United States Air Force
Brigadier General Richard F. Abel was the director of public affairs, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Washington, D.C.
General Abel was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1933 and graduated from Saint Ignatius High School in 1951. He graduated from the University of Detroit in 1956 with a bachelor of science degree in business administration and a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force through the Reserve Officers Training Corps program. The General completed Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in 1962. He also attended graduate school at Boston University.
Project Management Standard Program After receiving his pilot wings in May 1957 at Laredo Air Force Base, Texas, General Abel was assigned to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, as a training officer and academic instructor in the aviation cadet program; aide-de-camp to Major General Robert Stillman; and leader of the “Warhawk” jet acrobatic team. In June 1962 General Abel was assigned to Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., as an instructor pilot.
He was assigned as an air officer commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., from January 1963 to May 1965 when he began his public affairs career as an information services officer. From May 1966 until June 1968, he was assigned as deputy chief of community relations and chief of the public affairs division at the academy. The General also was assistant football coach of the Air Force Academy Falcons during this time.
In July 1968 the General was assigned to the 7th Air Force in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam, as chief of the combat news division in the directorate of information. One year later he became a public affairs officer for the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii.
General Abel returned to the Air Force Academy in August 1972 as director of the Admissions Liaison Office. From February to March 1973, he was sent to the Pacific area to assist with Operation Homecoming. General Abel made five trips to Hanoi as a public affairs officer to escort returning American prisoners of war from the North Vietnamese prison camps.
The General returned to Camp H.M. Smith in September 1975 as director of public affairs for Pacific Command. He remained there until July 1978 when he was assigned as special assistant to the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Washington, D.C.
His military decorations and awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Joint Service Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster and Air Force Commendation Medal.
The General was vice chairman, National Board of Directors, Fellowship of Christian Athletes; member, National Public Information Committee for the United Services Organization; member, Board of Directors, National Aeronautical Association; and member, Order of Daedalians.
He was promoted to Brigadier General June 1, 1982, with date of rank Oct. 1, 1981. General Abel retired on April 1, 1985.
FREE THE PRISONERS
Dick Abel, a retired Air Force general, invests his military rank in an effort to reach non-Christians in the armed forces.
He’d been making history for the last 28 hours. The young lieutenant colonel had just returned from a mission to free American prisoners of war in North Vietnam, and would soon address a gathering of the press. As a public-affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force, Dick Abel served as eyes and ears for the entire free world.
Later that night, Abel lay in bed, still thinking about the prisoners–some captive for nearly eight years–and about their stories of solitary confinement and torture. Humbled, he reflected on his own life and struggles–the college-football injury that had crushed hopes for a pro career; the physical test results that permanently grounded the ambitious fighter pilot. For the first time, Abel thanked God for planning each step of his life–including disappointments–to lead to that moment in Vietnam.
Today, as national director of Campus Crusade’s Military Ministry, Brig. Gen. Dick Abel draws upon his life experiences to help rescue spiritual prisoners from eternal confinement and torture. “My desire is to make a difference for eternity,” says the retired one-star general.
Son of a refrigerator service man and raised in Cleveland, Abel’s been around, which is obvious from a quick visit to his office in Newport News, VA. One wall looks like a Who’s Who in America: posing with Clint Eastwood; standing with Billy Graham and Chuck Colson; shaking President Reagan’s hand.
In the middle of his desk, beneath his “No. 1 Coach” coffee mug (Abel spent two years coaching football at the U.S. Air Force Academy) lay a pile of papers awaiting his signature. Model planes, foreign coins and plaques clutter nearby shelves. An American flag stands in the back corner.
Though these symbols fill his office like museum pieces, the general does not. Abel’s out of the office almost half of every week, according to his assistant Juli Emory, either traveling or meeting someone on a nearby base.
Each Tuesday morning at 6:30 he leads the Flag Officers Fellowship (restricted to generals and admirals) at Norfolk Naval Base. Though the base is only 28 miles from his home in Poquoson, VA, he leaves an hour beforehand (“Wheels up at 0530,” says the former pilot) to allow for traffic congestion. Abel’s usually early, so he watches the sun come up. He just doesn’t want the six or seven high-ranking officers waiting on him.
“The higher up you go, the lonelier it gets. Dick has credibility in this group,” says Navy Rear Adm. Tim Ziemer. “We’re open because we know it will stop right here. It’s been a tremendous oasis for me.”
A master of networking, Abel also speaks at the Squadron Commanders Course–a leadership training class required of lieutenant colonels and majors–at Langley Air Force Base. Besides addressing leadership and character, Abel invites people to another early-morning meeting hosted by Military Ministry on Wednesdays: the 6:15 Bible study at Langley.
At that study, a coed group of 20 to 30 observe the coach in action. Abel draws them out, calling people by name, and seems ready to pace the rows of chairs and rally his team. Only his notes on a small podium anchor him to the front. Rarely in uniform (though several shirts bear an embroidered insignia of Military Ministry on his left sleeve), the wide-jawed general is nothing if not approachable.
“I’ve been attending [Langley morning Bible study] for almost four years, and during that time, Dick has been my brother,” says a teary-eyed Lt. Col. Mike Stinson. “He’s been my counselor. He’s been my teacher. And he’s been my friend.” Capt. Rhonda Larson, a first-time visitor to the study, noted Abel’s warmth. “He was very friendly. I wasn’t even sure it was him at first,” she admitted. “You know, the mental image of a general and all.”
Abel’s approachability is not just reserved for military personnel. During 42 years of marriage, his wife, Ann, recalls how she or their four children could phone at anytime. “Even when he was in public affairs at the Pentagon, unless he was in a presidential meeting or something, they knew they could talk to Dad,” she says. “It’s getting a little dicey with the  grandkids. But if they want to talk to their Pappa, they can.”
That goes for his headquarters staff as well. Abel regularly pokes his head inside staff members’ offices, greeting them individually. And it goes both ways. “There’s never been a time where I needed to talk with Gen. Abel about something, whether business or personal,” says staff member Kathy Maddox, “that I could not go down and knock on his door, and–whatever he was doing–he’d say, ‘Come on in.’”
But the blue-eyed general delivers more than just warm fuzzies. Six years ago, he accepted the role of national director and moved Military Ministry’s headquarters into Virginia’s Tidewater area, the second-highest concentration of U.S. military in the world (Washington, D.C., ranks first). Since then the ministry has nearly quadrupled in size, growing from less than 30 to 110 full-time and associate staff members nationwide.
Abel’s military rank plays a significant role. Last August, the general boarded the Navy’s newest nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman, (CVN 75). As he crossed the iron bridge, bells rang out and a loudspeaker blared the arrival of a senior officer. Even in civilian clothes, Abel expects this protocol. “Generals tend to be prideful,” he admits. But the purpose for his visit was simply to donate a box of Christian books and videos to the sailors on board. Abel knows who’s really in charge.
Several illnesses have slowed him down over the last two years, including a blood clot in his leg which forced a three-month sabbatical. “I think sometimes God does that to throttle me back,” says Abel. “I have a tendency, as they say out West, to lean forward in the saddle.”
That drive earned Abel an offer of a six-figure contract with accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen 11 years ago. Abel had retired from the military and was stepping down from a senior executive position with the U.S. Olympic Committee. He passed up the large salary and accepted an offer to be president of Fellowship of Christian Athletes–the parachurch ministry instrumental in Abel’s 1966 conversion.
In 1992, Abel left FCA to direct Military Ministry. Since then, he’s broadened the ministry’s maneuvers and gone beyond the borders of America. Privy to the high-profile role armed forces play in the governments of many nations, Abel believes more people could be reached with the gospel by targeting military forces abroad. He wants to teach other countries how to start their own military ministries.
And they want to learn. In August, just three days after the bombing at the American Embassy in Nairobi, Abel and a team of Military Ministry staff members risked their safety to teach workshops and seminars to 587 Kenyan military personnel, as well as military leaders from six surrounding nations. “We’ve been invited to 40 countries or more to work with their military,” says Abel. “[But] we need laborers to go into the field and we need fiscal resources.”
Keeping one eye on the future and both feet on the ground, Abel’s not standing by waiting for reinforcements. Because of the star on his uniform, doors open for him and his troops. The faithful airman just continues to marshal his forces. Twenty-five years later, he’s still freeing prisoners.