April 2016
Homeplace & Community

The Right Stuff

Brigadier General Anthony Cotton was the featured speaker at Colonel Leslie Dixon’s retirement. In 2008, Cotton was Dixon’s boss at Malmstrom AFB and had presented her with the Legion of Merit Award when she relinquished command at Malmstrom AFB, Montana.  

Colonel Leslie Dixon reflects on a distinguished military career, and a life of service with purpose.

Someone has said that there are a lot of things in life that matter, but nothing matters as much as who or what we decide to serve. Leslie Dixon decided early in her life to follow the teachings of her mother and make her life choices based on her faith. Her mother, Joyce Walker, had instilled the values of working hard, getting a good education and giving back to the world she lived in. Looking back, Dixon knows she made the right choices, but she could never have imagined the many roads she would travel.

Graduating with honors from Thomasville High School, Leslie Dixon stepped out into the world to begin her life by attending Talladega College, majoring in English and finding a teaching job. While there, she met and married the love of her life, Michael Dixon.

After completing her degree, however, she was offered a scholarship to the University of Iowa to study law. With her husband’s encouragement, she accepted that challenge.

  Leslie Dixon said that her greatest accomplishments were her children.  Dixon passed on her desire for lifelong learning to her children, Michelle and Michael.

Midway through law school, she had the opportunity to volunteer in a group home for mentally challenged adults and, here, she got her first taste of the medical field. She finished her law degree in May 1985, but felt a yearning to do something more than practicing law. 

A friend had told her about Health Administration, so she explored the requirements and then prayed for guidance on seeking yet another degree. By this time, she and Mike were the parents of a young daughter, Michelle. Her husband was very supportive, encouraging her to “go for it.” So in June 1985, she started a Master’s Degree in Health Administration. 

When a health emergency called the family back to Alabama, Dixon transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. While at UAB, her son Mark was born. Finishing her class work, she did a nine-month residency with the Veterans’ Hospital in Tuskegee, helping to set up a VA Outreach Clinic, providing veterans with outpatient care closer to their homes. It was also here that she worked under an officer who encouraged her to consider a career in the Medical Service Corps. She again explored her options and, with Mike’s support and encouragement, she joined the Air Force in 1989. She entered as a first lieutenant, but rapidly moved up in rank.

Dixon’s first and longest tour was at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery.

Brigadier General Anthony Cotton, left, presented Dixon’s mother, Joyce Walker (middle), with the United States flag in appreciation of her daughter’s service and recognition of Dixon’s many accomplishments.  

“It was great,” she explained. “My children were close enough to Michael’s parents in Montgomery and not too far away from my parents in Thomasville.” 

Her next move was to Andrews AFB, Maryland, where she served as the Managed Care Branch Chief, Office of the Command Surgeon, Air Mobility Command, as well as the Operations Officer and Squadron Section Commander for the 89th Medical Operations Squadron. She was preparing for a training mission in a hangar, near Air Force One, on September 11, 2001, when terrorists hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. 

“My husband was working at Bethesda and heard the planes hit the Pentagon and saw the smoke,” she explained. “His first reaction was to get to our children and get them home safely. This wasn’t easy, as there was so much confusion and gridlock within Washington. He knew I would be cut off from my family because of the threat level. I knew I had to do what I had been trained to do. I spent the first 48 hours helping to send our medical people to the Pentagon and coordinating medical assets to be sent throughout the United States. You do what you need to do, and you do it for a long period of time. I finally got home about a day and a half later.” 

  While at Malmstrom AFB in Montana, Leslie Dixon met Gen. Anthony Cotton and his wife, Marsha, who would become one of Dixon’s best friends. Pictured (from left) are Marsha, Leslie and Anthony.

In 2002, she was moved to Pope AFB, North Carolina, to serve as Administrator and Commander of Medical Support Squadrons. Here, she successfully co-authored the “MacDill 65” Health Plan, the framework for TRICARE Plus, the Department of Defense Healthcare Plan for patients aged 65 and older. 

In 2003, Dixon faced the greatest challenge of her life. After a visit home, Dixon and her family were returning to North Carolina when they were involved in a tragic car accident that took the life of her husband Mike.

“It was the darkest time of my life,” she reflected sadly. “My family was very supportive. My sister, Pam Taylor, flew up and stayed with me to help out. My extended Air Force family also provided so much support.” 

Now a single mother in the military, Dixon had to move forward. Shortly thereafter, she was transferred to Yokota Air Base, Japan, where she served as a Squadron Commander and Hospital Administrator. Her children adapted well to life in Japan, with Michelle attending college and Mark playing high school sports and traveling to many places around Japan with his teams.

In lieu of a party for Leslie Dixon’s sister, Starr Plump’s 40th birthday, the family raised funds for the Multiple Sclerosis Association. Her family members are (from left, front) Melba Fuller, Joyce Walker, Pam Taylor, (back) Starr, Phyllis Harris and Leslie.  

In 2006, she was transferred to Scott AFB, Illinois, to serve as the hospital administrator. Shortly thereafter, she was moved to the Air Mobility Command, where she led all healthcare management activities for 11 medical treatment facilities and two Aeromedical Evacuation systems. The Aeromedical Evacuation Systems moved patients all over the world, including in and out of war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. During this time, she was promoted to Colonel. She also served as a member of the Air Force Senior Medical Service Corps Council, responsible for the professional development of 1,100 healthcare administrators. 

In 2008, Dixon was transferred to Malmstrom AFB, Montana, where she served as Commander of the 341st Medical Group.

Her final assignment was at the Pentagon, where she served as a Senior Official Inquiries Officer within the Office of the Inspector General of the Air Force, conducting investigations of alleged misconduct against general officers, senior executive service members and presidential appointees. 

  Leslie Dixon volunteers at the Thomasville Boys and Girls Club, helping students with homework. Here she helps Tauchristion Lockett, left, and Jacoby Holt with a reading exercise.

Colonel Leslie Dixon retired in September 2014 as a seasoned healthcare executive with over 14 years of Air Force Senior Leadership experience and more than 25 years of healthcare experience in the Military Health Service. Dixon has been honored with many awards such as the Legion of Merit Award conferred for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. She has also been awarded the Air Force Master Medical Service Badge. In addition, she was recognized as the most senior black officer in the Air Force Medical Service Corps, at the time of her retirement. She was also one of very few African-American women to be promoted to the rank of colonel in the history of the Air Force Medical Service Corps. 

Dixon had promised her step-dad, Jarried Rivers, that she would return to Thomasville for her retirement ceremony, but, sadly, he died a few months before she could retire. She still came home to hold the ceremony at the Thomasville Civic Center, with her boss at Malmstrom AFB, Brigadier General Anthony Cotton, conducting the impressive ceremony for hundreds of family, friends and community members. 

Dixon looked back on her life and said that of all her accomplishments and accolades, her children were her greatest joy. All three have inherited her insatiable hunger for education. Mark works for Jackson State University in Mississippi, and Michele is now pursuing an additional accounting degree in Atlanta. Her stepdaughter, Elishia Dickinson, just finished her doctoral degree. Elishia lives in Nashville and recently presented Dixon with her first grandchild, a son, Michael, named after his grandfather.

After retiring, Dixon had planned to go back to Montgomery or Birmingham to work in hospital administration; however, she stayed home to help care for her beloved mother. Even after her mother’s health improved, Dixon felt the pull to remain here at home and “give back” to her community.

Dixon holds her first grandchild, Michael Dickinson, named after Leslie’s late husband. She can’t say enough about her grandbaby, who lives in Nashville.  

She now volunteers with the Boys and Girls Club of Thomasville, works with the American Legion and serves on many boards and committees within the community and her church. She uses her many experiences as a motivational tool, sharing with young people the same values her mother once taught her. 

“I like a challenge,” Dixon stated. “I also like to keep busy!”

That’s why she has begun yet another online degree: a certification in Project Management. 

“I am so thankful to my mother for instilling character and integrity into me,” she said. “I am also thankful for my teachers, my church elders and my community members who watched out for me and cared about me. Looking back, I can see how God has lined things up for me,” Dixon reflected. “If I had not had my faith, I could never have understood these things.” 

Years ago, Leslie Dixon listened to her mother’s teachings and decided to serve God, her family, her country and her community. She chose to live life with purpose, and it has made all the difference.

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached ad This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..