This year marks the 39th anniversary of my enlistment with the US Air Force. I had no direction in life, and sought a better road for myself. So, on a chilly November day in 1978, I signed up for a four-year hitch. Little did I know how my life would change, and the places I’d see.
During the recruiting portion of your enlistment, the recruiter becomes your friend. I know that it is his/her job. But, you develop a bond with them. That’s just the beginning of the relationships you’ll develop during your career, be it one term or 20 years.
I was proud to serve in the Air Force. But, I didn’t enlist out of a sense of patriotism or duty. The United States was just a few years from Vietnam and Watergate. We didn’t have a true sense of country. The nation was still fractured. I joined because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I felt a tour in the Air Force could help me.
My airline flight to San Antonio, home of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, was the first time I had been on a plane. I recall not being scared. For a small town Nebraska kid, this was a big event. Once we touched down and boarded buses for the base, I realized my life was changing…for the better.
My first true moment of indoctrination was when we were told to line up in rows. Then, came the sound no one basic trainee can forget, “Welcome to the Air Force! Now, pick up your suitcase.” Then, another order bellowed, “Put ‘em down. Pick ‘em up. Put ‘em down.” This seemed to go on for an eternity.
Once we marched horribly to our barracks (dormitory), we were shown how to make our bed. I hate hospital corners to this day, nor do I make the bed every day. Then, at roughly 5 a.m., that sound blared out the speaker near the entrance to our floor – “Reveille.” If you’ve served or watched most any military movie, you know the tune. That marked the fact that we had mere minutes to get dressed and meet in formation outside. This went on for about six weeks, as we grew into men and women, learning the Air Force way – rules and etiquette.
On our first full day, we headed to the barbershop. Despite Bill Murray getting to pay off the barber in “Stripes,” we didn’t get to keep our hair. We all received buzz cuts. I hadn’t had that short of hair since my sister Phyllis took me to the Kennard barber as a kid. I was no longer the teen-ager with the “Happy Days” Chachi haircut. I was an airman basic in this country’s Air Force.
Welcome to Germany
Following basic training, some of my buddies went off to other bases to learn their trade. For guys like me, who signed up to be cops – Security Police, to be specific – we stayed at Lackland. Nearing the end of our eight-week program, we were given our assignments. Me? I was headed to Spangdahlem Air Base in then-West Germany, along with three of my schoolmates.
Being an ocean away from home was initially challenging. I came from a large family (10 kids), and most of us saw each other on a regular basis. I missed my mom and dad; especially my mom. But, I made the most of my time there.
My first wife, Kathy, and I were married. She came over and we served a three-year assignment. We had our first daughter, Stephanie, at the nearby Bitburg Air Base hospital. A group of good friends each had children around the same time, and we all socialized together. I had lots of other buddies there, too, that I consider friends to this day.
Being stationed in Germany allowed us to do some traveling. Looking back, I wish we had done more. I visited the Eiffel Tower and L’ouvre in Paris, drank at Oktoberfest in Munich and hung out at a disco in Luxembourg, among other places. I saw Beethoven’s one-time home, Mozart’s grave area, and Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. I drank some of the roughest, but amazing beer in the world, with my favorite still being Bitburger.
North Dakota – the Great White North
Following my Germany assignment, the family spent 5 ½ years in the frigid north of Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. Kathy finished college and started her career as a med tech there. Our youngest daughter, Mallory, joined the family in 1985. Friendships grew with a lot of good people.
It was during this tour that I grew professionally. I was appointed to manage the quality assurance program with my unit. My assistant and I evaluated and helped prep people for their official quality assurance evaluations with our group (our squadron was one of three units to fall under the larger group designation). I later moved to the group QA team, where I served most of my time at Grand Forks.
I was fortunate to test well and get promoted fairly early. I supervised teams in both the missile fields and on base with the alert aircraft and weapons storage areas. During the latter phase of my military career, I focused on what really drove my interest – writing. It was during our time at Grand Forks, I decided I wanted to become a journalist.
Appreciative of my milltary service
Kathy and I decided we would leave the Air Force after 8 ½ years and move back to Nebraska. Pursuing journalism was part of the reason to move back; we also wanted our daughters to be around family and have an opportunity develop lifelong friendships.
I look back at my Air Force career and acknowledge it helped me determine the path I wanted to take in life. For that, I will always be grateful. I also learned leadership and relationship skills from some of the best Non-Commissioned Officers I had the honor to serve under – Fred Guadagnoli and Dan Smith. These two men helped me grow professionally and personally in ways they will never know. For that, I am grateful.
As for a sense of duty or patriotism, that came during my career and stayed afterward. I’m not one to beat my chest and say “My country. Love it or leave it.” Instead, I know there’s a difference between patriotism and nationalism. I love my country and fellow Americans. I am proud to be an American. I just don’t believe people have to publicly declare it.
I enjoyed my time with the Air Force. And, I am proud to be a veteran. I salute all my fellow men and women of all nationalities, ethnic groups, religions, sexual orientations and other backgrounds who took the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.