John Rivers entered the Air Force in 1948. He participated in the Korean conflict as an Air Rescue helicopter pilot, flew transport aircraft in Europe, and commanded an F-100 jet fighter squadron in Vietnam, where he flew 261 combat missions.
During his service in the USAF, among other positions, he was a flight instructor (of Jan Govaerts, Gilles Giddelo and others), faculty member at the Air University, and was a plans and programming officer on the Air Staff. John Rivers is a Command Pilot with over 5000 hours, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, the Meritorious Service Medal, Bronze Star, the Air Medal with twelve oak leave clusters and other decorations. After 23 years of service he retired in 1971 after which he started a successful career in the political arena.