I have been retired now from the Air Force for 37 years and fully retired from commercial aviation and the maritime industry for almost 14 years. I see the world as I assume everyone else sees it – through their own eyes. I have experience in war, but not as a mother. I’ve piloted planes and boats, but I’ve never driven a tank. Some people assume I see the world differently because of my experiences, but in truth, we all have experiences that shape our worlds.
One thing I will say is this (in regards to how I see the military, as opposed to how the average citizen sees it): even when we’re not fighting, we’re working to protect you.
I have been asked to be the guest speaker at a number of events. At one such event, I told the audience that their military is always in harms way, whether there is conflict somewhere on the earth or not. Even when there is no active conflict to be engaged with, we train to be prepared. I shared the story of an experience as an instructor pilot – I was training SAC crews in the KC-97 to complete aerial refueling missions. We practiced daytime aerial refueling of fighters or bombers such as the B-47 or B-52 in calm air is not so bad.
I dare you to try refueling a B-52 at night in the clouds, in turbulence. Things get mighty testy, but you have to do it. In times of war, you can‘t say “it’s too dark” or “the visibility isn‘t good enough” or “it’s too bumpy.” That doesn’t work. During a war, the fighter or bomber you’re working with is desperate for fuel. While the public is asleep at night, snuggled in your bed, SAC crews are up there training for the worst possible situations.
The point is this: your military is always in harm’s way, whether in actual combat or training for combat. Many people don’t realize this and as such, take times of peace for granted. Your enlisted neighbor, friend, cousin, coworker may not be fighting overseas, but they’re fighting at home.
I wish that our society had a greater understanding of our military. Ever since WWII, we have had a first class military. When we asked our military to do a job they got it done. Not only in the people we had but the training and equipment that they had to get the job done. I sincerely hope that it stays that way. It’s only by recognizing the dedication and hard work of our soldiers that it can.
When I am out in society, living my day-to-day life, no one knows I am a veteran. Unless, of course, I wear my ball cap with an F-86 on it. With the hat on, people will stop and ask me if I was a pilot. Sometimes they will thank me for my service. At every other moment, my status as a veteran is unknown. I’m sometimes asked it people treat me differently because I’m a veteran. Again, only with the hat on.
Shortly after I returned from Vietnam I was reassigned to Key West as the commander of a radar squadron stationed on the island base. One day, my family was driving to Key West in our station wagon – the four boys, my wife and myself. Passing through a small Gulf Coast town, I was pulled over by a young policeman. He asked to see my driver’s license, and when he saw my military I.D. card he asked if I was in the Air Force; I replied that I was. He then asked if I had ever run across a friend of his and he gave me the name. It so happened he was in my outfit in Vietnam and I knew him well. When I told him this, the young cop that he went bonkers. He said that guy was the best friend he had in the world and that they had grown up together. He told me that as children, they were inseparable.
I said a silent prayer thanking God for this one in a million chance to get out of a ticket – it was my lucky day! The officer went on for five or six minutes telling me all about our mutual friend and then ended up with “Gee! I’m really sorry I have to do this.” He gave me the ticket.
Life as a military vet isn’t much different from the life of an ordinary citizen. We all face difficulties in life. We drive cars, go to the grocery store, grill out during the summer months and do our best to live as well as we can. I wear my hat to remind myself of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I don’t wear it to receive special treatment.
I was raised by stepfather who was in the United States Army. As such, I’ve been around the military most of my life. Since I was old enough to think about the future, probably about nine or ten years old, I wanted to be a pilot. Going to see all of the war movies shown during World War II cemented that desire in my mind and heart.
During the movies, I was always frustrated when an enemy fighter would get on the tail of one of our planes and then see how our pilot would try and turn around to see the enemy behind him. With my mom’s help, I wrote a letter to the War Department, saying that our pilots should have rear view mirrors to see behind them. To my surprise, I received a very official looking letter back for the War Department! It thanked me for my suggestion and indicated that they would look into the issue. Pretty soon I started seeing fighters with rear view mirrors on fighter planes. I don’t know if that letter had any bearing on it, but later in my life, every time I got into a fighter that had rear view mirrors I thought about that letter.
Having grown up in the military, I knew there was no other life for me but the Military life. I think that serving ones country can be one of the more noble things a person can do. I don’t know if I would feel that way in a socialist or a communist country, but to be part of the great experiment in human history and to be part of the protection of the Republic we live in that has such a high regard for the each individual, that no other type of government has, is a marvelous feeling.
The glory and honor of a military life is only part of my decision to dedicate my life to the military. I’m sharing a little secret with you, but when I was a young man making lifetime decisions, one of my driving motivations was the desire for my stepfather to be proud of me.
The life I chose is a life I’m proud of. I left the Air Force in the 1960s for my family, but I don’t regret any of the time I spent in the service.
What drives you forward in life? How do you make your life decisions?
When I returned from Vietnam and even before I left, I was sickened by the way our troops were treated when they returned from that war. It was as if the public blamed them for the war. In my anger I constructed this poem, which is in the last page of the Vietnam chapter of Turning Final.
I wonder why!
I wonder why, in the dark of night,
When I feel a chill in the pale moonlight
and my mind does things I can scarcely tell
as it asks me why my good friends fell.
In the lonesome thought that has begged for light,
Lo, these many years in the pale moonlight.
Does a nation grieve for her long-lost sons,
who have given all so that she might run?
Does the soul regret lost days and nights
as it hangs in space in the pale moonlight?
Was the quest for freedom worth the price?
“Yes, I’d give my life, and give it twice”
My friends would say who have gone away.
Does a nation understand the sacrifice of the soldier man?
The pain the loss of no more days
to watch his family slowly raise?
Then how much is a soldier worth, when violent people scorch the earth?
We all know freedom isn’t free and the soldier man is you…and me…
All are Patriots one by one, until the call is no more fun.
And there wherewith we all shall stand
the duty finds the lesser man.
So listen up all you out there
who go to church and lend a prayer,
think more of what you freedom cost,
who paid the price and what was lost.
And lend a prayer for those out there.
Duty found the greater man
so those of us who breathe free air
may live a life free from despair.
My grand children often ask me what it was like growing up “in the olden days.” My response is often quip with light humor, along the lines of, “well, I was much younger. There was no electricity. No TV. It was the dark ages.” As a career military man, I’m also often asked how the military was different “then and now,” or how things changed over the years I served.
As is true with all manners of life, things must change. The same is true regarding the United States military. There is a great deal of differences between then and now. I think that the most pronounced difference is that the services are so much more technologically driven – technology has advanced so far and so quickly. Take aircraft, for instance. They are much more reliable today than when I was first flying. They’re more powerful and have fighting abilities far beyond what was used when I flew. I would love to strap my young body to an F-22 today!