Sometimes… you know it’s coming. You don’t know exactly when it will arrive, but you know it’s coming. You expect it… plan for it… think you’re ready… but when it arrives, you aren’t ready.
I had that experience this weekend. I received an e-mail from the Air Force telling me I was retired. An e-mail. After 28 years in the uniform, I was notified by e-mail. And although I had been expecting it and waiting for it, it was tough. So I sat down and thought about the last 28 years.
As badly as it ended, I’d do all over again in a heartbeat. I have met folks I never would have known. And I’ve been to places I never would have seen. I’ve seen some things I would like to forget. But without those bad sights, the journey would not have been complete.
By far, the best and worst part was our time in Germany. We made friends there that we still have today. It’s hard to believe that Rhein Main is gone, but those memories will be with me forever.
We had the opportunity to travel. France, England, Holland, Lichtenstein, Austria, The Azores, Spain, Italy… we got our monies worth. And there are funny stories… like the time we threw away 36 pieces of Waterford crystal on accident. Granted… it wasn’t funny then, but we laugh about it now.
And I saw a LOT of Germany foot by foot. A great friend and I enjoyed Volksmarching every week. It was just an organized walk through the countryside over a marked trail… either 5K or 10K. I racked up a little over 5000K during our time there. And during those walks, he and I laughed and discussed anything and everything. We went over the rivers… through the woods… but we never did find Grandmother’s house.
If you’re reading this, you should understand the significance of our visiting Berlin three times. Twice on the “Duty Train” before the wall came down. And on the third trip, we brought a piece of the wall home with us. We visited Checkpoint Charlie on the first two trips. It wasn’t needed on the third. We walked through Brandenburg Gate on the last trip. We could only see it from a distance on the first two.
I went to Turkey to help feed the Kurds during Desert Storm. I returned three years later to help again. I’ve slept in tents and 5-Star hotels… granted more hotels than tents. I WAS Air Force after all. I have a piece of green marble from one of Sadaam’s palaces.
I’ve loaded aircraft… and off-loaded aircraft. Driven Generals… and Airmen. And I can’t begin to tell you about all the passengers that we handled through the passenger terminal. Or how many laughs we had at their expense. Never in front of them of course. Well… usually not, anyway.
Some things stick in my mind. The name Edward Pimental is one. This young Army Specialist was killed so a terrorist group could get his military ID in order to place a car bomb on our base the next morning. That bomb killed two more and injured 11 others. Specialist Pimental was collateral damage. I still remember the sound of the bomb going off.
I recall vividly the remains of 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel, and 3 Army soldiers being brought to our base after the bombing in Beirut in 1983. Plane after plane loaded with remains. We had to sort them out and prepare them for their journey home. Tough duty.
But for every tough duty, there had to be 10 more that were great. The things that everyone watched on the nightly news happened in front of me. I watched the hostages held in the Middle East come home. I specifically remember Terry Waite’s return after five years in captivity. He had been negotiating the release of a number hostages when he himself became one.
I met Bob Hope. He wore my hat on-stage during his last USO Tour. I watched a good friend of mine, that Scottish Lass, meet the Queen Mother. She was so nervous I was laughing at her. And the Queen Mum had a nice ride… a chauffeured Rolls Royce.
I remember the Arrow Air crash at Gander, Newfoundland in 1985. Nancy and I had flown on that particular jet during a trip back to the US. The Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Ramstein Air Show crash. The C-5 crash at Ramstein. Yeah… there were a lot of tragedies, but as always, the good outweighed the bad.
I got to work the German Open golf tournament for a couple of years. It gave me the opportunity meet some big golf names… Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros, Mark McNulty, Craig Parry. I got to watch McNulty hit a hole-in-one and win a new Mercedes. Do any of you reading this remember that time I hit a hole-in-one? Sadly… neither do I.
Nancy and I went to Germany in 1982 with little to nothing to our name. We came back nine years later with a lot of “stuff.” But the best thing we brought back with us was our daughter. And the memories.
So we went to Florida for a while. We had some great neighbors… our “almost” parents. They still have us down to visit every now and then. Although they DO wish Nancy would learn the route on her own so she could leave me at home. I left active duty and joined the Reserves. Went to work for a bank.
Moved back to North Carolina to work for another bank. And in doing so, I found the best Reserve unit there is. They anointed me “The Jester.” And then we all became Jesters. It’s our “thing.”
From there, I stood in the desert, in the dark of night, and looked at a sky FULL of stars. I never knew there were so many. I spent one Thanksgiving standing in the house of the Prophet Abraham. He is first mentioned in Genesis 11. I watched as a country voted in free elections for the first time in generations. Although threatened with death, they still voted. Many walked miles to a polling place. But they walked happily.
And it was there that the time to end it came. But I’m glad it was there… because it gave me the chance to meet a real CHIEF. He wore Tech stripes when I met him in 1998, but there was no doubt in my mind he was a Chief even then. I’m glad to say he hung around long enough to sew it on. And I owe him a lot for what he did for my career.
So as I end my time, I can look back at so many that touched me during this long expanse of time. Many would have liked to of touched me up side my head a few times. Some things didn’t go as I would have liked, but others happened in ways I could never have imagined.
I never knew how hard it would be… to just realize I was done. I looked at my uniform tonight… at the stripes, the ribbons… knowing I couldn’t fit in it anymore… but it was tough. For 28 years, one month, and 15 days I have loved nothing more than putting on that uniform and serving my country. I really never knew how much it meant, but I do now. I really do now.
And that’s MY take.