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NEWS | Feb. 29, 2024

Air Force leader reflects on family, life and the value of hard work

By Robert W. Mitchell 11th Wing Public Affairs

JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, Washington, D.C. - With two and half decades of service in the United States Air Force, Chief Master Sgt. Clifford Lawrence Lawton, the senior enlisted leader of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and the command chief of the 11th Wing, reflects on his remarkably unique experiences growing up in the small town of Elloree, South Carolina. From the invaluable lifelong guidance his family poured into him and the examples they set, to his own personal experience laboring in the Southern farm fields as a youth, his experience has indeed set him up for success in the military and beyond.

At 19 years old, Lawton joined the Air Force and shipped off to basic military training on May 26, 1999. Even though he grew up with two parents serving in the Army, he had no plans to follow in their footsteps and never imagined that one day he would end up joining the Air Force.

“They say that the Army is the best Air Force recruiter,” Lawton said with a little chuckle. “But my mom advised me to go into the Air Force versus the Army or the other services.”

Throughout his military career, Lawton acquired an abundance of technical skills and qualifications. He graduated from the Electronic Warfare Systems Apprentice Course at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., in 2000 and later retrained in the intelligence operations career field in 2005.

His service also afforded him the opportunity to take on a plethora of roles in leadership and technical positions at the squadron, group, and combatant command levels.

Lawton’s initial plan was to head 30 miles south of his hometown to Parris Island. But after learning that it would require 13 weeks of training on an island with alligators and swarms of sand fleas, he decided that would not work for him. The shorter six and a half weeks of Air Force basic training was more appealing.

In the Army, Lawton’s parents worked in infantry and supply, respectively. His father served four years, and his mother served 10 years before she retired following the passing of his grandmother.

“My mom spent time overseas at different locations and then she decided to move back to our small town in South Carolina where I grew up,” he said. “It was interesting reconnecting with my mom because I was raised by my grandmother from when I was two years old until I was about 11.”

Lawton comes from a long line of hard-working family members who never hesitate to roll up their sleeves to get the job done no matter where it took them. His grandmother worked for a dry cleaner in the city of Elloree for several years and most of his aunts and uncles worked on local farms. 

Despite America's dark past where enslaved African Americans once toiled their lives away on southern plantations and farm fields, Lawton and his family's incredibly strong sense of pride, resilience, and determination to increase their income stood up to the stigma associated with modern-day African Americans laboring away in hot cotton fields under the blazing sun in the South. 

As a teenager, he worked in cotton, corn, and soybean fields clearing away weeds and overgrowth to preserve the main crops. He never picked cotton directly, but his family including his aunts, uncles, his mother and grandmother did at one point in their lives.  

Performing this kind of work in South Carolina in the early 1990s did not faze Lawton. For him, it was just another way to increase his earnings to get the things he wanted and to financially help his mother out once a week.

"While I was in that experience, I thought it was what we had to do to get extra money," he said. "I wasn't forced to do it; I needed to make extra money, so it was all about figuring out a way to save money so when school opens, I can have the things I want."

That job earned him about $90 a week, and after giving half of that to his mother, his daily take-home pay averaged to about $10. Today, he laughs at that but still recognizes the value of hard work, responsibility, and discipline he acquired over the few summers he spent out in the hot sun. Eventually, he started to land other jobs that paid significantly more.

Lawton had no problem working in the cotton fields. However, he did feel a bit uneasy when he saw older adults (people in their 40s and 50s) working there for 10 hours a day. He knew that had to be difficult for them.

For his family's sacrifice working in the farm fields of South Carolina over several decades, Lawton plans to purchase land there to pay homage to that legacy.

"I need to own land in South Carolina just because we worked the land," he said. "We need to own some land."

Contemplating his childhood, Lawton recalled some of the subtle nuances and divisions he witnessed in his hometown.

"There's a main railroad track there, and on one side it is all black, and on the other side, it is pretty much all white," he said. "There's even a street, from one end to the other that is still divided by color. From one point in the street to one end, the families are all black, and toward the other end, the families are all white."

Lawton called this an interesting dynamic but said as a youth he hadn't really thought much about it.

While in school, he recalled seeing a significant shift in the makeup of the student body from elementary school to high school.

"In elementary school, I remember seeing a lot of kids there being both black and white," he said. "But when I went to high school, it was very different. It was like 99 percent black because all the white kids went to private school for a better education."

After high school, Lawton went off to pursue a degree in Computer Science at Benedict College, a Historically Black College University (HBCU) in Columbia. But his time there was cut short when he disenrolled after just one year. 

“My mom worked 16 hours a day,” he said. “I didn’t think it was fair to her to continue to work those kinds of hours just to be able to help me while in college.”

Lawton jokingly boasts that he excelled at Benedict despite his brief time there. He attained a 4.0 GPA before leaving abruptly.

Back in Elloree, the school and job opportunities were limited, and he was soon faced with having to make a life-changing decision: join the military or stay there and work in a factory.

“The only opportunities there were some trade school and factories,” he said. “But most people worked in the factories, and I knew having a factory job would not be fun.”

He remembers his mother working on an assembly line at a chicken plant engaging in what he described as repetitive work.

Lawton's unique experiences and rich family values, centered on hard work and resilience, was further enhanced by the people in his community who offered to guide and mentor him.

"It's amazing how many people came into my life," he said. "And a lot of them were black women, most notably Mrs. Mary Williams and Mrs. Alice Horton, and so many others, for some reason, wanted to provide some level of support to my mom and my wellbeing."

The women in his community were there for him throughout his middle and high school years, but as he grew and became active in sports and in the band, men in his community, such as Mr. Matthew Johnson and Mr. Anthony Dash to name a few became more influential in mentoring and guiding him along the way.

When the then 19-year-old Lawton had second thoughts about joining the military, those community men thankfully encouraged him to stay with the idea of signing up.

"The day the recruiter got there, I was having second thoughts," he said. "I didn't want to join."

His recruiter sat out in his car for about three to four hours. His mother was at work, and he had no desire to go outside and meet him. His bags were packed, and for all intents and purposes, he was ready to go.

"I remember Mr. Henry Cooper and Mr. Mark Adams came inside the house, and they were just convincing me, saying, 'Hey, this will be great for you.' 'You can leave here.' 'There are so many opportunities.'"

They were like salesmen convincing him how exciting it would be to see the world.

"They were selling it more than my recruiter," he said.

He eventually entered the recruiter's car, and off they went before his mother returned home. He says it was the best decision of his life.

In his current leadership role at JBAB, Lawton advises the commander and staff on matters of readiness, morale and welfare, and effective utilization of over 1,700 personnel providing exceptional host installation support to more than 18,000 military and civilian professionals as well as their families.

Lawton attributes his successful military career to his unwavering willingness to find and take advantage of new opportunities, staying mission ready, and always maintaining the highest level of military bearing.


His advice for young Airmen aiming to climb high during their time in the Air Force and beyond is to become super-proficient at their occupations and follow those who are working hard and getting ahead. 

“The best way to get credibility at any organization is to be good at your job,” he said. “When you are good at your job, other opportunities open for you. I believe the Air Force is one of the few places that is a true meritocracy in the sense where the amount of work you put in is what you will get out, from the Air Force perspective.”

If Airmen are proficient and work hard, they will stand out in the workplace – they will set themselves apart.

As we celebrate the contributions, culture, and experiences of African Americans, let’s celebrate the accomplishments, leadership and inspiration of United States Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Clifford Lawrence Lawton.