History-making, barrier-breaking general concludes Delaware Air Guard career

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Matwey
  • 166th Airlift Wing

Brigadier General Ernest G. Talbert, a lifelong Delawarean, has retired from the Delaware Air National Guard after a career that took him to Southwest Asia as a C-130 aircraft pilot in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, as the 166th Airlift Wing vice commander during the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 and as the wing commander in 2002 who then led the wing during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

General Talbert officially retired as vice commander, Delaware ANG, at the Air Force rank of brigadier general. He is the first African-American to attain the rank of colonel in the Delaware ANG, and the first and only African-American general in the over 350-year history of the Delaware National Guard. His military career spanned 36 years with 30 years service in the Delaware ANG which he joined after prior service in the U.S. Air Force.

At his military retirement on Jan. 11, 2009, Gen. Talbert was presented the Legion of Merit and the Delaware Conspicuous Service Cross, each a second award, by Brig. Gen. Hugh Broomall, Deputy Adjutant General for Air, Delaware National Guard.

Major General Frank Vavala, Adjutant General of the Delaware National Guard, joined Gen. Talbert's wife, Richelle, in pinning on a second general's star, an honorary rank of major general recognized within the state, allowed members of the Delaware National Guard after at least 25 years of service. 

"General Talbert has had a career of firsts," said Gen. Vavala. "He is a pace-setter, a role model and a champion of change. He was the first African-American to attain the rank of colonel in our Delaware Air Guard, and the first African-American to become a general in our Delaware National Guard."

Brigadier Gen. Broomall said, "Ernie Talbert's career is the clearest proof we have in the Delaware National Guard that outstanding performance merits ever higher positions of leadership. Delaware and the nation should be proud of Gen. Talbert's career contributions, including his mentoring of dozens of Airmen, his wartime combat service and leadership, and his steadfast devotion to those who serve in the Delaware National Guard and wear the uniform of the U.S. military."

In a message to fellow Airmen, Gen. Talbert said, "It has been an extreme privilege to have served in the Delaware ANG with all of you. I wish you Godspeed, and thank you for your continued service to our great nation and state."

He said his life lessons and philosophy were, "Believe in God; do unto others what you would have done unto you; do the right thing; value friendships; and look to the poems 'If' by Rudyard Kipling and 'Invictus' by William Ernest Henley for inspiration."

General Talbert added that his life goals were, "To serve, as this is the rent we pay for the privilege of living; to have a positive and life altering effect on a child and society; and, to leave the world a better place."

Major Jeffrey Cooper, retired, a former maintenance commander and inspector general in the 166th Airlift Wing, said, "General Talbert's distinguished career has served as a beacon of hope, for the possibility of continued upward mobility for the African-American Airman in the Delaware ANG. Gen. Talbert is a trailblazer and will forever be remembered and referred to as an example for what is possible, if you have the fortitude, drive and perseverance to stay the course, regardless of the odds. Gen. Talbert's success can not be quantified, and is only marginalized if attached to an award or decoration. The true measure of his success is reflected in the many different faces that make up the Delaware ANG today. The strength of the [unit] is rooted in the diversity of its members." Maj. Cooper spoke of the mentoring that many Airmen of all ethnic and racial backgrounds had received from Gen. Talbert, calling him a godfather to fellow members.

Major Cooper read each of the poems at Gen. Talbert's Jan. 9 retirement dinner.

Kipling, born in India in 1865, was a champion of the British Empire. The last stanza of "If" reads:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings -- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run --
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

Henley, a British poet born in 1849, wrote "Invictus," Latin for unconquered. The last stanza reads:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

A product of the Delaware public school system, Gen. Talbert dreamed of flying in his youth. He attended New York University and became a pilot his junior year, graduating from the ROTC program as a distinguished graduate with a B.A. in economics in 1972. He entered undergraduate pilot training, earned his pilot wings in 1973, and was assigned to Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. where he flew the C-141 jet transport aircraft.

Gen. Talbert had never heard of the Delaware ANG, or known a military flying unit existed at the local New Castle Airport until a serving member mentioned the unit to him and a small group of active duty Airmen as they considered future career steps.

In 1979, he joined the Delaware ANG as a part-time, "traditional" guardsman, and worked on obtaining a M.B.A. from the University of Delaware, graduating in 1983.

He began full-time ANG service in 1984, becoming the unit's first federal technician tactics officer, then a C-130 aircraft instructor pilot and pilot flight examiner, progressively serving among other operations positions. In 1996 he became the commander of the 142nd Airlift Squadron. In 2000 he served as the ANG detachment commander and operations officer of a joint ANG-active duty provisional airlift squadron supporting Operation Joint Forge in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe during the unit's first Aerospace Expeditionary Force deployment, and as commander of the 166th Operations Group. That year the wing was selected to receive the National Guard Association distinguished flying unit award.

In 2002 Gen. Talbert became the 166th Airlift Wing commander, overseeing the largest mobilization effort in the wing's history for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He directed the wing's recovery from the effects of a 2004 tornado that severely damaged several C-130 aircraft, and then led the wing and 34 other units in the largest to date Air Mobility Command Expeditionary Operational Readiness Inspection. He relinquished command in 2005 to become chief of staff, Delaware ANG, and later vice commander, working on plans to establish a National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program in Delaware, and helping manage continued unit support for Special Olympics Delaware.

General Talbert has numerous association and civic relationships. He is president of the John Porter Chapter (Dover, Del.) of the Tuskegee Airmen; executive board member of the Delmarva Boy Scout Council, youth leadership subcommittee member of the City of Wilmington HOPE Commission; and past president of Delaware's General Bill Spruance Chapter of the Air Force Association.