I must admit I have mixed feelings about my sixteen year career in the Air Force (for those of you who know the military, I took an early retirement—I did not separate with 16 years service). As I look back, the pleasure, pride, and fading resentment I feel are a direct reflection of the people with whom I worked. I was very proud to wear the uniform, but relieved when I could finally take it off.
If you have a few minutes and can put up with my self-indulgence, I’d like to tell you a few "war stories" about my "wonderful" and "terrible" career in the U.S. Air Force.
I joined the Air Force in April 1979 because I felt I had no where else to turn. After three years at Western Illinois University, I’d majored in Theater, Dance, and Recreation (do I like having fun or what?), and saw no future for myself in any of these professions. I was itching to get a job and make money, and hoped the service would provide the education and job training I needed. After growing up in Macomb, IL (a university town of 20,000, surrounded by corn) I was ready to see the world. Click here to read a war story about my boot camp experience.
After boot camp, I spent eight weeks in training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. July and August aren't the best times to be in coastal Mississippi. You can work up a sweat just scratching your nose. But oh what fun we had. We had escaped from the prison they called basic training and, despite the restrictions placed upon us in "tech school", we were virtually free souls.
I was training to be a Personnel Specialist. I had originally signed up to be a Morris Code Operator but that didn't work out, so here I was learning the basics of Personnel. I felt very relieved that the Morris Code thing fell through after I heard what they went through in their training. Imagine listening to "dits" and "dots" at ever-increasing speeds for six months! To top it off, after they graduated, they would be assigned to remote areas around the world.
So I was happy with my little typing and filing job.
I was proud to wear my one stripe when I finally arrived at my first duty station in September 1979. And what a great assignment, the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. "MPC" as they called it, was the headquarters for the entire Air Force Personnel function. The building was a block long and employed over 4,000 people. I lucked out and got a great job as a Data Base Analyst. Our Micrographics division put documents on microfiche and had a large computer to support this function. My job was to reconcile the data in this system with the data in the Air Force's "main" mega-system. It was complicated work, which was good, because no one else (including the five bosses I had over the next four years) really understood everything I did. Can you say "dream job"? But I almost "blew it". Click here to read this war story.
Within five months of my arrival, I was married to Dora. Click here if you haven't read about how we met. We had a great time in San Antonio. What a great city--the riverwalk, restaurants, shopping, fantastic weather, the beach and Mexico within a few hours. Oh yes, we had a great time in San Antonio. Those early years of our marriage were very special. Dora's dad, Bill, retired from the Air Force in San Antonio, so Bill and Sandy lived nearby, which was good for Dora.
At the end of my first enlistment came one of several big decisions I would need to make during my Air Force career--to reenlist or not to reenlist. Well, several factors played into my decision to "re-up": (a) I'd had such a great first assignment. My ego was bursting from the status and prestige that went along with the "expert" label I'd garnered on the job; (b)Although I finally graduated with a B.A. (in Psychology) from a nearby college, my job prospects didn't look shining considering my limited skills; and (c) I had an "Air Force brat" for a wife who was accustomed to the comfort and security of military life and she insisted that I reenlist (ultimately, I'm glad she did).
So I raised my right hand, took the oath, retrained into a new career field, and we headed for California. Swimming pools, movie stars.Here's a picture of me taking the oath administered by the USAF Thunderbirds.
I was a Base Career Advisor while stationed in California--the person who persuades first-termers to reenlist. The Air Force referred to us as advisors, but our job descriptions read like recruiters. Retention was my game and Staff Sergeant Reed was my name. I'd made my fourth stripe in minimum time. I loved the Air Force's easy promotion tests. I had another dream job! I talked one-on-one to airmen all day--that was my job. I didn't have any kind of quota, so my performance wasn't evaluated on retention statistics. Within a year, the crusty Master Sergeant I worked for hit the road and I was in control of the shop. An enthusiastic (and really cool) three striper named Frank joined me and together we had fun and won awards for the innovative retention programs we developed.
Dora and I thoroughly enjoyed southern California. We were stationed at March Air Force Base (now closed...I feel so old) in Riverside, from 1983 to 1987. Riverside is an hour east of L.A. and three and a half short hours from Las Vegas! Dora and I had a FANTASTIC time at March. The beach, mountains, L.A., Palm Springs, restaurants, shows, concerts, great weather, Vegas--we couldn't have gotten a better assignment. And I worked for many good people there. Like my experience at Randolph, I learned a great deal about good leadership by working for leaders who cared about their people.
The Air Force decided I was having too much fun, so they threw a monkey wrench at us. My captain pulled me in to his office one day and asked me if I owned a pair of snow shoes. I gave him a puzzled look and then he told me I'd gotten an assignment to Iceland. I was confused. Who did I tick off? I hadn't made a move on the Base Commander's daughter, I didn't screw up on the job... what's the deal? Actually, there was no deal--all G.I.s spend time overseas and it was my turn. I had a choice, though. I could take Dora to Iceland with me for a two-year tour or go it alone for one year. Since Dora had a good job in Riverside, we opted for the latter. Our consolation prize was a guaranteed follow-on assignment to England.
While I froze my tail off in Iceland, Dora was basking in the warmth of West Hollywood. Her company moved her into the manager position of Cedar Sinai Medical Center's Transcription Department. Her employees were typing movie stars' medical reports and she had a studio flat in West Hollywood with a pool and jacuzzi on its roof. I truly envied her that year.
I didn't have it bad, though. I made some of the closest friends of my life in Iceland and learned much about my job. I reverted back to the Personnel field where promotions were much easier and made my fifth stripe with very high scores on my promotion test. Iceland was beautiful during the summer--some of the greenest grass I'd ever seen. But where were all the trees? Someone told me there would be a beautiful woman behind each one. Seriously, the Icelandic people are beautiful--blonde hair, blue eyes, high rosy cheekbones, and a quiet, very civil disposition. They are a bit reserved (isn't everyone compared to "Yanks", as my Icelandic friend Mar would say), fiercely independent, and the most literate people in the world, with more books per person per capita than any nation in the world. Iceland has the oldest existing form of democracy (dating back to the 1200s) and yet is the youngest country geologically.
It was there at Keflavik Naval Air Station in 1988 where I became good friends with Mar, Hawkur, and a handful of other Icelandic folks. I still get cards from Mar and Hawk. Dora and I hope to visit again someday. The one thing that I remember most about Iceland was the wind. I have a short war story that typifies my experience with it.
After a wonderful reunion with Dora in Philadelphia and a whirlwind vacation in New York and D.C., we were off to England in January 1989. I loved this assignment, short as it was. What an absolutely beautiful country and civilized people. How can a country be so similar to, yet so different than the U.S.?
After my "white knuckle" driving lessons, we were whizzing down country lanes on the wrong...er...left side of the road in our brand new red British Metro. Dora and I explored the countryside, visited every hamlet nearby, and drove to Oxford often to eat at the Pizza Hut (we love foreign food). We visited London several times and had loads of fun "riding the tubes" and patronizing as many restaurants, theaters, and old bookstores as we could. We fell in love with the country of our ancestors.
But alas, our four year tour was cut short by an unfortunate turn of events that would change the course of our lives. Dora was diagnosed with a colon disease and initially, we were told her life might even be in danger. After spending five weeks at an Ohio Air Force base hospital, she was on the road to recovery. But due to the nature of her illness, she required a more extensive medical facility than the small hospital at RAF Upper Heyford. We said goodbye to the U.K. and were back in San Antonio, home of Wilford Hall Medical Center, the Air Force's largest medical center.
I spent my last six years in the Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, at least three of which I'd like to forget. I worked for so many knuckleheads there it became comical. Two of the captains I worked for had their feet permanently propped on their desk reading newspapers, at least until the spit hit the fan--then they would blame the problem of the day on me. A 45-year old Senior Master Sergeant I worked for still lived with his mother (and acted like an old woman as well). Although not a boss, I worked with a back-biting man-hater (she openly admitted it) named, of all things, Honey, who would stir up problems and then point her finger at me.The only thing worse than my bosses were two of the troublemakers I had working for me. Did you ever have employees that you just couldn't control (and were powerless to fire), who would create mischief at the drop of a hat? My irritators resented me even more when I had the audacity to get promoted again, earning the highest promotion test scores on base. I was a Master Sergeant with twelve years in the service (a rank usually not attained until 18-19 years of service) and emotionally unprepared for the level of authority that goes with the rank. More than ever I needed a good leader to take me under his/her wing and teach me about upper-level leadership and management, but I was surrounded by a cast of Looney Tune characters. My first three years at Lackland were not fun.
Luckily, a Senior Master Sergeant came along who understood what I'd been going through and was a truly good person. He was my new boss, his name was Roy, and he saved my sanity. When he moved to a different personnel office he took me with him and the next two years of my life were peaceful and productive. It was during this time that I spent 90 days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. That was quite a learning experience. Here's a war story about my Saudi stay (and a few great photographs)
Similar to my first year in the service, my "higher power" was looking after me during my last year in the Air Force as well. I was moved to a unit-level personnel office, the lowest level of personnel offices on a base. Imagine Radar's job--that was me. I also supervised two airmen. This turned out to be the best job I'd had in the Air Force. Our commander was enthusiastic, fun, and caring. His energy spread throughout the unit and it was just a happy place to work. We had loads of fun together, as seen by this Hallowen photograph when we dressed up like desert warriors. My two airmen were hard-working gems. Thank you lord, I deserved that job.
As Dora and I stood before a crowd of friends and family at my retirement ceremony on Valentine's Day 1995, I reflected back upon my Air Force career. When my retirement certificate and medal citation were read aloud, I flashed back to the 5:00am wake-up calls given by the fiesty red-haired drill sergeant; I reminisced about the places we'd lived, the sights we'd seen; for an instant I smiled and became tearfully sentimental when I thought about the greatest source of pleasure during those 16 years--the many people I'd met and worked with, the friends, close companions, and even the knuckleheads. I learned something from them all.