When Robert Rose was 17 years old, he knew he needed to get out. In 1954, “things weren’t that appetizing” for young black people graduating high school, especially in West Virginia. But why the Air Force?

“Why not?” Rose said.

It was a way for him to escape the place that wasn’t “golden at the time.” After basic training in New York, technical training in Wyoming and a few places in between, he was sent to Japan, where he served for four years. When he served in Vietnam in 1963 and ‘64, it was “just before the serious business,” Rose said.

“I read the paper, and I was in communications. I knew what was going on,” Rose said. “It was a little bit antsy. You didn’t know who your friends were.”

When he was 29 years old, he was sent to Ketchikan, Alaska, where he met his wife Kathleen, who was working in education at the time. The small-town paper printed pictures of all its new teachers, and Rose noticed Kathleen’s photo right away. A mutual friend introduced them, and they’ve been together ever since.

Uncle Sam told Rose to go to Omaha, and he finally finished his degree in business at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, thanks to Operation Bootstrap, a program “designed to provide commissioned officers a chance to ‘lift themselves up by their bootstraps’ by completing a degree in post-military life.”

Before retiring from 28 years of service in 1982, Robert and Kathleen lived in Las Vegas, Germany, Columbus, Nebraska, and finally, Bellevue.

Of all the places Rose has lived, Omaha is his favorite, he said.

“It’s the only place I’ve ever spent any serious amount of time,” Rose said. “I was here because I wanted to be and not because someone else told me to be or directed me to be here.”

He sees himself as a kind of vagabond who moved all over the place as a kid. He has one sister, but they didn’t grow up in the same home. Today, they’re much closer.

“I didn’t have too many options at 17,” Rose said. “I was pretty much on my own. I knew that whatever I did or became, it was because I did it.”

That’s the lesson he wants to teach the kids he works with now at the Tuskegee Airmen Alfonza W. Davis Chapter, where he serves as chapter president. Tuskegee airmen helped lead the desegregation of the U.S. military in 1948, and the chapter works with youth to carry on that legacy.

Rose, who has been involved with the Tuskegee Airmen both locally and nationally for over 15 years, serves as president of the central region and first vice president of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Rose is the legal guardian for Robert Holts, the last surviving Tuskegee airman from Nebraska.

“Our mission is directed toward youth and kids. We try to convince kids that if you’re prepared, you can do anything you want to do,” Rose said. “People didn’t think blacks could fly and handle sophisticated equipment, and hopefully the Tuskegee Airmen proved them wrong.”