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A family legacy 70 years in the making

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Harvey
  • 301st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Seventy years ago, Lenard Ellison made the decision to join the military.

“I was 17 and my mother helped me join the Army in August 1947 to get out of the south due to racial tension,” the retired technical sergeant said.

However, things changed for him on Sept. 18 when the United States Air Force became a separate service with the signing of the National Security Act of 1947.

“I was offered the opportunity to join the newly created Air Force, was shipped to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and was in one of the first two flights to graduate from Air Force Basic Training.”

Upon completion of basic training, he reported to his first duty station, Walker AFB, Roswell, New Mexico.

“I began my career in the motor pool maintaining vehicles, changing tires, and providing transportation for pilots,” he said. After a couple of years I was finally sent to a technical school where I trained in power production for a missile team.”

He would soon begin the first of two tours at Carswell AFB,  Texas, which was part of the Strategic Air Command at the time.

“I worked on the Mark-17 bomb, you see on your way into the base today,” Ellison said. “During that time, most African-Americans could only work in the motor pool or in the kitchen, so it felt like a big accomplishment to be able to do something else.”

While the military afforded Lenard a better life, it didn’t eliminate the injustice of racism or other hardships of the time.

“Unfortunately, there was still racism in parts of the military, and it was difficult to make rank as a black man...but my toughest challenges were my three combat tours,” he said. “I was in Korea when the Chinese entered the war and pushed our forces back across the Yalu River. I also did two tours in Vietnam. My first tour I was wounded and was sent home early, which meant I did not get my points and was sent back for nine months in 1968 to finish my tour.”

During this time, Lenard experienced things that would change and help him understand what is important in life.

“My combat time in the Air Force especially deepened my faith in God,” he said. “I was wounded and I saw others killed. One of my friends had one day left before he was going home; he was killed in a mortar attack on his last day in country. You never forget events like that, it reminds you to never waste opportunities; anytime you have an opportunity to help someone, reach out and help them regardless of color or race.”

While he was away serving in combat, his wife, Ollie, was at home taking care of the family.

“I could not have done this without my wife, who passed in 1983,” he said. “She was a stay-at-home mom who was dedicated to our children. I did five remote tours and I have five children, you can do the math. It takes a strong woman and a strong faith to keep a family together. I credit my wife and her faith in God with keeping our family together.”

After serving for more than 25 years and retiring at the rank of technical sergeant, Lenard shares his views on the Air Force and his family values that shaped their legacy.

“Air Force heritage is about being part of something bigger than you,” Ellison said. It gave me confidence that I could have a better life and provide a better life for my family. We believe in the values of America. If you work hard you can use the opportunities in the Air Force to make something more of yourself.”

Working hard and serving their country is exactly what the Ellison children chose to do.

“All my children took advantage of the opportunities America provides,” Ellison said.  “Four of them proudly served in the Air Force, while my youngest son served as a police officer in Portland, Oregon. They all felt the call to serve and make America better. I was very proud of them for their desire to serve.”

The first son of Lenard Ellison to serve was Tony Ellison, who retired at the rank of master sergeant after 24 years in the Air Force.

“I look back and remember my father’s humbleness and tireless quest to be the best civil engineer he could be, even under the most arduous of circumstances,” Tony said. “Constantly seeing father’s example of total quality commitment to the Air Force had a very positive and humbling effect on our family as most of my siblings and I followed him into the Air Force, as did his grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Tony’s son, Kenneth Ellison, joined the 442nd Fighter Wing a few years after Sept. 11, 2001.

“I joined the Air Force Reserve in March of 2004,”Kenneth said. “At the time, I didn’t really have anything to show for myself and didn’t want to end up in a dead-end job making little money and not being able to care for my family, so I joined to make something of myself.”

As a third generation airman, Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Ellison knows that people in the Air Force help to shape the future of it.

“I believe many of our family members have joined because they know the Air Force will take care of their Airmen and we take pride in knowing that we continue to serve the Air Force to help make it the service it is today.”

Lenard’s second son, now retired Command Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Ellison Sr., joined the Air Force in 1976.

“I was influenced by my father and my brother and older sister who had already joined,” the retired chief said. “I knew there were opportunities to learn a trade and have the ability to advance and prepare for, what I hoped would be life after four years in the Air Force.”

However, four years turned into many more because of the positive experiences he had. 

“Once I got to my first duty station I began to feel like I was part of something larger than myself and I had some great supervisors who took care of me,” he said. “I loved it.”

With his father’s lessons guiding him, he would go on to serve 31 years in the Air Force.

“I think for our family it was always about that calling, that calling to serve,’ Rodney Ellison Sr. said. “That was something my father instilled into us…if you want to make the world better, you have to engage. It doesn’t matter how you engage, but engage in a positive way that impacts not just your life…so the Air Force gave my family that opportunity to be part of something larger than ourselves and to grow with the Air Force.”

Just as he followed in his father’s footsteps, so did his son, Maj. Rodney Ellison Jr., who graduated from the Air Force Academy and is now the Air Force Reserve’s 10th Air Force public affairs officer.

Having grown up in an Air Force family and joining the service himself, he now has the opportunity to see the results of his father and grandfathers dedication to service and the legacy his family is leaving for future Airmen.

“Whenever somebody finds out that he is my father they will tell me a story of how he [Chief Ellison] impacted and helped them, so I would hope there is a legacy of leadership and empowerment,” Maj. Ellison said.

In addition to serving alongside his relatives, more people have been added to his family.

“The best part of being in the Air Force for me is the brother and sister-hood,” he said. “I have so many friends that I now consider family because of what we have gone through being in the Air Force together. It’s a bond, I don’t know if other people can relate to how strongly connected you are to the people you serve with.”

So far, there have been seven Ellison’s to serve in various career fields and in all three Air Force components.

More than 70 years after enlisting, Lenard Ellison accomplished more than just a better life for his family, he led them in service to their country.