WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — As a 5-year-old boy, Willard W. Rice would watch his father work in his mechanic shop. His father had started out as a mechanic at Tinker Air Force Base years ago, and Rice was eager to learn the tricks of the trade himself.

“All of his brothers had served in the military, but he wasn’t able to, and so sometimes, I think that was why he supported the military. He loved being around military aircraft,” Rice said.

At the time, little did Rice know his early experience fixing things would lead him to work on military equipment all around the world, a career he says got his start after a classmate’s father stopped by to drop off his lunch.

“His dad walked into the classroom in an Air Force uniform, and you know, looked like me, and he looked like he was 10 feet tall and had the shiniest shoes I’d ever seen,” Rice said.

Sgt. Willard Rice

That’s when Rice decided he would wear that same uniform one day.

His dream came true in 1976 when he started his Air Force career as an F-4 supply chain manager at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

“I supported the maintenance effort, which means it was our responsibility to make sure that [the pilots] would have the parts,” Rice said. “A lot of times, the guys would come in, and they would not know exactly what they needed, so those were our priorities for the day: to get as many aircraft flying as possible.”

After his time in the Pacific, Rice would be stationed at Castle Air Force Base in California.

“The mission was a little bit different,” Rice said. “It was more surveillance-type aircraft…when [the siren] activated, I mean, get out of the way, because we were headed to the hangar or wherever we needed to be to make sure we got that aircraft launched.”

Rice would continue to serve as an F-4 supply chain technician back in Kansas. While there, he recruited more than 300 people to join the Air Force Reserves and the Air National Guard.

“Recently, I was invited to a retirement ceremony for a fellow I recruited, concluding about a 30-year-career that all started from a conversation,” Rice said. “That was pretty exciting.”

After his time as a recruiter, Rice would transition to Communications Electronics—becoming the leader of a mobile radar unit deploying around the world.

“We could roll into a site, and all this equipment is packed up on trucks and vans, and in 72 hours, you’re up, you’re operational, and you’re tracking airspace, tracking things in airspace,” Rice said. “We actually intercepted Russian aircraft.”

Rice said these skills would prove crucial at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

“People were getting lost in the desert, so the commanders at the time, gave an emergency tasking to get GPS on all deployable aircraft,” Rice said. “We worked around the clock for several weeks to get that done, but we finished in less time than they thought it would take us. It was probably 70, 80 vehicles that we had to do.”

After Desert Storm, Rice would come back to Kansas and take his skills underground, installing fiber optics in base networks.

“We started out with McConnell and had a very interesting challenge with McConnell in that we had to connect the east and the west side of the base, but you had two active runways to get around,” Rice said.

Rice’s innovative solution saved taxpayers thousands of dollars.

“I see these lines on the base on the plans, so I ask what that was, and they said, ‘Oh, those are old sewer lines’, I said, ‘Well, can we put our fiber in them?’, and everybody looked at it, and they go, ‘I don’t know’, I said, ‘Well, let’s call Roto-Rooter or somebody and find out if we can do that’,” Rice said.

Rice would receive the Meritorious Service Medal for his work on the project upon his retirement.

“To be recognized for work you do on a project like that, you know, at that level, that really was special to me,” Rice said.

When asked if he would change anything about his time in the military, Rice says his only regret is his father passing away just before his retirement ceremony in 1996.

“He always supported me and thought the military was just a good place to be, and turned out he was right,” Rice said.

Rice would retire a Senior Master Sergeant. His military background would land him success in the private sector, as he would go on to receive his master’s degree in management information systems from Friends University.

If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at hannah.adamson@ksn.com.