From Coal Miner’s Son to Major General
Cecil R. Richardson speaks Russian fluently. He reads Greek and Hebrew proficiently. He traveled the world as a major general, in charge of all chaplains in the U.S. Air Force.
Yet the jaunty and polite Richardson knows without the Lord’s intervention his rise through the military ranks would have been impossible. For Richardson’s native tongue is hillbilly. He is the son of a coal miner with minimal education from Dry Creek, West Virginia.
Along with many other youths growing up in the backwoods of Appalachia, Richardson experienced rough-and-tumble teenage years.
“I was often armed as a youth, with a knife or a gun,” Richardson recalls. Upon graduating from high school on his 18th birthday, he began working in a factory, a young man from a long line of alcoholic relatives, someone with no ambition and no hope of attending college.
Then the military came calling as the Vietnam War escalated in 1966. Initially, Richardson signed up for the Marines. But a friend told him the Air Force had more attractive uniforms, so he switched the next day.
“Being drafted changed my life,” recalls Richardson, then eager to learn a skill. An entrance test showed Richardson had an aptitude for learning foreign languages, and he found himself on the fast track in a military intelligence program. He began studying Russian, and soon spoke the language with expertise.
At first, his disciplined training as a soldier did little to alter the unbridled anger Richardson carried with him. Once in a fight he threw an airman out of a third-story dorm window. Another time in a scuffle he grabbed a hot iron on an ironing board and burned the hand of his opponent. He nearly faced discharge for repeated fighting.
Yet by age 20, another passion caught Richardson’s fancy: meeting young women. While stationed in San Angelo, Texas, he attempted various unsuccessful means to romancing. Finally, one Sunday morning, he hit upon the idea of visiting a church near the military installation. Richardson had no religious background whatsoever.
In fact, he had such unfamiliarity with Christianity that he thought churchgoers must pay a fee to enter the building. He slipped in a side door of the Assemblies of God church in an effort to avoid detection.
At that service, Richardson heard the gospel for the first time. When the pastor issued an altar call at the end of the service to accept Jesus as Savior, Richardson felt overwhelmed with conviction. He knew he had been far from God. He ran down the aisle, fell on his knees, and asked God to forgive him of his evil behavior and to change his life.
The transformation didn’t occur immediately. In fact, when Richardson returned to the barracks and told a buddy about his newfound faith the airman began teasing him. Richardson punched him out.
The Air Force transferred Richardson to Turkey, where he served as a Russian interpreter. While there, a preacher discipled him, explaining the need for daily prayer and Bible reading.
A speed reader, Richardson covered a whopping 150 chapters a day, finishing the entire contents of the Old and New Testaments in a week. He repeated the weekly exercise the next 16 months. He also spent two hours a day in prayer, forming lists that bordered on compulsion.
“I thought I needed to prove my worth to God,” says the mellifluous-voiced Richardson. Eventually he realized such methods didn’t make him any more loved in God’s eyes. However, the disciplined habits served to familiarize Richardson with previously unknown scriptural precepts, and established a pattern of listening for God’s direction.
One night Richardson felt anguished as he poured out his heart to the Lord in prayer. He says God gave him a new calling: preaching. Richardson finished his initial tour of duty in 1970 and returned to the U.S. He attended Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, under the GI Bill of Rights, graduating with a degree in biblical studies. Then he earned a master’s of divinity in Hebrew studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
In 1977, a decade after his conversion, Richardson began serving as an active duty Assemblies of God chaplain in the Air Force. Twenty relocations followed.
Along the way came increased responsibilities and advancements in rank.
Upon his promotion to colonel in 1995, Richardson moved to the Pentagon in Washington. At age 47, he started working with the secretary of defense as executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplain Board, the senior religious advisory board to the Secretary of Defense. Later he rose to command chaplain of the Air Combat Command.
In 2004, upon promotion to brigadier general, Richardson became deputy chief of chaplains. The Air Force elevated Richardson in 2008 to two-star major general as chief of chaplains, the only Assemblies of God chaplain to advance to such a lofty military post. He led 2,200 chaplains and assistants, plus served as senior pastor for 800,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian personnel in the Air Force.
“Our soldiers need to have access to chaplains who will pray for them and be their pastor as they serve in dangerous and hostile environments,” Richardson says.
He visited Iraq and Afghanistan more than 60 times. He led untold numbers of soldiers to faith in Christ, including those he pulled from burning aircraft or comforted as they bled on the battlefield.
“Sometimes you only have a moment to present the gospel,” Richardson says. “Chaplains aren’t like pastors who can see converts grow.”
Richardson retired in 2012 after 41½ years in the Air Force. He and Jan, his wife of 45 years, live near Richland Center, Wisconsin, where Cecil operates a walnut and oak tree farm. In 2015, a car traveling 55 miles per hour struck Richardson as he checked his mailbox. He sustained a severe concussion, and needed a foot rebuild and mouth operation. Last year he suffered a heart attack.
He has preached the gospel in 131 countries and all 50 states. Despite health setbacks the past couple of years, the 69-year-old Richardson is on the board of several Christian ministries and he continues to speak and preach in a variety of venues, including in June at the annual conference of Chaplaincy Ministries, a department of U.S. Missions.
“Chaplains are under pressure and plenty of times feel discouraged,” Richardson says.
“Cecil Richardson has left a legacy,” says Scott McChrystal, Chaplaincy Ministries military representative and endorser. “He is a chaplain’s chaplain.”
That venture to find a woman at church did pay off for Richardson. Four years after slipping into that side door in Texas, he met future wife Jan in an AG church in Michigan. Jan is now a poised and charming author/education consultant who travels throughout the United States. Cecil and Jan have three sons who are serving the Lord. Eldest son Steve is an AG chaplain and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. Middle son Jim is a State Department senior adviser. Youngest son Mike is newly arrived at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Many of Richardson’s ancestors could neither read nor write. On their first date, Cecil took Jan squirrel hunting. Yet the retired two-star general, who is articulate, erudite, and unassuming, is living proof people don’t need to be bound by their irreligious past or by an upbringing that didn’t afford them opportunities for educational advancement.