How a General Is Made
Alumnus Tim O'Brien says Cal State East Bay's music program was essential to his success
For Cal State East Bay alumnus Tim O’Brien, leadership is an art form — specifically, a symphony. A concert filled with pauses, crescendos, slow and fast movements, and most important, an opportunity for all the musicians on stage to perfect their part.
While that metaphor might seem useful to business managers or as the basis of a best-selling leadership book, it sounds less plausible as a strategy for a successful military career.
Yet O’Brien, a decorated general who retired in 2016 after 30 years of service, says he’s tackled many of his biggest challenges through the lens of his music education from Cal State East Bay.
“To be a good leader, or to be successful in your leadership position, you really have to be more than black and white,” O’Brien says. “You have to be able to see those shades of gray and be able to apply reasoning and artistic interpretation. There’s always four or five sides to every story, there’s always second and third-order effects, there’s always parts where it’s better just to be quiet and then times to be the soloist and say ‘Hey gang, this is where we’re going.’ [Arts and leadership] are definitely intertwined.”
If anyone knows, it’s O’Brien.
Before his final rank of brigadier (one-star) general, he held roles as squadron commander and wing commander; completed combat rescue tours in Operations Desert Storm, Northern Watch, Southern Watch and in Afghanistan; graduated from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, which involves six months of live-fire exercises against the world’s best aircraft; helped acquire and modernize military aircraft for the Pentagon; obtained his M.S. in national security and decision-making from the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base; and led the United States Air Force officer Training School at Maxwell AFB.
And for him, it all begins and ends with music.
During his time as an undergraduate at then-Cal State Hayward, O’Brien studied instruments such as oboe, clarinet and saxophone, but says it was learning bassoon under adjunct professor Jerry Dagg that ultimately stuck — and helped him launch his service career in an unexpected way.
“An alumna got in touch and said come to a rehearsal for the 561st Air Force band,” O’Brien recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, no. I’m not into that — I don’t really want to wear a uniform. But then she told me there’d be free pizza and beer, and I thought ‘OK, I’ll just go check it out.”
O’Brien went to the rehearsal and filled in on the bassoon, a rare and difficult instrument to find talent for, and listened to the band’s sales pitch: Free instruments, access to ongoing lessons and part-time pay.
He wasn’t immediately sold, but a few weeks later, worn out from ongoing jobs at the campus bookstore and a restaurant in San Ramon — plus the commute to and from his parents’ house in Pacifica — he called back and asked if the 561st was still hiring.
Little by little (yes, it was the 80s and “Top Gun” was an influence, he admits), O’Brien’s time in the 561st Air Force Band got him thinking about how he might be able to fly for the military, though he sensed that some might think of his music education as a drawback.
“I knew people would look at my background and think ‘Who does this guy think he is?’” O’Brien says of wanting to apply to the Airforce and Navy. “But I think too many folks just kind of give up and when you’re playing music, especially on stage, you just can’t do that. And I just think, ‘Well, did you try again? And what did you do to become more competitive?’ For me, life is too short for regrets.”
To increase his chances of being accepted, O’Brien started taking advantage of another perk associated with his role of bassoonist in the 561st AF Band — cheap flying lessons out ofthe Naval Air Station at Moffett Field.
“We got discounted air time, and it was actually a lot of fun. I was able to learn to fly for $12 bucks an hour wet, which means gas included,” he says.
And just before he was set to graduate with his master’s degree from Cal State East Bay, the Air Force picked him up as a helicopter pilot.
O’Brien took part in his graduate recital at the university, then hopped on a plane the very next day for officer training without finishing his oral exams. With two years under his belt in the master’s degree program, he left the university just shy of obtaining his secondary degree.
But he has no regrets.
“I thank Cal State quite a bit for helping me branch out. The professors would really allow you to do just about anything you wanted to do or try — there was a lot of support there, and I think there still is. All of the professors at Cal State really had a lot of influence on my development, my values, my beliefs. They really helped shape who I am. That’s the main point for me.”
The busy years that followed for O’Brien, including rising from lieutenant to captain to major to colonel, didn’t come without risk or sacrifice. And for many of those years, he had little time for music, though he never forgot his love for it — or stopped complaining to his wife about how much he missed it.
“I came home for lunch one Valentine’s Day and there was a big package for me and inside of it was a bassoon,” he says. “And I said [to my wife] ‘What are you doing? Bassoons are very expensive! I thought we talked about big purchases!’ She offered to send it back — but then I said, ‘No, this is mine.’”
O’Brien began playing again in whatever city he was stationed, wherever he could. Over the years he’s played with musicians of all levels and styles, from symphonies and operas to local bands in bars.
“Music helped me do outreach into the community and forge connections,” he says. “The military folks and personnel on the base can become really isolated, and the community can sometimes become really disconnected from the base and say things like, ‘Why is that thing here?’ and ‘Why are you in our town?’ Music was always an entry point into a conversation.”
It also helped O’Brien maintain life-balance as his assignments got tougher and tougher. Due to numerous stints flying helicopters in Alaska, where the nation’s most skilled combat rescue fighters sharpen their nerves on unforgiving terrain, O’Brien was asked to command his team (the Alaska Air National Guard) on special rescue tours in Afghanistan from 2006-2009.
“Let’s face it, the combat mission is going out to get one of your brothers or sisters and bring them home,” he says. “Hopefully you bring them back alive, but at the very least, you bring them back and help the family achieve closure. It’s hard because you’re sending people out and making a decision to accept a mission knowing A) somebody’s in trouble and B) you’re putting the crew in harm’s way. But nobody ever quit — these are folks who are committed to rescuing others. I’m really proud of that; we brought home everyone.”
When O’Brien was promoted to general (“My mother said, ‘You? Really?’” he laughs), his final position as commander was for the 168th Air Refueling Wing, also known as the “Guardians of the Last Frontier” for their constant vigilance of the U.S. at its westernmost edge. With his departure from that assignment he finished his career as commander of the Alaska Air National Guard, though the accomplishment he is most proud of is a plaque from the 210th Rescue Squadron commemorating his contributions to the region: In Alaska alone, O’Brien is credited with 119 missions, 19 assists and 109 ‘saves’ — lives that without his help were deemed a certain loss.
Again, it’s the music he relies upon when talking about his success.
“People will tell you that those with liberal arts degrees and music-type degrees are actually better pilots because of it, because they have the imagination to never give up when things go bad,” he says. “There’s always a way. Don’t quit. Keep playing.”
Having completed his military service at 53 years old, O’Brien is far from formally retired. Alongside his wife and dogs, he has settled in the Pacific Northwest and enrolled in a Master of Social Work program at Portland State University. He’s currently interning for the Portland Housing Authority, where he is focused on connecting veterans to services, and next year he has a role lined up with the Veteran’s Administration to learn and practice clinical work with a small patient load.
“A lot of folks are harmed along the way,” he says of combat service. “And I think the social contract between the service member and our nation can include your health, and if necessary, the price may be as high as your life. And in return we will take care of you and your family. Life has been very good to me, the military has been good to me, and I want to help. Some of our service members are just broken. I’d like to help them change their lives for the better.”
Although he still has a way to go, of course music figures into his plans.
“I’m not sure where it’s going to take me, but I’d love to set up some kind of music therapy program,” he says. “I don’t know what that looks like yet. I just think there’s so much that can be done.”