The 2018 Black History Month theme, “African Americans in Times of War,” provides the framework for many stories related to African American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, veterans, and civilians. This video series, created by the DOC Office of Civil Rights, showcases the diverse stories of some African Americans who served during times of war and now work for the Department of Commerce Headquarters in downtown Washington, DC.
My name is Michael Phelps. I am the Director of the Office of Budget for the United States Department of Commerce.
The branch of service that I was affiliated with was the United States Air Force. I enlisted on September 17, 1975. I would go on to serve 33 years, and I would retire in January of 2011, as a colonel in the United States Air Force.
Why did I join the Air Force is pretty interesting. Folks that know me growing up and even some that know a little bit about my past, always questioning things. So after 12 years of school, I kind of timed out in terms of wanting to go to college. But I didn’t want to work in the factory in Cleveland, Ohio, like Ford or GM.
So during our senior year the recruiters came around, military recruiters came around on Armed Forces Day to take some tests. So I said I’ll take a test, and they came back to me and said, the Air Force guy came up and spoke to me and said, “We have a deal for you. We can delay enlist you, you have some good scores coming into the administrative field,” and the rest was kind of lined up to be history.
It was something I wanted to do, broke the heart of my parents because they wanted me to go to college, but one thing I do admire about my two parents was that they were very supportive of their oldest son. And I promised them I would go back and get my degree, but this is just something I wanted to do at this time because of just having gone to school for 12 years. Have two sheets of paper, where you graduated from elementary school and then…well three, elementary, junior high, and then high school…and then the world says you have to go back and get another 4-year degree. Again if you knew me, I’m like that just didn’t add up, but I knew I needed to do something different.
So the Air Force became an opportunity for me and I enlisted in ’75, went back and got my degree in accounting and got my commission in ’82 and the rest is history. It was only supposed to be a 4-year enlistment.
In the actual career field was financial management. I think the interesting thing was as an enlisted member of the United States Air Force, I was an accounting technician. I did that for five years and when I got into this commissioning program, went back to college, had a two year break and as a commissioned officer, I got lucky to come back into the same career field as an officer, that I did enlisted work.
So my first tour as a 2nd lieutenant was an accounting and finance officer at Charleston Air Force Base, and I just proceeded up through the rank and file of our career field of financial management to assume one of 10 key positions in United States Air Force, as a Chief Financial Officer of a major command. I ended my career as the Chief Financial Officer of the Combat Air Forces down at Langley Air Force Base Virginia.
I do not have direct military or combat related service, however, I have supported several contingency operations, to include the current fight that we are in right now. As a lieutenant my first experience was the repatriation of students out of the island of Granada when folks went in and they were evacuated to Charleston Air Force Base and we teamed up with the Department of State to process those students coming back from that rescue operation, so although we were in a safe haven, it was just interesting calming those students down, as a military officer listening to what they experienced as the green beret and U.S. military forces went in and rescued them.
Next would be overseas, when I was a military war planner, for our comptroller of the finance career field. When I was over in Europe at Ramstein Air Base, Germany where I did military planning that led up to us executing our war plans for the first Gulf War. So although I did not go forward, I was in our command center in Europe at Ramstein Air Base, deploying finance and resource management people into that fight. I would later go over and escort one of our senior officers to a forward operating base, on the Iraqi/Turkish border to look at troops and a few things as they were going into operations in Northern Iraq.
The most…the closest I got to actually being in combat was here in the States. I tell people about that…the ability to walk out of the Pentagon on 911 when it got hit. I can still…like where I was at that moment…well I was working in classified SCIF in Air Force Budget and I still remember talking to colleagues when we were listening to at that time, a low flying plane, because they flew low taking off from National Airport. They flew low over the Pentagon, so you’re talking to this guy and said, “That plane sounds pretty low," and the next thing you know you hear this rumbling sound and the Pentagon is shaking.
Two colleagues that had an inner window, you heard this curse word and what they actually saw, and they didn’t know what was going on, was this fireball that had cleared the top of the building. And then the loudspeaker started going off and things just didn’t seem right, because again because we were in the SCIF, no one knew what happened at the World Trade Center. And so we were told to evacuate.
And I remember going out…into the 1st corridor and we would take our normal exit as we were supposed to get out of the building. Folks were talking to us about what was happening at the World Trade Centers, we didn’t know this. So normally we would go out the 2nd floor and we were directed down to the basement. So you knew something was wrong.
I remember talking to a guard as we were coming out, I said, “What’s going on?” he said, “Look to the right as you clear the building, we just got hit by a plane.” And so as I cleared the building and looked right like he said all I could see was a lot of black smoke coming out of the side and you could hear the explosions, secondary explosions of fuel. And I think I looked up out of south parking up at 395 and everything up there is stopped. Nothing was moving, people were looking at us and this low flying helicopter was flying over the south parking lot area, where I was, so low that you could see the pilot on the right side.
It was a kind of harrowing day. But we would go back to work that next day. The building was still on fire, the roof was still on fire and we had instructions on how to get out if the fire couldn’t be contained. Mainly because the message was that your military was still operational, although we got hit. We were up and running but let it be shown for the record we didn’t work a full day because I think the smoke got to a lot of us and so I think we departed around 2:30. But that is an interesting day.
I think the most memorable one for me was not so much at Langley Air Force Base, but when I was the budget director at Air Mobility Command. Our security forces folks were going forward into the combat zone and needed body armor. We were trying to work a resourcing package to get them body armor. And entered into a funding transfer, where we transferred and hopefully this thing came together where we were able to identify some resources to be transferred in order to get the right color of money so our guys could get body armor. Turned out to be better than I thought. And we wound up getting the right body armor for those guys going forward.
You just think you’re doing your job and not knowing how you are impacting the lives of people until you leave to go to Langley. And on behalf of the almost 1,300 security forces folks and their mobility command I got this nice plaque with a bayonet, and a plaque from them, thanking me for what I had done for them. That is displayed in my study, because if you know the security forces they generally do not give non security forces folks those kinds of gifts. So that was something special.
And then they showed me a movie of an incident in Iraq, where that body armor saved the life of a military person. There was a combat operation where the person getting out of the Humvee, was getting ready to pursue two insurgents and took a hit right in his chest and knocked him down. He was able to get back up and capture not only the two people who shot at him but also the insurgent that was videotaping that particular event. The security forces guys said, “Hey this is the stuff, this is the body armor that you got for our guys.” So again not direct combat, but you are influenced by the fact that some commander in the theater is not writing a letter home to some parent for the loss of their son or daughter over there.
My position here at Commerce is the Director or the Office of Budget here at the Office of the Secretary. So I overlook or oversee the budget formulation and execution of our 12 bureaus that makeup the Department of Commerce.
I started here in March of 2011, was brought in to reorganize the Office of Budget, based on some direction I received from the acting Secretary at that time. I want to believe that I have fulfilled that particular request, although she is not here now. And so I have been here now for seven years as the Budget Director.
How did my military experience impact the current job? Well your military experience is transferable. I think the immediate impact when I got here at Commerce was called out to me when people found out, "hey, this guy is pretty straightforward and direct." And in the military you need to be straightforward and direct, clear, concise and to the point. A: because you don’t want people dying, or you want to make sure that people get commanders intent. They understand what being said, and the most precious thing that people have is their time. You can…you can pay people overtime, for staying, you can apologize, for this or that, but you can’t replace anyone’s time that you waste. So I am very sensitive to that.
In the military it really hones you in on what’s important. Tell people what’s clear and concise, what you need them to do, and then we drive on. And that’s why I think if you talk to anybody at Commerce they will tell you that I am pretty direct and open and sometimes doing what’s right isn’t popular but that’s why I think they brought me in here, to make sure we get a mission done. And it’s not personal, it’s very professional and those who know me on a personal level can set those aside.
What does African American History Month mean to me? It is an opportunity for me, which I do every day, to try to convey to African Americans and any person that I meet, how blessed I am to be fortunate, if it's two minutes speaking to the janitor in the hallway, if its 30 minutes speaking to the Secretary of Commerce when we are briefing him, or someone just in passing, the security folks, to be a role model for all the folks who have made this country great… that I am now standing on their particular shoulders, trying to be a mentor, a leader, a beacon of hope, a lighthouse to guide people, you name it in terms of, that’s kind of like as I look at African American History Month, is trying to be a good role model of a man of color. Not trying to get into a lot of the politics, or anything like that, but I take that very seriously, especially coming out of the military, and what I bring forward.
You just never know any particular day, when you come to work or going home, whose life you might impact, or change their perception of African Americans based on an encounter they may have with me. So trying to keep the foundation that my parents have instilled in me just to be a good son, a good role model and reflect their upbringing of me.