The holes in the building made it look like a huge battle had raged through the place.
It was 1968 and Lloyd "Fig" Newton had just landed in Saigon. The 23-year-old Air Force pilot wandered through the airplane terminal pocked from rocket fire.
"I didn't think I would make it back," Newton said.
Not only did he survive, but he went on to make history.
Newton, a retired four-star general in the U.S. Air Force, is the first black man to fly with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's aerial demonstration team.
"I've been fortunate to have a very fulfilled life because I've had the opportunity to work hard," said Newton, who lives in Valrico. "At the same time I've been able to serve a given cause."
Young people today don't always appreciate the opportunities that come from service in the military. But Newton has never lost his enchantment with serving his country.
"There are still a lot of people that are like I was," he said. "They feel driven to want to go and serve."
And he's determined to find them.
Newton was recently selected for the President's Commission on White House Fellowships. The commission also includes former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. The group of 30 is charged with interviewing and selecting this year's White House Fellows.
The White House Fellows program, created during Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, is a nonpartisan program that accepts midcareer professionals who have achieved great accomplishments. The fellows spend a year working as full-time, paid special assistants to top personnel within White House departments. Many serve as special advisers in topic areas. For example, a doctor could contribute to the current debate on health care.
President Ronald Reagan called the program a "vehicle for developing new leadership for the nation."
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The man who posed for portraits in his dress blues, a thick block of rainbow ribbons adorning his lapel, traces his beginnings to a plantation in Jasper, S.C. His father sharecropped and the family grew all of its food. As a young boy, Newton knew how to make flour from corn and molasses from sugar cane.
Things slowed down a bit when his father would pick up a hitchhiking soldier on U.S. 17. That's when Newton would sit in the back and daydream about being in the traveling soldier's uniform.
"At that point I didn't understand what they were engaged in," Newton said. "Like the protection and security of the country and if need be, they would have to go to war later on."
But after earning a bachelor of science degree in aviation education from Tennessee State University in Nashville and completing pilot training, Newton did just that.
In April of 1968, he landed in Saigon and climbed into the cockpit of a F-4 Phantom bomber plane. During his yearlong tour, he flew 269 combat missions, including more than 70 over North Vietnam, where the majority of prisoners of war were captured.
But it was when he got back to American soil that he encountered an even bigger battle.
The country was in the throes of the civil rights movement and there was not much support for a black man in uniform fighting for a country that had oppressed so many.
"The toughest part was people who looked down on you for being in the war," Newton said.
Were there racial issues within the ranks of the military? Yes. But, "thinking about from where I came from you say, 'Hey, this is not so bad, even though there are issues.' "
Through the early '70s, Newton pushed through the system and began pursuing one of the most exclusive of military units: the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's demonstration team.
The pilots travel throughout the county performing acrobatics in the sky. It's a fun yet prestigious job.
"A lot of folks tried to discourage me," Newton said. "They'd never seen a black pilot."
He applied three times before being accepted.
In 1974, he became the first African-American Thunderbird pilot.
Since retiring from the Air Force in 2000, Newton has provided leadership to a number of companies including Goodyear and Pratt & Whitney military engines.
In early 2008, he was called on to be a senior military officer adviser to the Obama administration. He joined the president on stage during Obama's acceptance of the Democratic nomination. In 2009, another call came. This time it was for the fellows selection committee.
Gen. Colin Powell; Adm. Dennis Blair, director of National Intelligence; and Univision president Cesar Conde are all former White House Fellows.
Of the thousands that apply to the fellowship program each year, 11 to 19 are selected.
Selective, yes, Newton said. But not impossible. He is reminded of an affirmation that helped him during his years applying for the Thunderbirds.
"If you have a dream, keep going," Newton said. "The fact that all these other people are applying doesn't matter. There's only one slot."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.