'Attitude is everything'

RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom -- A neatly trimmed beard replaced what was once a carefully-groomed, regulation, mustache and his cleanly-pressed uniform is now the suit and tie of a retiree.

But behind his prescription glasses lies a wealth of experience and knowledge that retired Senior Master Sgt. Lawrence Carter, a volunteer at the retiree affairs office on RAF Alconbury, gained during his 26 years of service in the U.S. Air Force.

In 1966, joining the military was not a choice for many people. More than 382,000 men were drafted through the Selective Service System into the Armed Forces ¬- the highest amount of any year during the Vietnam War. Caught between choosing a branch of service or facing the uncertainty of the draft, Carter preemptively enlisted in the Air Force.

"I joined the Air Force May 19, 1966," said Carter, his voice betraying his age. "My draft letter came in the mail eight days later. I'd known that I would be drafted sooner or later since I wasn't in college. If I had waited eight more days to join I would have been in the army."

Looking back on his career, especially during African American History Month, Carter said he never had any regrets with his decision.

"I think that the military is one of the best places you can be as an African American," said Carter. "I never had a problem with race in the Air Force. It's all about the attitude you bring with you. It was a lot like where I grew up."

Idly twisting his wedding ring around his finger, Carter slipped into the past and recalled his childhood.

"I grew up in New Jersey, Elizabeth in particular, so I didn't experience too much racism," said Carter. "It was a good community. We had integrated schools and for the most part if I had something in common with somebody then we would be friends."

However, even with an accepting community and integrated schools, Carter still had his share of trouble growing up.

"Of course I experienced some racism growing up," said Carter. "I lived with my aunt in Virginia for a year and I went to a segregated school. I remember that being strange. But then I moved back up to Elizabeth and was in an integrated school again."

He paused and reflected on a time when many African Americans were treated as second class citizens.

"The biggest shot of racism I experienced was when I was part of a demonstration," said Carter. "The construction companies in town were all owned by Italian Americans and they wouldn't hire any black people, so we had a protest. I got arrested and put in jail for the night; my mom had to bail me out in the morning."

For Carter though, February is about more than just remembering the difficulties he faced as an African American, during the civil rights movement.

"It shouldn't be about racism," said Carter. "For me African American History Month is about celebrating the accomplishments of black Americans, whether it's Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for equality, or Charles Drew, the man who invented the blood transfusion. It's about how we act and what we accomplish."

For Carter this philosophy was perfectly embodied in the Air Force.

"In the Air Force it's all about the attitude you bring and the way you act," said Carter. "You can't have a chip on your shoulder. You have to come in ready to serve."

During his time in the Air Force Carter had many run-ins with those who hadn't come in with the right mindset.

"I was a supervisor for 23 out of my 26 years in the Air Force," said Carter. "I had those Airmen who came in with an attitude, who acted like they didn't want to be there. I'd have to tell them that the way they were acting they would get what they wanted. But if they wanted to stay in, if they wanted to be a part of the Air Force, they'd have to change."

Pausing again, Carter smiled and adjusted his glasses once more.

"That's my advice to new Airmen," said Carter. "Attitude is everything, in or out of the Air Force."