JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va., June 10, 2019 —
Standing at a wooden podium, dress blues pressed and hands resting on the script in front of her, retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Deborah Rothwell took a deep breath.
“I am the flag of the United States of America,” she started. Her head held high, she emphasized each word with a flourish of her hands. “My name is Old Glory.”
A bona fide celebrity in military circles, Rothwell has been performing “Old Glory” at both military and civilian events since 2002.
It all started as a favor for a good friend’s retirement ceremony, where she read the poem with only a few days’ notice. Since then, Rothwell has performed “Old Glory” close to 500 times.
What makes Rothwell’s rendition so unique is not just her delivery, but the events she has woven into the stanzas.
The Boston Bombing. Sandy Hook. September 11th. Moments that touched the lives of every American.
“Anytime something significant [happens to] America, I try to make it a part of ‘Old Glory,’” she said. “I just want to keep that consciousness going. So we never forget. Especially for the fallen and their families.”
Rothwell retired from active duty in 2003, after serving in South Korea, Egypt, and the Pentagon. Most of her career, however, was spent at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.
“When I first started I never thought I would make it in that top three percent,” she said, shaking her head. “To get that rank, and being a female, and black female at that. That was just very rewarding for me.”
She remained at Langley following her military retirement, taking a civilian position with the 633rd Air Base Wing Inspector General’s office. She has since retired in the area for good.
“I get requests because most folks just know who I am, I don’t even have a website, you know what I mean?” she said with a laugh. “They just know who I am because I’ve been at Langley for so long.”
Despite keeping a busy schedule, conducting eight performances in June alone, this isn’t work for her. It’s all about giving back to the community and making events special for families, she said.
“It makes me feel good, doing something special for the family,” Rothwell said. “But I’m just a part of their day. So when my part is over, I’m out. It’s not about me.”
Rothwell goes out of her way to avoid taking attention away from the person being honored, oftentimes slipping out the back at the end of the ceremony.
“I don’t think she has a certain radius or limits she would travel to perform,” retired Col. Vivian Dennis, a friend of Rothwell’s, said. “That’s a testament to how memorable she wants the occasion to be for the families.”
She dedicates her performances to her late husband, Leon Rothwell Sr., who passed away in October 2015. Both served as enlisted Airmen, he was a retired master sergeant, they were married 35 years.
“He used to go with me when I would perform, stand in the back, and listen to what the audience was saying,” she said. “He was a big part of all this. So I think of him a lot when I’m up there.”
She read “Old Glory” at her husband’s funeral, a decision that she made in the moment.
“I could just hear him saying, ‘If you could do it for everybody else why couldn’t you do it for me?” she said. “So I was standing there and realized, I can do this.”
Despite performing for 17 years, Rothwell doesn’t see herself stopping anytime soon, and she has no shortage of requests.
“When people tell me they are retiring the first thing I say is, ‘Do you want something to make you cry?’” said retired Tech Sgt. James Kotrch, who has known Rothwell for more than 10 years. “We have people getting ready to retire next year already calling to get her on the calendar.”
No matter how many times she’s performed, she hasn’t lost sight of why she started doing this in the first place.
“When I do ‘Old Glory’ I want to get the whole view of what the flag really stands for, which is that love for country,” Rothwell said. “But also that love for others, for family, for friends, whether they’re with us here or with us in our hearts.”