Legendary pro-staffer reflects on 40-year career

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

Howard Cary still remembers the aroma of his dad's cooking.

Some of Cary’s earliest memories are filled with savory and sweet smells emanating from his family’s on-base kitchen in Del Rio, Texas. Cary was just an eight-year-old military brat back then, yet he recalls it's like it was yesterday.

Looking back, the smell of cooking is not what he remembers most, he said, it's the man at the stove, his father, Howard Cary, Sr.

By then, Cary Sr. had devoted his career to culinary arts. Yet, despite his skills, the elder Cary never operated five-star establishments or received widespread praise for signature seafood dishes.

Instead, Cary Sr. managed the dining facility at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, and despite his ability to cook anything, Cary, Jr. said that initially, his dad was hired as a cook because of his skin color.

“But it was that or become a janitor,” he added, referring to the limited options Black servicemembers had when his dad enlisted in the 1940s. Even with the obstacles he faced, his father loved being in the military, and he retired as a staff sergeant in 1968.

While also a lifelong military veteran, Cary Jr. took a different path. Today, he’s the associate director of the Office of Special Investigations' mission support. This spring marks his 40th year as an OSI administrator.

Before that, however, Cary is confronting the hard roads taken in the past and recognizing that a better future is yet to come, he said. Years ago, Cary Sr. adopted a similar approach, which enabled his son to forge a path that is still being forged today.

During his dad's two decades of service, he witnessed the Air Force emerge from the shadow of the Army Air Corps, carving its place in military history.

In the next decade, Cary Jr. carved out his own military career. By 1978, Black Americans had more career opportunities than in the previous decades. Although racism remained prevalent, it had improved from Cary Sr.’s day.

That year, Cary Jr. graduated high school in Virginia. Despite his eagerness to enter the world, he was unsure which direction to take. Although he considered multiple colleges, his father encouraged him to join the Air Force.

His dad said, “why don’t you just give it a shot?” Cary said, remembering his father's words, adding not everyone needs to serve 20 years..

Cary's father hammered home his point, saying the Air Force would teach him responsibility, help him save money and give him plenty of time to figure out the rest.

With the guidance of his father and a sense of direction, Cary Jr. agreed. He signed on the dotted  line and left for basic training, beginning his career as an Air Force administrator.

Forty years later, he hasn't looked back.

“My actual plan was to stay for four years, get out and either go to college or get a job," he said. “But you know, I quickly found out the Air Force was exactly where I was supposed to be. The Air Force is something I love. I bleed blue.”

Cary's first assignment was at Dyess AFB, Texas, a short drive from his dad's last assignment in Del Rio a decade earlier. Cary worked as an administrator for a maintenance squadron, but soon he realized he wanted more.

A job posting was available for OSI administrators; a position not accessible to fresh-faced Airmen out of basic training, he said.

“When I researched [OSI], I learned they did a lot of different things,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is cool.’ This place seems like people can make a difference.”

In the early 1980s, he applied for OSI and was selected for a special assignment. Leaving the Lone Star State behind, Cary moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for OSI at Bolling AFB. He said he never wanted to leave OSI once he started working there; he never did.

Cary rose to the top of the OSI enlisted ranks; eventually achieving the rank of chief master sergeant, often regarded as the peak of any enlisted Airman or Guardian's career. But no matter how many stripes he wore, Cary attributed every promotion to the result of mentorship and being inspired by others.

“I couldn't even tell you the number of people who have inspired and motivated me,” he said, looking back on his career. “I had a lot of mentors, which is a great thing when it's done properly.”

True mentorship doesn't happen by force; it happens organically by people who care, he said, adding that rather than being forced to sign a paper and be handed instructions, real mentors see potential in others and help them realize it.

Cary would achieve a lot with that. To this day, he is the only member of OSI's professional staff selected as a regional superintendent. This accomplishment has been attained twice, in OSI regions seven and eight.

After retiring from the Air Force in 2009, then-Chief Master Sgt. Cary hung up his uniform but wasn’t riding off into the sunset. Since  then, he has served as a civil servant in OSI.

“I wanted to stay [in OSI] because this is my family,” Cary said.

During his military retirement ceremony, Cary was made an honorary OSI agent. In fact, his name is on display at the Russell Knox Building in Quantico, Virginia, an accolade he considers “one of his proudest moments,” he said.

His father's influence made all that possible, he said.

The elder Cary’s influence was not limited to a career in the armed forces.  

Having inherited his father's passion for cooking, Cary said he was even given cooking classes during his retirement ceremony. He still cooks today with the same aromas that once filled his childhood kitchen, including honey-glazed salmon, buttered rolls, shrimp and more.

Despite the death of Cary Sr. in 1993, the love of family lives on in his son.

These days, when Cary isn’t working at OSI, he works on outreach programs like those his father conducted, such as organizing activities for his church and helping the homeless find jobs and housing.

In the end, Cary’s historic, ongoing career at OSI reflects the person he strives to be. “I’m a God-fearing man,” he said. “I try to live those principles. I try to treat people like I want to be treated and I just love [OSI] with all my heart.”