maintaining stability while they oversee the oncoming budget cuts. As Anderson outlined in a recent talk to local leaders, those will include thousands of unpaid civilian furloughs (yes, thousands, including a reported 3,000 employees losing a day a week from April through September, just at Fort Carson) as well as canceled contracts and reduced spending locally for military supplies.
LaCamera and Johnson will deal with all that while meeting and getting to know community leaders, most of whom will ask endless questions about what might happen next.
If they check with their predecessors, as the two incoming generals undoubtedly will, they'll find how much emphasis Anderson and Gould have placed on reaching out to Colorado Springs. That means saying "yes" to many invitations that, in the past, might have been delegated to others. For Gould it was easier, since he was an AFA graduate who always kept close ties and oversaw Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station along the way. But Anderson, despite being a newcomer to the Springs, built and cultivated wide support faster than many believed possible with his no-nonsense, yet upbeat, approach.
Of course, Gould and Anderson didn't have painful budget cuts waiting for them, as is the case now for Johnson and LaCamera.
But that doesn't mean the two generals are being set up to fail. In fact, their situation brings to mind another familiar quote from John Clune, who spent two decades as a colonel.
"Just remember," Clune said many times, "there's a reason they became generals. They earned it."