I don’t mean to toot my own horn as a veteran … I had it easy in the military, and as a fighter pilot had the best job anybody could possibly have … but I thought you’d enjoy the photo. Yes, we were young (believe it or not, we still feel the way we looked then).
My paternal grandfather served during WWI. My father and all three of his brothers served during WWII. My father forged a letter from my grandmother, fraudulently joining the Navy at 16. Of all the brothers, my father was the only one to make the military a career, mustering out of the Navy after the war, finishing college on the GI Bill, then joining the Air Force as an officer in the early 1950s and serving into the 1970s, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. On my mother’s side, my other grandfather served during WWI, and some of his cousins were career Navy officers and sailors.
My own military history is archived on these pages, but here’s a quick summary: I never intended to join the military, planning instead on a career as a college English professor. I found myself diverted instead into adult education, which I increasingly perceived as a dead-end occupation, so when in the last years of the Vietnam war an Air Force recruiter told me they’d teach me to fly planes I said sure, why the hell not.
After officer training school at Lackland AFB in Texas, I went to pilot training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma. My pilot training class was the last one to start during the Vietnam war; halfway through the war ended and we all missed out on what we thought the USAF had hired us for. During training, my instructors noted my gift for gab, and upon graduation they reassigned me right back to Vance as an instructor pilot. After three years as an instructor, I was one of the first non-fighter pilots selected to transition to the then-new F-15 Eagle fighter, which I flew for the rest of my career (with time out for two staff assignments). I too, like my father, retired as a lieutenant colonel.
During my third F-15 tour in Okinawa, I managed to miss another war, Desert Storm … it was nothing personal; none of us at Okinawa (and very few F-15 pilots worldwide) got to participate in that war, a manning decision made far above our pay grade. Never mind … someone had to stick around to keep the South Koreans from marching north! My closest approach to the enemy, in all my 24 years of service, was to fly close formation with him: intercepting Soviet Tu-95 Bear bombers over the Arctic, when I was at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. My war was the Cold War … the war we should all thank our lucky stars never turned hot … and that’s as hard as it got for me.
Why did I join the military in the first place? I didn’t have to, unlike many in my generation who were drafted. I wanted to. I wanted a better, more meaningful career. I wanted discipline and direction. I wanted the self-pride that comes with discipline and direction. I wanted to prove to myself that I could master a demanding profession. I wanted to pay my country and society back for some of the advantages it had given me. I wanted to be part of something big and important. I imagine it was the same for my father when he gave up postwar civilian life to re-enter the military. I hope it is the same for the young men and women who enlist today.
When I look at young troops today, many of them veterans of multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, I am simply filled with admiration. They have it tough. They are literally fighting for our country. Many have died; many many more have been horribly wounded, physically and psychologically. Many are out of the service today and having a hard time adjusting to civilian life; many more cannot find work and must feel that their countrymen have turned their backs to them. We owe these young men and women. We owe them a lot. I hope we live up to our obligations.
To my brothers and sisters in arms, a salute. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifices.
© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.