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Air Force veteran finds new mission

LEWISTON—Retired Air Force Col. Lance Dickinson's 30 years in the service included time working under Colin Powell and training the Royal Saudi Air Force and the new government of Kosovo. The toughest have been the last two, teaching a military-based leadership class at Lewiston-Porter High School.

"It probably shouldn't have been a surprise," said Dickinson, a Newfane native.

High school kids 14 to 18 years old are demanding.

"You have to be prepared," said Dickinson, 59, father of two grown children. "You have to be on your toes, and you have to keep them busy. It's been very challenging."

This year's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps class of 58—45 boys and 13 girls—has had success similar to a distinction won by the class Dickinson led last year: They won an Air Force JROTC Outstanding Organization Award. The group was commended for more than 1,300 hours of community service work that included cleaned and served meals at the local soup kitchen, holiday bell-ringing to collect money for the Salvation Army, recycling at the school and carrying the flag as the Color Guard for parades and other events.

"I'm extremely proud of them for taking the time to do the community and school service," said Dickinson. "It was also based on academic achievement."

>How did you choose a military career?

I'm a graduate of Edinboro University. It's a state university in Pennsylvania, south of Erie. I really went to college to be a math teacher and taught for one year in Virginia and realized that was not my calling and talked to an Air Force recruiter.

I joined the Air Force when I was 25. There was a patriotic part of me that I grew up with at the end of the Vietnam War. Not a great time.

I had a technical degree in math. A lot of people were not joining the Air Force after the Vietnam War. It was just the perception in our country. People were tired of the war.

This was the late '70s . . . 1977, was when I went to officer training school. Vietnam ended in 1973.

>What appealed to you about the Air Force?

An opportunity to get an officer's position. At first, they did offer me a pilot's position, which interested me.

Then they filled their quota. When it came back to me, [the recruiter] said, "Would you consider a navigator position?" I thought, "Hey, anything flying sounded like fun." To be honest, at the time I wasn't sure what a navigator was.

>What does a navigator do?

Our job really is to plan where the airplane is going to fly, its mission. For a bomber mission, there was an air refueling. Then we would go to what we call a "low-level training route." We would take our airplane down to about 500 feet off of the ground.

Getting to each of those points on time. Simulating dropping bombs, then coming back to the base. All over the United States. Isolated areas where we were able to fly these low-level routes. There were ranges and areas where there aren't homes or anything where we were allowed to drop weapons.

What I found out was being in the Air Force on a crew like this, it was almost like being in a fraternity. You had a bond with your crew members. You're planning your mission. You're flying together. Just the camaraderie. It was fun. I will not lie. It's not everyday that your job is to get in an airplane. There's a competition between crews to see who can have the best bomb scores. It's stressful, but it's also fun.

>Bomb scores?

It's how close you can get to a target on the ground.

>At some point you stopped flying?

Usually the flying portion, you only do maybe for 20 years. Interspersed, I also had staff positions at the Pentagon and the other one, it was Langley Air Force base near Norfolk, Va.

When I was at the Pentagon, I was on the Joint Staff. The Joint Staff supports the chairman. I was there when Colin Powell was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The responsibility of the Joint Staff is to get all of the services working together planning for operations.

>What were you working on?

The command and control for nuclear operations. To ensure we had the safety and security for the weapons.

>What was Colin Powell like?

I was a middle-level officer. I was a major. I really didn't have that much day-to-day contact with him. From what I did see, he was very personable, and he took care of his people.

When it was time for him to retire, he took the time to have his picture taken with every person that was on the Joint Staff. I have a picture now, shaking hands. My mother has one hanging in her house, and I have one hanging in my house.

>Can you tell me about your foreign posts? You trained military personnel in Kosovo?

I did go back to Kosovo for two years right after I retired. Kosovo was, for a military person, very unusual because they love Americans in Kosovo. They felt we saved their lives. They would do just about anything for an American. It made the job very easy.

It was very interesting. If you can imagine trying to start a country from nothing.

I do stay in touch with them, and I am going back this summer to visit. The country itself is very small, about the size of Connecticut. It has some very rugged terrain. We had some fun hiking in the mountains. It's also a very poor country with about 50 percent unemployment.

>And Saudia Arabia?

Saudia Arabia was different only because of the type of society. They separate the males and the females. I was working mostly with members of their Air Force. When you go to an event you are only with the men.

I was very lucky. I had the opportunity to travel all over the country. A lot of people think it's all desert. Petra is where they filmed "Indiana Jones." You can go into some of the mountains that have the caves in them, and you can see the carvings.

I got to see the Red Sea. It was just crystal clear, just a beautiful body of water. I didn't do any snorkeling, but some of my guys over there did a lot of snorkeling.

>What led you to teach high school Junior ROTC?

I was the ROTC commander at Rochester Institute of Technology. I always had a desire to teach. Adjunct professor. That was a chance to train college students that were planning to go into the Air Force.

That sort of got me to the Junior ROTC. The opening came to Lewiston, and that gave me an opportunity to move back. My mother is still living here. Ella. Two brothers and a sister in the area.

>When did you move back?

It was summer of 2010, August 2010. Almost 35 years since I really lived here. My wife is from the Jamestown area. We like the four seasons. We love the Buffalo Bills. Then again I never thought I'd have the opportunity at the end of my career to come home and then be close to my mother again. It's nice to be back with family.

Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question- and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.