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The man behind 'The Vince'

  • Published
  • By Joseph Burns
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing director of staff
"The Vince". It's one of the most visible and striking buildings on this prominent and important Air Force base, and it's named after a Navy officer. Why? Well, if you ever worked with Lieutenant Commander Otis Vincent Tolbert, Junior, you wouldn't have to ask. He's known as one who led a selfless life and died in his nation's service, but that's not all.

Young Vince grew up in a Navy family under the guidance of a Navy officer. As a child living near Lemoore Naval Air Station, he dreamed of flying for the Navy, just like Dad who was a pioneer in Navy aviation having been among the first black pilots to fly the Navy's A-7 light attack jet.

Had young Ensign Tolbert's knees been in better shape when it was time to follow his father into the Navy, MacDill's new Joint Intelligence Operations Center would likely be nameless, known simply as Building 565. Maybe all those years in high school football and as a standout defensive end at California State University, Fresno sidelined his chances to slip "the surly bonds of earth" as a Navy aviator.

Whatever it was, it couldn't stop him from living his Navy dream. So, following his commission through Navy Officer Candidate School in 1989, he began his life of service to America by qualifying as a Navy Surface Warfare Officer aboard the USS Niagara Falls during the ship's deployment to the Persian Gulf amid Operation DESERT STORM.

His expertise in Persian Gulf matters would deepen significantly as he transitioned into intelligence and served afloat there in Operation SOUTHERN WATCH. During his follow-on assignment to CENTCOM in 1996, he utilized and expanded that proficiency while directing Persian Gulf analysis and a record-setting imagery-intelligence collection operation.

Such success and expertise is often rewarded in the military with a posting to the Pentagon where your talents can yield greater impact. That proved true for LCDR Tolbert, and he was reassigned to a position reserved for grooming up-and-comers. Indeed, many of his predecessors in that same Office of Naval Intelligence job achieved flag rank. Reporting in March 2000, he began tracing their footsteps providing analysis and intelligence support directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Director of Naval Intelligence.

Early one morning, having just finished an intelligence briefing to senior Navy officials, LCDR Tolbert became part of a drama that changed America in a single day. For him, the first act began at 0820 when American Airlines flight 77 took off from Dulles International Airport bound for Los Angeles. Nobody knew then that five of its 58 passengers were terrorist hijackers overflowing with hatred for the country Vince Tolbert loved and served so well.

Shortly after United flight 175 crashed into the second World Trade Center tower, passengers aboard American 77 were phoning loved ones with word that their own flight was being hijacked. Minutes later, flight 77 would make an air-show-speed, 300-degree turn to adjust course for full-throttle impact halfway between corridors 4 and 5 on the Pentagon's western side.

Shearing off light poles in the nearby parking lot, the airliner-turned-manned-missile bulldozed through the five-story Pentagon's E, D, and C rings before finally coming to rest after piercing the B ring, all the while engulfing the building in flames and toxic smoke. Lieutenant Commander Otis Vincent Tolbert, Junior died there with his shipmates on the first floor of the C ring. Like everyone killed at the Pentagon, he never had a chance to call those he loved: his wife, three young children or his parents.

His widow spoke well when she described her husband and the others that perished with him. "These guys are heroes every day...It's a shame they only get that honor when they are in the ground."

Mr. John Ward, CENTCOM's Chief of Intelligence Resources and Requirements, was well acquainted with LCDR Tolbert's daily heroism, counting him as one of the best examples of an American hero. Having worked side-by-side at MacDill with the humble giant, Mr. Ward was the visionary and principal driver that brought Vince Tolbert's name to the building dubbed as "The Vince" by then-Brigadier General John M. Custer, who was CENTCOM's Director of Intelligence.

High praise, too, came from many others who worked closely with Vince Tolbert. During the building's dedication on August 26, 2009, Mr. Rod Moore, CENTCOM's Associate Director of Intelligence, best summarized what everyone knew about Vince. "In life there are many levels of relationships. There are those who will talk to you, those who will sweat with you, those who will bleed with you, and those who will sacrifice for you. And that's Vince."

Can you think of a more deserving name to grace a building with such a crucial mission for America? Yesterday, today and tomorrow, "The Vince" continues the vital work of its worthy and accomplished namesake.