On May 23rd, 1975, as a 17 year old boy with his mother’s permission, I raised my right hand and took an oath to defend my nation from all enemies both foreign and domestic, and became legally a man. I was shipped off to basic training where there were a whole passel load of grouchy non-commissioned officers (NCO) that were paid to make my life miserable for 13 weeks. One of those grouchy NCO’s was Petty Officer First Class Choate. He was a big barrel chested man who with just a stare could make you wince with anticipated pain of punishment. Yet, I found out he had a lighter side too. About half way through those 13 weeks of physical training and mental conditioning, I got sick with a sinus infection. It got so bad that I had to be hospitalized. If a basic trainee was gone from his unit for more than 72 hours, he would be “washed back” to another training company not as far along in training to make sure he didn’t miss any of the torture. At the 71 hour mark, Petty Officer Choate came marching into the hospital and started accusing me of being lazy. He told me to get dressed and he took me back to our barracks. No sooner had I unpacked my things back in the barracks, he told me I was looking like fecal matter and ordered me to pack my stuff up and then returned me to the hospital, avoiding me the pain of extending my stay at boot camp. I graduated from boot camp with the same guys I started it with and reported to the fleet.
My first duty station was the USS PAIUTE (ATF-159), which we called the “Pukey P”, out of Mayport, Florida. I reported aboard shortly after my 18th birthday. I started out on deck force (painting the ship) and ended up in the ships office learning to be a personnel clerk. The Executive Officer of the ship at the time was LTJG William D. Speights who, though I was afraid around commissioned officers, showed he cared about his sailors. He often did things to increase the morale of young sailors and I not only respected him, but admired him too. There was one time close to Christmas when he brought myself and another young sailor back to his house to have a home cooked dinner with his family and then took us to a movie with his family. We saw One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson. In December 1976, I was transferred from the Pukey P to the Personnel Administration school in Meridian, Mississippi for training. I completed the seven week self paced course in 3 days. With nothing to do while I waited on everyone else to finish, I got on the NTTC Meridian’s Naval volleyball team and spent the next 6 weeks playing volleyball for a living. When orders came down, I was quite pleased to see I got shore duty at Training Squadron 27, Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas. I was in the personnel office under the direction of Petty Officer First Class Joe Mott. Petty Officer Mott was a good egg and he worked to build my skills. That summer I took the advancement test and even though my job field was over manned, I scored so well I was promoted to Petty Officer Third Class. The next December, it was time to re-enlist and I was informed that I would be returning to sea if I did. Not looking forward to going back to sea on a small ship like the first one, I got out of the Navy on December 12th, 1978.
On December 13th, 1978 I raised my right hand again and was in the Army. They shipped me off to get uniforms at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri and three days later, I was at the language school in Monterey, California. My language professor was Mr. Min Tae Yong, a quiet unassuming man with a gentle disposition. When I had problems with tests, somehow I always passed even though I know I should have failed. Mr. Min would always say, “don’t worry, you know the information.” I left there and went to Korea in 1980. My first duty there was at Camp Humphreys where I made many of my friends for life. We were a very tight knit group that not only worked hard, but played even harder. In 1981, I came down with two inner ear infections and after a bit of hospitalization, I was transferred to Seoul. That unit was nothing like the one at Camp Humphreys and although I made some friends, it was not the same.
In March 1984, the Army transferred me to Germany. I was assigned to the 2nd of the 60th Air Defense Artillery Battalion. Here, I met another man who would have an effect on not only my career, but my life. Master Sergeant Willie Shaffer was the gruffest, toughest, Senior NCO I had ever had the pleasure of meeting. He had served tours in Vietnam where he was highly decorated and didn’t take crap from anyone. He was the first one in and the last one to leave when the job was done. He never told us to do anything we had not seen him do time and time again. Working with him, I found out he had another side too. Once after my wife and children arrived from Korea, Sergeant Shaffer and his wife came to our house for dinner. His wife whose name escapes me, was a little German lady. When Sergeant Shaffer started giving me crap in my own home, his wife looked at him and in her German accent said “Now Villie, you know can’t act like dat avay from de base. You be nice!” He bowed his head and said “Yes, Ma’am.” After that, whenever he gave me crap and no one was around, I’d look at him and say “Now Villie!” and laugh. He’d call me some colorful name and then laugh too.
Over the years, these people who are permanently implanted in my brain taught me about being a leader. They taught me that you look out for the welfare of your people. They taught me not to make quick judgments about people, but to take inventory and know your people. They taught me that accomplishing the mission is important, but afterwards continue the unit cohesiveness. They taught me to give that gruff attitude when necessary, but have a compassionate side too. They taught me to lead from the front. They taught me everything I needed to know to be a leader myself later in my career.
Each one of these men, and I’m sure many, many more are responsible for molding me into the Senior NCO I became and the veteran I am today.
To these, my fellow veterans, I salute you for making me the man I am.