A former Burke County resident who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from the Vietnam War to Operation Desert Storm helped to leave a legacy in space.
Randy Brinkley, born in Asheville, but raised in Valdese, earned a bachelor's degree in business from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's degree in business administration from Boston University, according to his biography. He also has done graduate level studies in strategic defense and international relations. In 1965, shortly after graduating from college, he received a draft notice to serve in the Vietnam War.
“I decided if I was going to have to go into the military, I wanted to select my own branch of service,” Brinkley said. “I wanted to go into a branch of service that was elite and resonated with my experience playing sports that was focused on being a team and being special.”
He signed up for the Marine Corps and attended officer candidate school.
“When I first went in, my dad thought I was nuts, but after I came back from officer candidate school, he said, ‘I don’t know what they did to you, but whatever it was, I’m going to sign your younger brother up,’" Brinkley said. "My brother also is retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel.”
Brinkley was assigned to serve as company commander in combat operations in Vietnam along the demilitarized zone. His unit was involved in the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Battle of Con Thien.
“I had 156 Marines I was responsible for,” Brinkley said. “My job was to keep them alive. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I decided it wasn’t going to be that, so I went straight from Vietnam to flight school.”
He’d had an interest in flying since he was a kid and thought he would enjoy it. He earned his wings with the Air Force and the Navy and was class commander of an Air Force undergraduate pilot training class. He became an F4 Phantom jet pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 312 at Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1970.
After flying jets for a year and a half, he served as assistant director of training in the Navy VT-19 in Meridian, Mississippi, for two and half years.
“A great way to improve your flying skills is to teach someone else, and you’re able to fly a lot,” Brinkley said.
He also completed a six-month course at the Amphibious Warfare School at Quantico, Virginia. After that, he served as a pilot in Southeast Asia through the end of the Vietnam War with the VMFA-232 squadron, called “The Red Devils.”
He remained in the military after the war because he enjoyed flying aircraft. He served as operations officer for the Marine Aviation Weapons and Training Unit at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California, where he helped to create the unit’s curriculum. He was named “Marine Aviator of the Year” in 1976.
From there, he attended NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy. After completing the training, he served on the NATO staff there for three years as a head of command and control and information systems.
He returned from Italy in 1981 to command Squadron 312 in Beaufort, and then the MAWTS-1 (Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron) in Yuma, Arizona, in 1984.
“It was really focused on integration and how to optimize the planning, training, operations and weapons employment of those assets in support of Marine ground forces,” Brinkley said. “Having been a Marine ground officer in combat and having an appreciation of the importance of aviation motivated me to make sure we were doing everything possible to help the guys on the ground.”
In 1987, he was chosen to serve for a year at the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group.
“It’s a very prestigious group,” Brinkley said. “Our task was to look at the maritime strategy and make recommendations as to how it could be utilized for the national security of the United States. It particularly was for President Reagan and how to influence the outcome of the Cold War using Navy and Marine Corps forces in such a way that would serve as a deterrent to the Russians. It ultimately contributed to the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.”
Afterward, he was responsible for the operations of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, comprised of 400 aircraft. He then took command of Marine Aircraft Group 31 in Beaufort, which included seven F-18 squadrons. By his third tour of duty, he was helping to train soldiers taking part in Operation Desert Storm.
He left the Marine Corps in 1990, having achieved the rank of colonel.
“I was scheduled to go to the Pentagon for a staff position, but I didn’t want to fly a desk,” Brinkley said.
His biography states he flew more than 4,000 hours in 42 different types of aircraft during his time of service.
Following his military discharge, Brinkley managed research and development of advanced aircraft systems for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company.
His career skyrocketed when NASA recruited him in 1992. He served as mission director of the first servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.
In 1994, Brinkley was named program manager of an exciting new project at NASA, the International Space Station. He led the program through 1999.
“I was responsible for the design, development, launch and on-orbit assembly of the International Space Station – all the U.S. elements, as well as the elements being built by the Russians, Canadians, Japanese and Europeans,” Brinkley said.
He said the greatest challenge was to get people from different cultures speaking different languages and having different engineering approaches to work together toward a common goal.
“What limited success I had I would attribute to something my dad taught me when I was growing up in Burke County, which was when you’re working with people, you work with them and learn from them and you treat them the way you would want to be treated yourself, and if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.
“Your greatest assets are the people you serve with. The most important thing you can do is the selection of those individuals and how you treat them.”
He is pleased to see the ISS going strong today.
“It’s exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Brinkley said. “Most people at the time didn’t believe it would ever be launched, or that it would work. Being able to get a diverse group of people to focus on a common objective that took years of undertaking to be successful – to have Russians and Americans, like myself, who had spent years of their lives trying to figure out how to kill one another, working together for a common objective that was of peaceful benefit to all mankind – that is what I consider the greatest achievement of my career, because it’s still up there, and it’s still making a difference.
“It’s considered probably one of the greatest engineering achievements in the history of mankind. It’s a real tribute to NASA, all the other space agencies and all the people who worked on it and are continuing to operate it that it has been so successful.”
Brinkley left NASA because he had always wanted to work in the private sector. His post-NASA positions include CEO of Rocketplane Kistler Inc., senior vice-president of programs for Hughes International and president of Boeing Satellite Systems Inc. He currently owns Brinkley and Associates, a private investment and aerospace consulting firm, while also serving as CEO of the investment firm Aries I Acquisition Corporation and a member of the executive advisory board of J.F. Lehman Co. In addition, he is a member of the U.S. Space Board of Directors. He lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
He had some advice for those considering military service.
“It’s a great experience, whether you do it for three years or 30,” Brinkley said. “But you also have to recognize what’s expected of you going into it. You really have to work hard. You’ll get as much out of that experience as you put into it. It’s an experience that will benefit you for the rest of your life in terms of the values you learn – self-discipline and how you treat others.”
He encouraged people to thank a veteran on Veterans Day.
“I think all a veteran could ask for and would greatly appreciate would be a simple, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Brinkley said. “It means a lot.”
Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.