A Gentleman and an Officer: Retired 3-star general...

A Gentleman and an Officer: Retired 3-star general and distinguished alumnus Bill Phillips

Mother made sure MTSU graduate was a gentleman before Army turned him into an officer

by Skip Anderson

Retired Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips credits his mother, Muriel, an elementary school teacher in Bell Buckle, with instilling in him the ethos that would help him rise through the ranks of the U.S. Army to become a three-star general.

“My mother was the biggest influence in my life,” Phillips said. “She was a teacher, mentor, and extraordinary leader.  I learned so much from her—not just about learning but about life. About the values we hold in life: ethics, integrity, determination, honesty, compassion, faith, and much more. To treat others with respect and dignity. To help others and honor thy neighbor. To be selfless in your daily actions. Make friends—make the right friends.”

Muriel died suddenly when Phillips was 13 years old. Agriculture, which Phillips called “the first love of my life,” became his next great teacher.

Retired Lt. Gen. William N. “Bill” Phillips (’76) at his home in Wartrace (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)

“Growing up on a farm gave me the work ethic,” Phillips said. “Even when I was at MTSU, I never lived on campus because I always worked on the farm.”

Phillips’ father, Kenneth, left his mark on him as well. A military man, Kenneth fought in World War II in the Pacific.

“He and so many others of the greatest generation came back to the U.S. and carried our nation to greater heights,” Phillips said.

His father would pass in 2010, but not before he learned Phillips had been promoted to brigadier general.

“My father was very proud of me,” Phillips said. “And I know my mom was, too, in heaven.”

Rising Ranks

Upon enrollment at MTSU, Phillips signed up for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and a guaranteed post-college career. Two figures from MTSU’s ROTC program—Col. Roy Plaster and Jay Hendrix (later promoted to four-star general)—became his next mentors.

The lessons Phillips learned under Hendrix and Plaster would become the bedrock for a distinguished career. Phillips, recipient of MTSU’s 2023–24 Distinguished Alumni Award, called them “extraordinary military leaders” who taught him “what it means to be a soldier and to defend our nation in a truly selfless manner.”

Upon graduating from MTSU in 1976 with a B.S. in Agriculture, Phillips joined the U.S. Army, where he continued his service and moved through the ranks to lieutenant general. He never stopped continuing his education, receiving three master’s degrees in National Resource Strategy, Procurement and Material Management, and Personnel Management, along with an honorary doctorate from MTSU.

Putting into Practice

Such highly specialized training—alongside the lessons his mother equipped him with—prepared Phillips for leadership at the highest levels. He earned a reputation as being dependable, capable, and insightful, which led to increased responsibilities to the troops he would lead.

“I spent over 30 years as a helicopter pilot and an acquisition leader,” Phillips said. “In my final four-plus years, I served as the Army’s top military acquisition leader. In all my time, I always sought to provide our soldiers with everything within my power to ensure that they were trained and ready to fight and win, so they could complete the mission quickly and successfully and one day return home to their family and friends. Soldiers are our Army!”

After his first assignment as a field artillery officer, Phillips transitioned to the Army’s Aviation Branch in 1983. In 2009, he volunteered for combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, running contracting operations across both theaters in support of combat operations.

“A lot of it in the Army is mentorship and people who are helping you achieve,” he said. “I worked with Gen. Ray Odierno, Gen. George Casey, and Gen. Lloyd Austin [current secretary of defense]. I was fortunate to have worked for many extraordinary leaders and mentors.” 

Phillips knew he was on the list for promotion to become a two-star general. What he didn’t know was he would essentially be promoted simultaneously to a three-star general, a rare occurrence.

After reporting for duty at the Picatinny Arsenal, he discovered that some ethically dubious arms dealers had circulated munitions made in China into the military’s foreign sales program—a high crime. Phillips’ duty was to untangle the mess. War Dogs,  a 2016 movie, created a story loosely based on true events.  

He soon testified before Congress and described how the Army fixed this issue.

“After returning from Afghanistan, I testified before Congress over 10 times, one with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee,” Phillips said. “They thought we had signed contracts with terrorists. We didn’t, and I simply told them the truth by explaining how we vetted the contractors.”

It was one of the many lessons he learned during childhood that he put into action during such high-pressure points of his career.

“Speak the truth, as my mother would always require of us,” he said.

Red, White, and True Blue

Today, Phillips is as busy as ever, working as a private citizen supporting the Army and the military to get munitions to Ukraine. A former executive for Boeing and OBXtek, he is also CEO of Phillips Consulting.

A little too busy, perhaps. Nobody knows this as well as his wife, Marilyn.

“Marilyn is an extraordinary military wife,” Phillips said. “During all of my deployments, she always did her part to help soldiers and their families.”

Phillips said he’s “incredibly grateful” for the professional and leadership skills MTSU provided, describing his alma mater as “a leadership factory for the state of Tennessee and the nation.”

“I have served in many countries throughout our world,” he added. “In every assignment, I have run across MTSU graduates serving in both military and civilian capacities. They are extraordinary leaders doing remarkable work for our country, the greatest on earth. The sun never sets on the True Blue nation!”

View the Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony here.