Alan Bergstrom wanted to fly jets.
Even though his grandfather and father were both U.S. Navy veterans, Bergstrom joined the U.S. Air Force in 1979 to achieve that dream.
But two years before he graduated from college, his plans changed. With the Vietnam War winding down, the Air Force no longer needed as many pilots in the pipeline.
A political science major, Bergstrom says military intelligence aligned with his education. He obtained a master’s degree before going to the Air Force’s intelligence school.
Bergstrom’s first assignment was at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls nuclear weapons. He worked in a location known as “The Underground.”
“Since the headquarters was a likely target during the Cold War, they had hardened the bunker beneath the ground,” says Bergstrom, CEO at Exclamation Services, a credit union service organization that provides marketing, human resources, information technology, and operations support. “I didn’t see daylight during the day while I was in the bunker.”
As a Soviet military aircraft analyst, Bergstrom managed a group of 10 specialists and experts. They were tasked with monitoring and knowing everything about Soviet military aircraft, including location, capabilities, and number. The group collected information using satellite imagery, human intelligence, communication intelligence, and intercepted communications, Bergstrom says.
“I was responsible for the lives of 10 people,” he says. “I grew up real fast and learned fast. Learning and understanding how different people are and how much nurturing and compassion they need from their leaders is probably the most important thing.”
He eventually began giving senior leaders on base the daily intelligence briefing about the status of Soviet aircraft.
With his sights set on becoming an intelligence liaison stationed in France, Bergstrom took a position at the Pentagon working in the Air Force Intelligence Alert Center to monitor developments around the world.
He also served as President Ronald Regan’s military intelligence briefer for one year, which Bergstrom calls the “toughest job” he’s ever had.
After seven-and-a-half years, Bergstrom was in the final stages of training for the military liaison position in France that he had been working toward. But he decided to leave the Air Force in 1986 after learning he would not be going to France, but instead was selected to teach ROTC at colleges and universities.
“It was probably the most devastating thing I’d ever encountered in any career,” recalls Bergstrom, who achieved the rank of captain. “But it didn’t fit my plan and there were so many uncertainties. I decided it was time to leave the Air Force. It was a tough decision.”