Gen. Larry Spencer, USAF (Ret.) was born and raised on the Horseshoe—a tough inner-city street in southeast Washington D.C. Both parents lived in the rural south under Jim Crow and “separate but equal” laws. Spencer’s father was a career Army soldier who lost his left hand during the Korean War, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and worked two jobs. His mother completed tenth grade, had no driver’s license, and was left alone during the week to raise their six children. The Horseshoe was a hard neighborhood where fights were common, and the school systems were second-rate.The expectations of living in an all-Black neighborhood were to be good at sports while shunning academic prowess. Spencer met those expectations: he struggled in school, but teachers who did not want to see him repeat their class would pass him to the next grade. That environment resulted in poor self-esteem and a bleak outlook for the future.
Quite by chance, Spencer enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he continued to struggle with the racial turmoil of the 1970s. A senior non-commissioned officer saw promise in Spencer and guided him to obtain a college degree and apply for Officer Training School where he excelled. As a very young first lieutenant, he was assigned to a tough job in the Pentagon, but Spencer earned an early reputation as a fast burner. In 1990 he took command of a squadron that won accolades and awards for its performance during Operation Desert Shield/Storm. Spencer went on to serve at the White House, and then successfully commanded a Group and a Wing before being assigned as the chief financial officer (comptroller) for Air Combat Command, the largest command in the Air Force. During that assignment, Spencer was promoted to brigadier general and was tasked to set up a new Directorate at Air Force Materiel Command. Spencer later returned to the Pentagon where he led Air Force Budget. He ultimately became the Air Force’s thirty-seventh vice chief of staff, making him one of only nine African Americans promoted to four stars. Spencer concludes his historic climb with life lessons learned on his journey from the inner city to the Pentagon.