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NEWS | Sept. 2, 2020

Boyd's rite of passage, history as greatest instrument of learning

By Capt. Kenya Pettway Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

A respected researcher and writer of history, Gary W. Boyd, the command historian of Air Education and Training Command, has lived through several significant periods of history—all of which he believes has determined our present and shapes our future.

On the day East German officials began sealing off more than 30 miles of free passage through the heart of Berlin for the framework of the Berlin Wall, Boyd was born.

Unbeknownst to him, the construction of the Berlin Wall and its imminent demolishment in 1989 would come to serve as a symbol in the course of his career.

Rite of passage into history

Very early on in his life, Boyd became enamored with history and his ability to extract meaning from the past.

In the first grade as part of an assignment, he was given the opportunity to perform a reenactment of a character in American history. He chose Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States who was key in constructing and ratifying the U.S. Constitution.

“I wanted to honor and understand where I came from, and how the world came to be,” Boyd said. “That sustained me throughout my entire life.”

A part of history that particularly interested Boyd was aerial history, a passion that led him to become a voracious reader.

At the early age of five, the first book he ever read was a chapter book on the Battle of Britain, featuring a narration of concentrated aerial attacks on convoys throughout Britain—an exciting account that first sparked his interest in aerial history.

In fact, his first toy was a P-38 Lightning, marked by its twin booms and distinctive shape. His fascination was not with the engineering of the plane, however, but with the people who flew them.

“Many historians are really intrigued by the technology; they want to know all there is to know about the A-10 Thunderbolt II or a B-17 Flying Fortress,” Boyd said. “I was more enthralled by the people who fly the aircraft and the Airmen who maintain them."

Jimmy’s Chicken Shack moment

Boyd’s love for aerial history and the Airmen who mark such history was solidified during what he called his “Jimmy’s Chicken Shack” moment in high school.

Jimmy’s Chicken Shack was a famous eatery in Harlem, New York, where Charlie Parker Jr., the world-renowned jazz saxophonist, washed dishes in the 1940s. It was also where the direction of his life forever changed and he learned to extend chord changes beyond the 13th and 14th range of a song.

Boyd’s Jimmy Chicken Shack moment, understated but equally as momentous, was in high school while he was sitting in an advanced math course. There was a multipart problem on an exam, and rather than answering with the correct figures, Boyd instead wrote “no.”

“At this point, the epiphany was that I wasn’t interested in this,” Boyd said. “I didn’t want to spend time on spurious and fatuous function and limit. That’s when I decided I would pursue liberal arts.”

Boyd did just that and pursued history and art simultaneously at the beginning of college, but he ultimately chose history as his primary major.  

Air Force historian

After graduating from college, Boyd wholly engaged his passion for aerial history and became an Air Force historian in 1988.

“I decided after I graduated that I wanted to roll the dice and see what I could do in the Air Force,” Boyd said. “I became an Air Force historian and never looked back.”

His career as an Air Force historian began at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, where he was able to dedicate countless hours to learning the craft of compiling history and chronicling the Air Force story.

“I really enjoyed the people and the stories of the Air Force,” Boyd said. “Being a historian is a way that you can document the sacrifices made by Airmen around the world.”

The Yukla 27 crash accident in 1995 during his third assignment at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, was what especially illuminated the gravity of his role as an Air Force historian.

“That is where I really began to understand my responsibility of posterity as a historian,” Boyd said. “Telling the story, telling truth and honoring the people who sacrificed their lives—it was a solemn honor.”

History as an instrument of learning

The posterity of history became even more important to Boyd at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the genesis of COVID-19 in the United States in February 2020, Boyd immediately began providing historic documentation to AETC leadership on the command’s response efforts during crises in the past.

“It’s important for us to know how people have felt, reacted and persevered in times of crises in the past,” Boyd said. “Our ability to fight through COVID-19 has a lot to do with the resiliency we learned from history.”

These historic documents proved to be valuable instruments of learning, as AETC stood up a secondary Basic Military Training base at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi — a mitigation effort mirrored after AETC’s decision to relocate BMT to Amarillo Air Force Base, Texas, during the meningitis outbreak in 1966.

“It’s been one of the proudest moments of my career,” Boyd said. “Being able to witness the command’s efficiency in persevering through a crisis and maintaining the pipeline using guile, innovation and profound leadership—using mere history.”

The better angels of our nature

The wounds endured from the social unrest following recent civil injustices this year is another crisis today that Boyd believes the examination of history can help mend.

“After the Civil Rights Era in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we weren’t finished and we’re still not finished,” Boyd said. “The United States’ history is never finished. We have the ability to move towards a better tomorrow if we listen to the past and the ‘better angels of our nature,’ as former President Abraham Lincoln would say.”

Summoning the better angels of our nature is an endeavor that requires us to challenge ourselves daily—an endeavor Boyd knows doesn’t always feel the most comfortable.

“It’s uncomfortable for us to believe that there are flaws,” Boyd said. “There’s disparity, and there’s still a lack of diversity in many areas of American society. It’s uncomfortable because people who are comfortable don’t want to challenge themselves, but we must fight that inclination and challenge ourselves always to ensure any one voice is as valued as the others.”

In spite of these flaws, Boyd believes this current era, marked by unprecedented change and leadership, is "the greatest of all — and so it must always be.”

The only way we can continue this unparalleled momentum of leadership, is to demolish the emblematic Berlin Wall which obstructs our ability to change for the better, and makes a “reappraisal of where we are and where we want to go,” Boyd said. “That is the single most important thing a nation can do to be great and prosperous.” 

More importantly, Boyd believes we must commit to leaving a part of the goodness we tried to embody in the world when we’re gone — an embodiment for future generations to observe through history, the greatest instrument of learning.