As a NC State student and member of Air Force ROTC Detachment 595 in the 1980s, Gen. Anthony Cotton (political science ’86) accepted one of his first leadership roles as a resident advisor (RA) in North Hall. Since then, he has gone from organizing hall programs and mediating roommate disputes to leading thousands of service members and the nuclear enterprise for the U.S. Air Force.
Earlier this year, Cotton was nominated by President Joe Biden to be promoted to four-star general and assume leadership of the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). He is the first Black man to hold the position and is also the only Black person currently running an Air Force major command. He officially assumed the role on Aug. 27 following a change of command ceremony at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
“To say it is an honor and very humbling is an understatement, and it kind of came home when the chief of staff of the Air Force did my promotion ceremony,” Cotton said. “I am the 222nd four-star general in the history of the United States Air Force. As far as African American, I’m the 10th in the history of the United States Air Force, so that means quite a bit… To be able to make it to the top of the pinnacle and be a four-star general in the United States Air Force — I have to pinch myself every day.”
In his new role, Cotton oversees the nation’s only force of intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. He also manages the AFGSC’s operations at Barksdale Air Force Base, which includes a network of more than 33,700 professionals.
“What I love about this work is the 33,000-plus people that work under this command and the relationships I’ve garnered with an even broader swath than that,” he said. “The folks that take the opportunity to raise their hand and take the oath — to me, that’s something special because they could be doing something completely different. The ones who remain come to find that this military way of life is something that can be really enjoyable.”
Taking command of AFGSC is the latest in a long list of accomplishments in Cotton’s decorated military career. He entered the Air Force through NC State’s ROTC program after earning his undergraduate degree in 1986. He has commanded at the squadron, group and wing levels and has served as deputy director of the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force Executive Action Group, as senior military assistant to the under secretary of defense for intelligence, deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, and as commander and president of Air University. He was also the vice commander and commander of the 341st Missile Wing, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, and the commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. Prior to his newest assignment, he served as deputy commander for the AFGSC and deputy commander of Air Forces Strategic — Air, USSTRATCOM at Barksdale Air Force Base.
“It’s incredible to see what Wolfpack Warrior alumni from Det. 595 are accomplishing throughout the United States Air Force and United States Space Force,” said Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, commander of Air Force ROTC Det. 595 at NC State. “Gen. Cotton has set a fantastic example of leadership to inspire our cadets and future officers. Becoming the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command is a significant accomplishment, and we are proud that he is a member of our Pack.”
Cotton often jokes that he “came out of the womb as a member of the Air Force.” His father was an active service member who attained the rank of chief master sergeant, and he was born at Tachikawa Air Force Base in Japan. From an early age, he had aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Air Force himself. As he got older, though, his parents encouraged him to become the first in his family to graduate from college.
“I think my dad had hinted that he wanted me to go to the Air Force Academy, but I didn’t want to go there,” Cotton said. “I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, and one of my good friends in high school said he was going to NC State. I had been looking at the Triangle area schools anyway and at the degrees NC State was offering, so I decided it was right for me. But what’s funny is that I was an aerospace engineer major for all of one year before changing to political science!”
At NC State, Cotton joined a class of about 30 cadets in NC State’s Air Force ROTC Det. 595, where he began his training as an officer and refined his teamwork and communication skills. He always knew he was part of a special unit, but he appreciated his involvement even more when he returned later as the commander of Air University, overseeing all of the nation’s ROTC programs.
“I’m quite proud of my association with Det. 595,” Cotton said. “It was a highly decorated detachment when I was there as a student and continues to be a pretty prominent detachment that cranks out a lot of skilled ROTC graduates that become second lieutenants and, eventually I hope, more four-star generals if they hang in there long enough.”
Cotton found other opportunities to grow his leadership, communication and teamwork skills outside of ROTC as well. One of the biggest influences was his work as a RA for University Housing.
“I saw early on that I could have kind of a leadership role amongst my peers by becoming a RA,” Cotton recalled. “So I became a RA at North Hall and then became an assistant for the resident director at North hall until I graduated. Having that leadership role, as well as garnering leadership roles when I was with Det. 595, the ROTC detachment at NC State, helped me grow into who I am today.”
Cotton has met countless service members, world leaders and others over the years, but some of his strongest friendships were formed at NC State. He has an especially strong sense of camaraderie with his fraternity brothers in the Eta Omicron Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.
“To this day, I still text my fraternity brothers that pledged with me all the time,” Cotton said. “They were all on Zoom when the promotion and change of command ceremony was underway. So the friendships you develop in college are pretty special.”
Still Running with the Wolfpack
Although he has traveled the world and lived in many places, Raleigh still holds a special place in Cotton’s heart. He remains a dedicated fan of NC State athletics, and one of his favorite memories to this day was when Jim Valvano and the men’s basketball team won the national championship in 1983. Most recently, he was thrilled to watch the Wolfpack defeat Clemson University in football, and he enjoyed the opportunity to gloat about it to his friend and Clemson alumnus John William “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space for Force.
Cotton is also a proud member of the NC State Alumni Association and has returned to campus multiple times to speak with students. One of his primary goals over the course of his career has been to recruit more ROTC cadets and service members of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. His favorite piece of advice is “See me, be me.”
“[‘See me, be me’] means that an Air Force officer who is not a pilot can attain the rank of four-star general,” he explained. “It means that an African American male with a pretty decent college background can make it to the rank of four-star general. It means that somebody that went to NC state that’s part of Det. 595 can replace me on their ‘wall of fame.’ See me, be me means that students can see me and realize that it is possible for all of these things to happen.”
Cotton also expressed his gratitude for everyone who has helped him personally.
“Thank you to all the folks that were a part of making this a reality for me,” he said. “Opportunities abound, and if you can take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you and do a good job in the job you’re in, the next jobs will follow. That’s kind of been my mantra and that’s what I’ve done. I’m blessed to say that I’m a NC State graduate of Det. 595 and have achieved the rank of full general in the United States Air Force.”
This post was originally published in DASA.