AFMC Command News

Air Force vet, civilian reflects on his 60 years of service to DAF  

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- From the Vietnam conflict to today, Thomas Edwards has dedicated more than 60 years of his life to the service he loves while boosting the morale and resiliency of the Airmen, Guardians and families he serves.  

Edwards, the Department of the Air Force Entertainment chief at the Air Force Services Center, was honored for that dedication April 29 when he received the 60-Year Service Medal from Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Commander Maj. Gen. John Allen during a ceremony in front of family, friends and teammates.

“When I think of service and someone who has performed service for a long time, I think of Tom, someone who is selfless with a true heart of service,” said Col. Carolyn Ammons, AFSVC commander. “I know, from seeing him along this journey, that he’s in front of every show and behind the scenes as well pulling pallets off a truck, putting up a stage and telling everyone how to make a show fabulous. It’s not just that he did shows, it’s that he is part of every show. 

“Tom has seriously lifted the souls of Airmen and families around the globe, and we can’t thank him enough for what he has done and continues to do,” she said.

“It isn’t every day that someone gives 60 years of their life to something they believe in with their heart and soul and is well respected for what they give back to our troops and their families,” added Terri McGhee, DAF Entertainment LIVE STAGE operations coordinator who joined Edwards’ team in 2002.   

Edwards began his six decades of service in 1963 after graduating from high school at 16. 

“At the time, I had no way of continuing my education and was performing as an entertainer but knew I didn’t want to pursue it as a career,” he said. “Times were uncertain with the Vietnam conflict, but I knew I wanted to serve my country, so I signed up.”  

Trained as a ground radio technician, he helped launch missiles to train fighter pilots and evaluated missile preparation teams. It wasn’t long, however, before he retrained into the computer maintenance career field and was assigned to Air Defense Command in support of NORAD. 

The Air Force, needing his radio and computer experience, then sent him to Vietnam to manage a communications squadron’s ground radio operation.   

“My tour was extended to 19 months at the request of the Vietnamese government,” Edwards said, “and as a result of my work, I received the Vietnam Honor Medal from the Vietnamese government and the Bronze Star from the U.S. Air Force.”   

Shortly after returning from Vietnam, he was assigned to headquarters Air Force and selected to redesign and produce the service’s premier entertainment showcase, Tops In Blue, because of his entertainment experience before entering the service.

From 1953, the TIB showcase featured uniformed Airmen playing music, singing, dancing and performing comedy to entertain fellow Airmen and their families at installations and outposts around the world.  

He was selected from a field of applicants to continue as a government civilian after that assignment where he was tasked to establish an Air Force Entertainment Office because of his work producing, directing and touring with TIB, he said.

When he hung up his uniform to become a civilian after about 11 years, his service jacket was also adorned with the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Force Commendation Meda, both with two oak leaf clusters, to show his achievements.

His new position and beginning a new program initially presented quite a challenge, he said, and he found himself learning new things every day.   

“I’m grateful for the exceptional support and mentors I encountered along the way who helped me meet the program’s goals of supporting the DAF family while also developing my career,” Edwards said. 

“With Tops In Blue, Mr. Edwards instilled the family concept and to this day, prior TIB members consider themselves brothers and sisters because they shared something really special,” McGhee said.  

“I had the pleasure of hosting Tops In Blue for many years,” said Debbie Southee, AFSVC director of community programs. “It was always rewarding to see the faces of service members and their families as they watched the show. They were totally entertained from the first note to the patriotic ending, standing proudly to sing ‘God Bless the USA’ with the TIB team.” 

Fiscal constraints and evolving entertainment preferences of Airmen and families led to the end of TIB in September 2016, Edwards said, leaving an entertainment void, particularly at remote and isolated stateside installations. 

“We reinvented the Air Force Entertainment program using first-class, commercial entertainers … it really helped us with our mission of building resiliency and morale in our Airmen, Guardians and their families,” he said. 

“The transition into commercial entertainment wasn’t flawless, but it didn’t seem that much of a struggle for us since (Edwards) used his experience in producing commercial entertainment in almost the same way he did with Tops In Blue,” McGhee said. “He always ensures our team provides the seamless coordination needed between each installation and the contracted artists.” 

“Air Force Entertainment now concentrates on bringing commercial entertainment to our bases, originally focusing on remote and isolated installations,” said Southee, AFSVC. “LIVE STAGE provides 16-20 professional, commercial shows per year, complete with 100-foot stages, huge videos walls and state-of-the-art sound and light technology.

“Audience members experience a show that would normally cost them hundreds of dollars downtown,” Southee said.

Recent featured acts include Stone Temple Pilots, Bret Michaels and John Michael Montgomery who have all played on Air Force bases because of Mr. Edwards efforts to bring quality entertainers to a deserving audience, she said. 

To date, the DAF entertainment team, under Edwards’ direction, has delivered over 5,000 performances, reaching more than 12 million Airmen, Guardians and their families. Those numbers don’t include six world’s fairs, five Bob Hope television specials, three NFL super bowls including a complete 1985 halftime show, 12 NASCAR pre-race performances and numerous Air Force tattoos, air shows, celebrations and other special events. 

“During my career, I’ve travelled to almost 70 countries representing the Air Force and I’ve been able to produce and direct extraordinary events throughout the world,” Edwards said.  

Through the program’s success, he’s also helped thousands of Airmen develop confidence in themselves and become leaders within the Air Force. 

“As a performer on TIB, Mr. Edwards mentored me by giving honest and practical feedback that was crucial to my success on stage,” said Monique Robertson-Jamison, now a performance coordinator with the AFSVC Air Force Entertainment team. “He always took the time to explain showmanship from the perspective of an audience member, specifically a military audience member, and stressed the importance of giving 100% of our focus and commitment each time we stepped on the stage.”

“I’m proud of all the program participants who, through their experiences with our entertainment programs, have gone on to have a positive, significant impact both within and outside the Air Force,” Edwards said. “Jerry VanDyke, Sinbad, Terry Weeks of the Temptations and Lane McCray of La Bouche are just a few of the Tops In Blue members who went on to have highly successful entertainment careers. Numerous members also remained in the Air Force and became chief master sergeants and senior officers to include major command chiefs and squadron commanders.”

“Mr. Edwards is truly one of the greatest entertainment producers I’ve ever met,” Robertson-Jamison said. “His attention to detail and commitment to program excellence is unmatched … he allows his team to take ownership of our individual projects and tasks, gives us meaningful feedback that transcends beyond the office and makes sure we each have the tools necessary to be successful in our respective roles. 

“He builds leaders and I’m grateful for my time on TIB and now my opportunity to work for one of the greatest programs the Air Force offers,” she said.

As the DAF begins some of its most sweeping changes in more than 20 years, Edwards reflected on the past but said he’s also looking forward to future challenges. 

“So many aspects of the Air Force have changed throughout my career, from simple uniform variations to the significance of creating an entirely unique Space Force,” he said, “and recent research has shown our need to continue to evolve, to reoptimize the strategic environment of the Air Force. With the Great Power Competition goals necessary for remaining the world’s greatest Air Force, funding will become even more scarce for our morale, welfare and recreation programs.”

It's impossible to tell how this will impact existing quality-of-life programs in the future, Edwards said. However, he finds it refreshing to see the DAF continuing to prioritize AFSVC programs and feels he and his team in DAF Entertainment will do what needs to be done. 

“As we have in the past, we’ll capitalize on unique, outside-the-box thinking to offer the same quality programming we provide today … our Airmen, Guardians and families deserve nothing less,” he said.