Exclusive Veteran Interview: The Honorable Major General Charles Bolden, Jr., USMC (Ret.)

Former NASA Administrator Celebrates 50th Anniversary of the Rose Garden


AFR President Molly Dey with Charlie Bolden

U.S. Marine Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr. (Ret.) is a former attack pilot, astronaut, NASA Administrator and today the Founder and CEO Emeritus of The Charles F. Bolden Group LLC. Part of his trajectory was from the Rose Garden, a satirical nickname for the remote and covert Royal Thai Air Base in Nam Phong, Thailand during the Vietnam War. The locale was a harsh, snake-infested jungle with an unimproved 10,000-foot runway, but was quickly upgraded and became very effective in prosecuting the war. Personnel at the base were designated Task Force Delta.

1st Lieutenant Bolden flew more than 100 missions from the base into South and North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the early 1970s, primarily in the A-6A Intruder. His assignments were mostly nighttime interdiction, bombing hard targets such as bridges, roadways, fuel and ammunition depots, as well as moving targets of troop and ammunition convoys. Many sorties were only 500 feet off the ground. The site’s strategic flight location was critical in supporting the South Vietnamese Army, as well as allied campaigns in the north.

“We usually flew in the evening and the Viet Cong knew we were coming, but not from where, so we had the element of surprise,” Bolden said. “We didn’t carry many offensive weapons, mainly just 500 to 2,000 pound bombs, and had to be on alert, especially from anti-aircraft gun fire and service-to-air missiles. Sometimes the barrages were so thick, it was touch and go straight to the target and hopefully back.”

The 50th Anniversary of Marine Corps Air Station Rose Garden was held on May 19th-22nd in Arlington, Virginia. More than 300 veterans, and their families, turned out.

“This was a very special gathering as we had all the Rose Garden units there: combat forces, security, transport, maintenance, senior officers and enlisted personnel alike,” Bolden said. “It was a true showing of everyone who operated and made the base, which played a critical role in the history of Marine Corps aviation. The festivities and tributes were both exciting and somber in sharing 50 years of memories, tall tales, joy and also sadness for those we’d lost. The Evening Parade at Marine Barracks 8th & I, tour of the National Museum of the Marines Corps, and most of all the camaraderie were key highlights.”

The Rose Garden nickname originated from a popular song that was used as a tool for recruitment. The Marines co-opted country music legend Lynn Anderson’s 1971 hit tune “You Never Promised Me a Rose Garden” in a television ad campaign featuring a hard-nosed drill sergeant in the face of a green recruit. When the first Marines arrived at the crude facility, they dubbed it the Rose Garden. While other branches of the military were presenting a newer, kinder and gentler public relations strategy, the Marines’ approach sent enlistment soaring.

The base was crucial for helping South Vietnamese forces and also became a landing pad for B-52s returning in distress from combat missions into North Vietnam. When peace negotiations broke down, the U.S. began flying the massive bombers over heavily defended Hanoi and North Vietnam. The planes took many hits and the Rose Garden was the closest safe harbor for disabled aircraft that couldn’t make it to Guam. “We were there when one B-52 was so shot up it barely made it in,” Bolden recalled. “In 1973 Task Force Delta and its Marine combat forces would be the last to exit Vietnam. The remains of that plane may well be hidden in overgrown jungle today.”

Bolden’s illustrious career began as a graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968 with a degree in Electrical Science, followed by flight training and in 1970 becoming a naval aviator. After Vietnam, Capt. Bolden went on to earn a master’s degree in Systems Management from the University of Southern California and later served as a test pilot after completing the course of instruction at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, MD. He was promoted to major and selected as an astronaut candidate, officially becoming a NASA astronaut in 1981, as well as being promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. Bolden flew on four Space Shuttle missions from 1986 to 1994, starting as pilot of the Columbia in 1986, and the Discovery in 1990 for the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.

“To serve on the Space Shuttle was indeed an honor and being in space is of course incredible,” Bolden said. “In low orbit, about to 250 to 400 miles up, you can’t see the whole ball of earth, but you can see how thin the atmosphere is and how little there is to protect us. It sinks in quickly how fragile our planet is and the importance of keeping our air and oceans healthy, which so far we haven’t been doing a good job of. If you are not an environmentalist when you leave earth, you very likely will become one after you return.”

In 1992 Bolden commanded the Atlantis, supervising experiments and research on the earth’s climate and atmosphere. He again served on the Discovery in 1994 for the first joint American/Russian Shuttle mission and said the experience was one of the most rewarding of his time in space, with more than 680 flight hours.

“The two Russian cosmonauts came to Houston with their families and trainers to prepare for the voyage, and also to get assimilated to American culture,” he explained. “I was a little reluctant at first, but after our initial dinner I knew everything would be very positive. Our kids and their kids grew up together in those two years and we all became close friends. We were ideally hoping to make the world a better place. With all that is going on now, the only semblance of cooperation and normalcy between our two countries seems to be the International Space Station.”

Bolden left his post as a NASA astronaut in 1994 and returned to the operating forces of   the Marine Corps, where he was made Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. “Going back to the academy really helped me develop my leadership abilities, and it was very fulfilling working and being with the kids. I got up with them at 6 a.m. every morning and was in the best shape of my life.”

Bolden left the Academy as a colonel, was promoted to brigadier general and made Deputy Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. He then served as Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait, and in 1998 was promoted to major general and made Deputy Commander of U.S. Forces in Japan. His last post was Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar in San Diego, California. Major General Bolden retired from the Marine Corps in 2003 after 34 years of service and more than 6,000 flight hours. “My service in the Marines will be with me forever, and the Rose Garden reunion really brought the early days back home,” he said.

After holding several positions in the private sector of the aerospace industry, Bolden began perhaps the apogee of his career. In May of 2009, President Barack Obama nominated him to be Administrator of NASA. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to become the 12th NASA Administrator, the second astronaut to hold the post and the first African American to occupy the position on a permanent basis. Operations of the International Space Station (ISS) were a key priority during his tenure, as well as space and aeronautics technology research and development. He also supervised plans for the beginning of the cooperation between NASA and the commercial space industry. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate to develop new technologies for future missions was formed under his watch, including the Space Launch System and its Orion crew module spacecraft, now in testing and destined for the moon. Bolden also oversaw the Mars Curiosity Rover program and other projects aimed for the future.

“The most rewarding part of being NASA Administrator was to serve with President Obama and promote his agenda for the space program,” said Bolden, 75. “Part of the focus was to expand non-traditional partners in Africa, Asia and across other continents and into other countries, helping them to enter the realm of space-faring nations. NASA is the perfect vehicle for spreading science, technology, engineering and math plus arts and design education (STEM + AD) to youth around the world, and I had the pleasure of visiting 52 countries. I’m also very proud to be a part of the Mars Curiosity program and the transfer into commercial space flight. I think we helped restore NASA’s prominence as the premier aeronautics and space research and development organization in the world.”

Bolden retired from NASA in January, 2017 and over the decades has received scores of medals, awards and honors. Just a few include the Distinguished Flying Cross, four NASA Space Flight Medals and induction into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and The Early & Pioneer Naval Aviators Association, a.k.a. “The Golden Eagles”. The elite organization includes Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviators, Medal of Honor recipients, astronauts, fighter aces and others who have contributed significantly to U.S. Naval aviation. Bolden is also in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and holds many honorary doctorate degrees. Roads and schools in his home state of South Carolina bear his name.

When pressed about his favorite awards, the affable and humble Bolden shared: “The Distinguished Flying Cross is truly an honor, and the Single Mission Air Medal has real meaning because on that mission out of the Rose Garden we barely survived the most brutal barrage of flak I’ve ever taken. The most special is receiving the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 2020 because of the people who won it ahead of me. That stellar lineup includes the Wright Brothers of course, Charles Lindbergh, General James Doolittle, and more recently astronauts Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins. To be among such company is both a humbling and proud feeling, especially since I was a presenter of the award to Michael Collins the year before I had the honor.”

Today Bolden is the CEO Emeritus of The Charles F. Bolden Group, which he founded in 2017 to foster leadership for the global advancement of science and security in space and aerospace exploration. The company also promotes initiatives in art, design, education and health. “I’m just an advisor now; my son Che’ Bolden is the CEO,” said Bolden, who lives with his wife Alexis (Jackie) Bolden in Arlington, Virginia. “Che’ is a retired Marine colonel and I’m very proud of both him and my daughter, Dr. Kelly Bolden MD.”

As far as advice for our nation’s youth, Bolden refers to three pieces of guidance his mother and father gave him: Study hard, work hard, and never be afraid of failure.

“All three have been invaluable to my life and career,” Bolden reflected. “I think the third is particularly important, especially for young women and young people of color. Not being afraid to try is how you learn.”

With all of his accomplishments, Bolden’s current goal is to be the best grandfather he can be to his new grandson, Walker Elias Bolden. In his spare time he cycles 20 miles a day and tries his hand at golf.

“According to Jackie, ‘tries’ is the operative word when it comes to golf,” he said.

By Scott B. McCaskey, Creative Writer for Armed Forces Reunions, Inc. and AFR Tours.