Cousins reunite after a career-long separation

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Stephan Coleman
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
After a career-long separation in the Air Force, and without the means to keep consistent contact, two cousins inexplicably found each other again at Keesler.

Maj. Phelemon Williams, 81st Comptroller Squadron commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Roderick Cunningham, Air Force Reserve Command technical training liaison superintendant, spent their teenage years together. After graduating from high school, both joined the Air Force.

"It's amazing that two family members who were separated around the world are now back in the same spot together," said Williams.

The two grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and went to different schools, but worked at the same grocery store--Williams as a produce bagger and Cunningham as a security guard.
"During high school, he, another guy and I were inseparable. We traveled together, partied together and worked together," said Cunningham. "We did everything together."

Williams is the younger of the two, so Cunningham took Williams under his wings during high school. Cunningham had the popularity and the car to take them around with the third cog, Reggie, said Williams.

Cunningham planned to join the Air Force, while Williams was on the fence about it.

"When I was going through school, I was supposed to make a decision in the ninth grade on whether to go to college, go to trade school or join the military," said Cunningham. "Nobody had told me about college so I flipped a coin and starting saying I was going into the military--and it stuck."

Williams' father and grandfather were both military men, so it was something he considered. Once Cunningham entered the Air Force in 1987, however, Williams was close behind.
"When Rod came back after basic training--with his uniform on and looking sharp--I made my decision to join the Air Force," said Williams. "It sealed the deal."

Williams ended up signing with the same recruiter and joining as an enlisted troop in supply. Cunningham was soon shipped off to Germany and Williams to California, so communication became difficult to sustain. Technology was not as international or as instant when they were first in the Air Force, said Cunningham. There was no Facebook or Twitter.
Several years in, they managed to get in touch. At this time, Williams was getting out of the Air Force and living in California.

"I thought he would just stay in California," said Cunningham. "So, we lost contact for 18 years."

Unbeknownst to Cunningham, Williams soon rejoined the Air Force as an officer. Several years passed without communication between the two.

While at Keesler, Williams utilized social networking in attempts to contact Cunningham through his aunt. When Cunningham called, Williams discovered he was at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., where Williams would be going soon for a temporary duty assignment. As he left for his deployment to work with the exact people Cunningham had been working with, Cunningham came to Keesler, said Williams.

"When I called him before my Keesler assignment, he told me he'd been selected for lieutenant colonel," said Cunningham. "I thought he was still a civilian!"

The two hadn't seen each other in 25 years and soon became neighbors here at Keesler. They met each other's families and were able to celebrate each other's careers together.

"I always tell my students to be careful how they treat their little brother or little sister," said Cunningham. "They might outrank you one day."