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St. Joseph native retires as brigadier general

Gen. Stephen D. Cotter official portrait. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Shannon Bond)

Gen. Stephen D. Cotter official portrait. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Shannon Bond)

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Brig. Gen. Stephen Cotter, the Assistant Adjutant General-Air of the Missouri Air National Guard, is retiring this month.

While stopping in at Rosecrans Memorial Airport for a ceremony and meetings with the 139th Airlift Wing here, Cotter - who spent 35 years with the unit including his final six as its commander - reminisced about his time here.

"This will always be home," the St. Joseph native said. "I had the opportunity to make (Brigadier General). I never dreamed I would have that opportunity. But this is home."

The general's ties to the airstrip pre-date his entry into the Missouri Air National Guard.
"I was working at St. Joe Flying Service as a line boy," he said, "fueling airplanes, cleaning the ashtrays, dumping them out.

"I had never flown (in) an airplane before and I thought, 'I ought to try this.' Somebody took me for a (flight) one day and I thought, 'Man, this beats working for a living.' "
His boss taught him, even giving him lessons for free because he could not afford the expense.

He came to the 139th in 1977 as a pilot. For the next 33 years, he remained, mostly flying C-130A and H models all over the world.

Cotter shared a few memorable stories of flying missions. Like the time in Africa when he and his aircrew were within 200 yards of exploding mortar rounds from their hotel during a coup attempt. Another trip into Africa resulted in his crew's plane being temporarily seized upon landing after mechanical issues forced the crew to divert to an airstrip in a war zone.

But his most memorable times were at Rosecrans.

"The best job I had was to be the commander of the 180th (Airlift Squadron)," he said. "There's no doubt ... flying was the highlight of my career."

But Cotter, who logged more than 7,000 hours in the cockpit, saw a bigger picture for his future in leading larger organizations. He commanded the Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center here from 2001-03 before being selected the 139th's wing commander where he served from 2003-09.

His said the biggest change throughout his career was the dramatic changes in technology.

"When I started," he said, "there were no computers or even word processors."

How does he hope to be remembered?

"I think fair if anything," he said. "Early on, someone taught me that there are a lot of people out here much smarter than you are. I think when you realize that and then can get those people to work for you, (they make) you look good."

It was a lesson most here would agree Cotter learned early and knew well. His legacy as a person who cared about airmen is secure among those who served for him.

"Our greatest asset in the Air Guard is the people," he said. "Some people think it's the aircraft and some think it's the equipment. It's not. It's the people."