There is an old saying that “A veteran is someone who, at some point in his/her life, writes a check payable to “The people of the United States of America” for the amount of “Up to and including my life.” No truer words were ever spoken. Not all service members realize the depth of their commitment to their country when they take that oath but they promise to defend America at all costs. I know I didn’t.
When I joined the Air Force in 1977 I had been out of high school for two years and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was looking for a little excitement, something different, and a start on my future. It was peacetime and even though I knew there could be a war in the future, it never occurred to me that I could possibly be a part of it. The advertisement said the Air Force was “not just a job but an adventure.”
I took my first ride on an airplane on May 30, 1977. I flew from Columbus, Ohio, to San Antonio, Texas, then got on a military bus to Lackland Air Force Base. I don’t really remember getting off the bus or that first meeting with a Training Instructor (TI) but I remember going upstairs to a second floor, brightly lit and spotless barracks with a lot of other guys, most of which sported the long hair style of the mid 70s.
My first day of Basic Training was my 20th birthday. I had no military background as some of my fellow basic trainees did. Some were military brats and ROTC graduates who knew full well what to expect. I had no clue except from what I’d seen on TV. I knew they were going to yell at me, make me do pushups and other exercises and run. That much I knew. I knew they were going to teach me how to use a gun and make me march endless miles with a heavy backpack. And I knew I was going to have to call everyone “Sir”.
Funny thing is – most of that never really happened; or didn’t happen to the extent to which I expected. My first Training Instructor (T.I.) was SSgt Stultz. He was hardcore – like R. Lee Ermey, the retired Marine turned actor who screamed at Private Pyle in “Full Metal Jacket”. SSgt Stultz liked to yell and be impressive. He had an ego problem and I didn’t much care for him. He was replaced about 4 days into our training and on his last day spent about 20 minutes telling us how greatly misunderstood he was. Strange man.
My second T.I. was SSgt John Balson, a man who not only knew his stuff but didn’t have to try to impress anyone. Believe it or not he was personable and while he could be hard when he needed to be, he could also sit and talk to us like a father, or a friend. He never was overbearing and we all enjoyed having him teach us the ropes.
SSgt Balson had an assistant named Sgt. John Kissel. He was the poster child for the Air Force (or should have been, anyway.) Tall, thin, good looking guy, looked good in a uniform. We had several female T.I.’s in our building and they all drooled over Sgt. Kissel. I thought it was hilarious.
I was a bit disappointed in the physical training in Basic. All we really did was stretching exercises and run. The only pushups I did were those I did on my own in the evening. There were no real exercises – only stretching and running. We did get to run the “Confidence Course” one day. It was about 1.5 miles long with a lot of fairly easy obstacles. I had been working out and running before I joined so I was in pretty decent shape. I finished #1 in my group and about a quarter mile ahead of them. I wanted to do it again!
Another day they took us to the firing range and spent one entire day teaching us everything we needed to know about an M-16. We were taught firearm safety, cleaning and maintenance and how to find your sight picture. Once we passed their qualifications course we were done. I didn’t handle another weapon, that I can remember, until I went to Germany 5 years later.
From Lackland I went to Sheppard Air Force Base in beautiful Wichita Falls, Texas, for my technical school. If you’ve never been there I recommend you keep it that way. My parents came to visit me in Tech School. I’d been gone about 8 weeks and was growing up before their eyes. They stayed in Wichita Falls in a hotel just outside the base for two days before announcing “We can’t take it anymore. We’ve got to go find someplace more interesting.” I can’t blame them. It really was a boring town.
About four weeks into tech school I got orders to Wiesbaden, Germany. I knew where I was going. However, a couple of days later that changed. I was doing so well in my classes that I was asked if I’d be interested in being reassigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. I thought it was a great honor and accepted immediately. I got a controlled, four year assignment to the beautiful campus of the Air Force Academy at the base of the Rockies just North of Colorado Springs. Everyone thought it would be a bad assignment but honestly, I enjoyed it tremendously. I got out after those four years and moved to Connecticut for several months. When I couldn’t find a job I re-enlisted and went back for more. I ended up at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for about 14 months then went to Germany for three years. In Germany I got a small taste of the real military.
I was issued a gas mask and a helmet and we had training exercises that involved putting that mask on in a timely manner. They also made you sign a piece of paper designating who your children would go to if you didn’t come home. While I was in Germany there were several bombings of military targets and the hijacking of flight 847. There were also service members kidnapped and killed by the Red Army Faction, a terrorist organization founded in Germany in 1970. They were responsible for the deaths of many American service members in the 70s and 80s. I was there when the bombing occurred at the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983. They brought many of the injured Marines to us.
As I said, in Germany I felt more like I was in the real military but didn’t ever really feel I personally was in danger. I got out of the Air Force in 1985 without ever facing a hostile enemy. I never once felt like I had been a hero or that I’d ever been in any real hazardous situation to justify being called a hero. Then, in 2009, I was reminded by a couple of friends of my initial statement above. I had never thought of it in that respect before and while I still don’t consider myself a hero for serving in the Air Force, I’m extremely proud of it. And I’d do it again in a minute.
Happy Veterans’ Day to all who have served and a special thank you to those who have put themselves in harm’s way for our country. God bless and protect those who are doing it today and may you all return home safely and in one piece. And may God bless and comfort those who's heroes don't make it home. Thank you all for your sacrifice as well.