In January 1975, Elton John and Barry Manilow had the top songs on the music charts; The Waltons, All in the Family and The Jeffersons were popular television shows and Gerald Ford was president of the United States.
During the same month, a 23-year-old African-American man from Pennsylvania joined the Air Force and began a three-decade career that would take him to many places in the world as he rose to the pinnacle of the enlisted ranks.
Meet Donald Robinson, who served in the Air Force from 1975 to 2005.
At the beginning of his career, he says he was at a point in his life he felt required a profound change in direction.
“I had been working a variety of jobs mostly in the construction field and decided I needed a change,” Robinson said. “The Air Force was advertising, so I went to see a recruiter and took the test. I had been laid off from my current job, so I was inspired to join, because I felt there was good training and opportunities for advancement as long as I did what was required.”
He took the oath and it was on to basic training and technical school.
What’s more, the majority of Robinson’s career, 1975 to 1991, was during the Cold War when the world was often on the edge of nuclear war and tensions around the world could lead to catastrophic results.
An experience early in his career would not only relay the danger of the times, but imbued this young Airman and crew chief with a sense of profound patriotism.
“I didn’t feel the experience of deep patriotism until an incident in Korea,” Robinson said. “I was at George Air Force Base, California, and we were tasked with loading weapons onto aircraft as a show of force. This experience taught me the real meaning of patriotism. I realized that being in the military wasn’t a nine-to-five job.
“We were ready to go to war and tasked as a show of force to use the military option,” he said.
After George AFB, it was time to take a trip across the Atlantic to Upper Heyford Air Base, England, for a two-year assignment, which would begin an 11-year back and forth of assignments between Upper Heyford AB and Cannon AFB, New Mexico.
The first stop in England was quite a memorable one, Robinson said.
“I arrived at Upper Heyford Tuesday, and a major exercise was set to start the following day,” he said. “I hadn’t had a chance to sign in at my new base. Everywhere I looked, I saw people with gas masks, chemical protection suits and helmets. At the time, I was not aware of the exercise.
“It was a serious and heavy-duty exercise, which involved convoying with nuclear weapons,” Robinson said. “Although the nukes were training weapons, actual war was simulated, and every aircraft capable of flying was ready to go. A major part of the exercise was dropping simulated nukes.”
After two years in England, it was time to travel thousands of miles to Cannon AFB to work on F-111 D and E models. The F-111 was an American supersonic, medium-range interdictor and tactical attack aircraft that also filled the roles of strategic nuclear bomber, aerial reconnaissance, and electronic-warfare aircraft in its various versions.
As was so common during the Cold War, it was a high tempo atmosphere, according to Robinson.
“We simulated deploying to forward-operating bases,” he said. “I was there for 11 months and kept busy on a daily basis.”
It was at this point, Robinson made a profound decision to make the Air Force a career.
It was back to Upper Heyford AB for round two, but this tour would be for six years — 1979 to 1985.
These half-dozen years offered Robinson more rank and more responsibility.
“I was promoted to staff and technical sergeant while at Heyford,” he said. “I was more engaged with my higher rank and had a variety of jobs, which included crew chief, maintenance training instructor and senior controller.”
Also, attention to detail was a must.
“There were two people at all times to provide checks and balances because we were responsible for the aircraft,” Robinson said. “We would watch each other in order to prevent mistakes.”
Moreover, he pointed out in that period of time, there wasn’t a concentration on rank because it was vital that Airmen knew how to do their job.
Robinson reflected on his time in England as really special.
“My years in England provided me with an unforgettable experience,” he said. “The Brits had so much respect for us. It was a family oriented atmosphere. I recall a time when my car broke down, and I was walking to the base. Almost immediately a town’s person picked me up and drove me to the base.”
It came time to return to Cannon AFB for a trio of years, where he was promoted to master sergeant.
However, it was on to a completely different part of the world and a different type of assignment.
“I was on the way to Izmir, Turkey, for a NATO assignment from 1988 to 1991,” he said. “It wasn’t on a base, but there was a recreation center, hospital, school and other support services. Izmir was a safe place to live at that time.”
However, when Operation Desert Storm launched in 1991, terrorism activity increased. The primary terrorist group in this area was Patiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK). It was no longer a safe area.
It was on to a third tour at Cannon from 1991-1995 working on F-111 aircraft.
After this tour at Cannon it was half-way around the world to Kadena Air Base, Japan, where he was promoted to chief master sergeant and then to Luke in 2003 for his swan song.
Robinson’s career afforded him the opportunity to work on a plethora of aircraft, which included the F-105, F-111, F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, and the airborne warning and control system.
He hung up the uniform in 2005 with three decades of service.
However, it wasn’t the typical laid-back retirement for Robinson. He worked short stints at Lowes, Lockheed Martin and the post office, but found his calling with the Veterans Administration, where he worked for 11 years.
“I liked the opportunity to help veterans and service members,” he said. “The irony is that when I left the military, I knew nothing about the VA. I ran into a friend from Heyward who helped familiarize me.”
Robinson retired from his VA job in August 2018. He is spending time with his bride, Mary and his grandchildren in New Mexico, as well as playing golf.
He met Mary at George AFB and they were married in 1985.
In all, Robinson summed the goals of his military career in this manner.
“I believe you need to help your Airmen,” he said. “It’s all about your people. If you don’t make others successful, you’re not successful. It is important to help people with awards and promotions.”