An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

AETC International Affairs director reflects on 41 years of service

  • Published
  • By Capt. Lauren Woods
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

A 28-year active duty career is a significant accomplishment for anyone, but for George Gagnon, 28 years was only the beginning. Now 15 years later Gagnon, the director of International Affairs for Air Education and Training Command, has capped off his 41 years of continual service to the U.S. Air Force and retired here, March 31, 2023.

 ‘Forrest Gump of the Air Force’

Gagnon is the first to summarize his career, with a chuckle, as ‘doing things differently than the norm.’

The Texas A&M University graduate began his Air Force career in 1983 as a B-52 navigator at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. However, it didn’t take long for his path to deviate. From serving on a Pentagon “Skunk Works” think tank, completing three command tours at the squadron and group level, working directly for the Secretary of the Air Force as a policy analyst speechwriter and finally culminating his career with 13 years as directing international training for the U.S. Air Force, Gagnon’s career has defied expectations.

“Serendipity,” Gagnon said. “I’m the Forrest Gump of the Air Force. I just got lucky – I got to be in the right place at the right time, over and over and over again.”

So he claims - but reviewing his career, a pattern seems to emerge: one of opportunities following as a result of succeeding when challenges arise.

One of the first instances occurred when then-captain Gagnon was in his first assignment as a B-52 navigator. The four-star commander of Strategic Air Command tasked his wing with developing a briefing to prove the viability of heavy bombers in non-nuclear combat, but unbeknownst to all, the same task was given to all of the SAC wings. It was only when the Minot briefing team, consisting of Gagnon, a pilot and an electronic warfare officer, arrived that the briefers learned they were in a competition. Gagnon’s team’s briefing was a hit, and they were told to head immediately to deliver the same presentation in front of a conference of senior leaders – which they did, unprepared and armed with nothing but their flight suits. The very next week, Gagnon was one of a mere handful of navigators in the Air Force picked for an assignment to Edwards Air Force Base, California, to be a test navigator.

Of note is that Curtis LeMay, former commander of Strategic Airlift Command, sat in for that briefing.

“It was pretty cool,” Gagnon admitted.

The trend continued through his later assignments. While working as a major on a Pentagon strategy staff, a white paper Gagnon authored about the Air Force nuclear deterrence mission garnered significant attention, and Gagnon was selected to attend a fellowship in national security at Harvard University. Then the experience at Harvard, the people he met, and the work he applied himself to developing a thesis on Air Force issues resulted in him being handpicked for his first squadron command.

However, Gagnon doesn’t attribute his success to any personal qualities – but rather to the people he’s surrounded himself with.

“I’ve been blessed to have great leadership,” he said. “I had opportunities to meet so many great leaders, and I hold things I learned from each of them. If there’s any one key to success, I would say, in every job I had it was the relationships I built with those around me, up, down, and side to side, that made it work.”

“It’s all about relationships”

Atop a cabinet behind Gagnon’s desk sits a bottle of scotch. The bottle was a gift from a prior colleague, who urged Gagnon to take a sip from it every time he went above and beyond on someone else’s behalf. That was 20 years ago, and the bottle, when Gagnon removes it from its packaging, is empty down to the dregs.

Service to others, Gagnon explained, is the cornerstone of his leadership philosophy. Take care of your people, not yourself, and they’ll take care of you.

“I want your life to be better,” he said. “I want everyone in my organization’s life to be better. I want them to have opportunity, to flourish, to be able to live the life that they want.”

One example occurred during his tenure as the commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale AFB, when he inherited a group of captains who had been passed over for promotion. Gagnon focused on them, and through concentrated effort every one of them was promoted above-the-zone.

“There were tough conversations, but every one of them went to work, and every one of them proved to me they deserved to be promoted,” he said. “It’s a commander’s responsibility not only to highlight those who have the most potential, but to take those at the bottom and ask, what do we have to do to move you up?”

Even when he was faced with challenges, though, it was the relationships that he built that Gagnon attributes with seeing him through. He recounted his first time leading a squadron, and the unique difficulties he encountered there:

“In B-52s I had a gunner, and when I went to Edwards I had a couple of admin troops, but as a squadron commander I suddenly had 250 enlisted members and the issues that cropped up - I didn’t know how to do any of it,” Gagnon said. “But I was fortunate to have the security forces commander on speed dial – it was his third squadron, he’d done this his whole life. Plus, I had two incredible chief master sergeants who helped me grow as a commander and as a leader, and who coached me as much as I coached them.

“I learned as a squadron commander that you have to surround yourself with really talented people if you’re going to be able to lead effectively. So that’s what I did.”

Another philosophy he’s lived by includes a lesson he took from a previous boss, Gen. Joseph Ralston: make it happen, make it last.

“I’m a no-nonsense kind of person,” Gagnon said. “I go in, look at what all the problems are, and focus on what I can do to fix it. You just make a decision, and once you make it, do whatever it takes to make sure that it works.”

This policy, in fact, is what led him to his ultimate role as director of international affairs for Air Education and Training Command.

After retiring from active duty in 2008, he was back on the job one week later. This time he was the executive director for Air Force Security Assistance Training. Then in 2010 when the position of director of international relations came open, he was encouraged to apply.

“I never wanted to be director specifically, because I like being in the trenches, but I knew my work wasn’t done,” Gagnon said. “I knew that AFSAT had to be organized, trained, and equipped to operate in a dynamic environment, which requires well-trained, talented people, and the only way to get it there was to be here for a long time.”

Training the World

The building that Gagnon has worked in for the last 13 years is modest; it’s just large enough for three offices, a meeting room and a galley kitchen. Driving past you’d nearly miss it, nestled as it is in the shadow of a pair of massive aircraft hangars. Nothing about the simple space implies that from within there’s an organization whose influence spans the breadth of the globe.

The scale of the international training mission is enormous. Their deceptively simple mission - to coordinate training for international partners - requires interagency coordination with the State Department, visiting with international partners to determine training needs, developing plans for and sourcing the appropriate trainings, and then following through to monitor the progress and welfare of the students participating in these programs. Other times it involves sending a mobile training team to provide training within another country.

All told, the team manages a $10 billion portfolio to facilitate training for nearly 14,000 students from 157 countries annually.

In short, “what we’re doing is ensuring follow-through on the commitments made to develop relations with other nations,” Gagnon said.

The 2022 National Defense Strategy emphasizes the critical nature of international relationships to U.S. national security interests. These partnerships enhance trust and strengthen cooperation to increase collective global security. Training, education and exchange programs support these efforts through providing mutually-beneficial educational opportunities, while promoting long-term relationships with future international military leaders.

Managing such a significant portfolio is demanding. In his time as director, Gagnon’s work has seen him travel to 57 countries and flown enough miles to circle the earth 400 times.

Throughout those years, the scope of effort has only ever grown. Under Gagnon, AETC took on the role of service-designated officer in charge of managing all international training contracts for the Air Force. The size of the team has expanded along with the scope of its mission; from an initial team of 87 members, IA now boasts a workforce that is 300 strong and thriving, with personnel stationed all across the world.

The secret ingredient making it all work, however, is something Gagnon knows well: relationships.

In some instances, the relationships are very personal. Gagnon recounts a story of a general officer for an international partner who would give his personal cell phone number to the parents of students sent to the U.S. for training. “Once a week he and I would have a phone call, and he would run through the issues that parents were having, and then I would talk to AETC officials and our wing commanders to try and find an accommodation or help the student better adjust.”

Gagnon was quick to emphasize the vital role local communities play in supporting international training. On example he cited was the San Angelo, Texas community and their local military affairs committee, who invite the international students in training at Goodfellow AFB to participate in local events or enjoy home-cooked meals. He said that this and many other examples across AETC wings help develop enduring relationships while making international students feel welcomed.

Every relationship with every country is different; some are more formal, some are informal, and some are business-like, while others are family-like. “But each piece is part of a much larger fabric that is international relations across the United States Air Force,” he said.

“We must continue to focus on how we can better keep those relationships going, and to develop innovative ways to ensure we include our international partners when we do business.”

Reflections, lessons learned

Looking back on his time as IA director, one of his proudest accomplishments is the quality of the team he’s built.

“There was a time period, for about two or three years, where I said all hiring interviews will be done over the phone,” Gagnon said. “I don’t want you looking at who you’re interviewing, I just want you to hear what they have to say. And as a result of that, we became a very diverse organization that exceeds my original goal, which was to make us look like our country.”

The quality of the organization is apparent in its accomplishments. Over 11 years, 10 IA members were chosen for Air Command and Staff College in-residence – a fact Gagnon is especially proud of.

Gagnon says what he’ll miss most are the strong, long-term relationships built with international partners on behalf of the United States Air Force after more than a decade of time spent breaking bread together.

“I thank all the partners who have been so gracious and welcomed me in a way that I never imagined. There is not a country in the world I visited that did not pull out the red carpet and make me feel at home,” he said.

And of course, he will miss the familiar faces at AETC. “I had the privilege of going to just about every AETC base during my time here and having the opportunity to speak with our young Airmen, officers and civil servants is a privilege beyond imagination.”

"During Mr. Gagnon's tenure, our IA team achieved a number of successes in support of the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and our international partners,” said Maj. Gen. James Sears, deputy commander of AETC, and presiding officer for Gagnon’s retirement ceremony. “The success he brought to AETC and the Air Force is a testament to the career path he walked while serving, first as a military officer and then as a senior government civilian. From leadership positions to international perspectives, the Department of Defense did us the favor of prepping him perfectly to think at the strategic level needed to direct international training and education. We wish him the best as he transitions to his next chapter."

Although his path is departing from the Air Force, Gagnon plans to continue a life of service, this time in the role of ministry and was recently ordained as a Catholic deacon.

When asked how he feels about leaving the Air Force after 41 years? Gagnon can’t help but smile.

“My whole career was just so much coolness,” he said.