Those Lovable “Lifers”

Those Men and Women who dedicate their life to our nation’s service.

 

In each branch of the military, those individuals known as lifers are what I consider to be the straw that “makes it all happen”. The group of commissioned and non-commissioned officers who choose to make the military a career, are the ones that keep the ships sailing, the aircraft flying, and the troops marching. Without them the rest of us would have been lost.

 

And like any group of people, among the lifers there were good ones, funny ones, and a few clunkers. Most of us who served have seen all three, but I am proud to say I came across many of the “good ones”. (Many of the “funny ones” were also some of the “good ones”)

 

As an enlisted man, my experience was primarily with the “enlisted lifers”, so that’s who I will discuss. I will also mention that at times there are some derisive remarks cast regarding the lifers. But on a personal level, I feel fortunate in crossing paths with almost all of them. They were some of the best people I have come to know in my lifetime.

 

Basic Training

 

For most of us, basic training was our first serious meeting with career military personnel. And, again, for most of us, it was a memorable one. A bunch of loud individuals stomping around in Smoky the Bear hats. I had three Training Instructors (TI’s) during my basic training in Amarillo, Texas in August of 1968, and each one was different from the other. (Yes, even the Air Force had tough TI’s in 1968)

 

Sgt. Dirk was a man who never smiled. He was so transparent in his cruelty, it seemed to us that this was a “nasty TI” character he worked at and mastered. A roll he portrayed while on duty. Nobody could be that mean! His favorite activity was to make us stand at attention under the hot Amarillo sun and watch him slowly drink a cold crisp bottle of Coca Cola from the cooler in the TI’s quarters. He wouldn’t even let us get a drink of the tepid water in our canteens until the drill session was over.

Sgt. Dirk wore a pair of mirror sunglasses like the sadistic warden in Cool Hand Luke. We called him Sergeant No Eyes.

 

Staff Sergeant Wood was another hard ass TI. Nothing sadistic or theatrical about him, strictly by the book and inflexible. He spent the most time with us and supervised the other two TI’s. Sergeant Wood’s favorite activity, it seemed, was putting shaving cream (or a jock strap) on a boot’s head and making him walk around all day like that. A man of no humor and little personality, we had no nicknames for Wood, other than a number of expletive deletives.

 

“Hoss” was our favorite, hands down

Then there was good old Sgt. Doors. Sgt. Doors was, by far, our favorite TI. We knew Doors was a screw-up like us because you could see the darker material on his uniform where a higher number of stripes had, at one time, existed on his rumpled fatigue shirt. A very large and quiet individual, rumor had it that Doors had been busted down in rank for beating three Apes (Air Policemen) who had tried to arrest him for drunken disorderly. Doors was easy going and gave us a lot of slack. He looked very much like Hoss Cartwright from the Bonanza television series, so naturally we dubbed him “Hoss”.

 

On to Tech school and permanent party assignment

 

Outside of a few nasty Kitchen Police, (KP) tech school NCO’s provided no lifer stories of note. That all changed when I arrived at my first permanent party assignment, Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. (Frostbite Falls, as we called it)

 

My first encounter with an NCO at Grand Forks was to be with a Staff Sergeant Deckonshire. I was scheduled to meet him in the day room of our barracks at a specific time, shortly after my arrival. I arrived for said meeting with plenty of time to spare, but alas, no Sergeant Deckonshire in sight.

 

It seemed the Air Force had plenty of em

Finally, after five minutes or so, I heard what could only be snoring. I walked to the end of the room, and on the floor, wedged between a couch and the wall, under a pile of newspapers, lay a Staff Sergeant, with the name Deckonshire on his uniform. Next to him were two large empty bottles of Ripple wine.

 

I just laughed and shook my head.

 

 “Sgt Deckonshire? Sgt Deckonshire?”

I kept at it until he finally stirred and came to.

“Huh”? …followed by a mix of profanity.

“Who the #*&! are you?” (This was not happiness to see me)

“I’m Campolo”.

“You’re Campolo?”

“I’m Campolo”.

Deckonshire worked himself up into a chair. “Any coffee around?” he rasped.

“Don’t know”. (He was supposed to be the one with all the information)

“Shit…Well, you know why you’re here?”

“Here as in Grand Forks, or here as in this day room?”

“Don’t be a smartass, you just got here. Report to your assigned supervisor at O700 tomorrow.” (Deckonshire was getting into the swing of things)

“And who might that be?” I inquired.

“They’ll tell you when you get there. Report to the 18 Fighter Interceptor Squad (FIS) building by the flight line.”

“Right”. I acknowledged my appreciation for the vast amount of information Deckonshire had imparted on me.

“Anything else?” I thought I’d take a chance.

He thought about that for about three seconds. “You got anything to drink?”

 

Some good ones, and another clunker

 

After the antics of Sgt. Deckonshire, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the rest of the Grand Forks NCO corps. I was soon put at ease, as Staff Sergeant Lannard, my first permanent party NCOIC turned out to be a great NCO and a great human being as well.  A quiet, gentle man, Lannard seemed almost out of place in the military. A hard worker who covered for his subordinates, as needed, and a big part of keeping the F-101’s of the 18th Fighter Interceptor Squadron flying.  (He was also a helluva card player)

 

I worked with two other very fine NCO’s during my time at Grand Forks. One of them, Sgt. Wilson and I became life-long friends. We stayed in contact until his passing a few years ago.

 

One of the other clunkers I have to mention was Sgt. Johnson. A twenty-eight-year E-4, Sgt. Johnson had been busted down many times during his career. Many career enlisted personnel were heavy drinkers…Johnson was the king of heavy drinkers. He often showed up for duty half in the bag, and rarely made it through a day without passing out. Many of the heavy drinking NCO’s I came across in the military had redeeming qualities; Johnson had none. He snookered new guys into doing his work, and then blamed them for his screw ups. When I left for duty in Vietnam, I was thankful to get away from this guy.

 

The Nam; brutal training ground for NCO’s

 

Every military unit in Vietnam had its challenges. In addition to the war, the climate, terrain and logistical distances involved, made for some tough conditions to work under.

 

The mission of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing, (TFW) out of Phu Cat Air base was close air support for combat infantry troops in the area, interdiction and combat air patrol. Every unit under the 12th TFW supported that mission in some fashion.

 

And as before, I saw some very fine NCO’s, some very funny ones, and a few more clunkers. Some are the basis for the characters in my book The Kansas NCO, and their personalities and activities are explored in that book, in depth.

 

Any Fortune 500 company would have been proud to have The Kansas NCO

The Kansas NCO himself, of course, was a real individual who did run a small black-market operation working out of base supply at the Phu Cat airbase. He was one of those individuals who turned confusion and disarray into opportunity. There’s been one or two of them in every military unit down through history. Later in life, with a career in business, I often thought about The Kansas NCO. He was as shrewd and skillful as any upper level manager I ever came across.

 

The Kansas NCO’s underling, Charles Prentice was in fact my NCOIC for half of my tour in Vietnam. Vodka Charly, as he was known, was a good NCO, with a sense of humor and some serious, but forgivable, human failings. He often chided us young troops as “a bunch of damn hippies” but was a good guy who always had our back. Vodka Charly is one of those people who appears in my thoughts on a regular basis.

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Tech Sergeant Jones. Jones succeeded Vodka Charly as the NCOIC of our detachment at Phu Cat. But Jones lacked Vodka Charley’s charm. A large man from Georgia, Jones style of leadership was autocratic. He looked and acted very much like the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, so naturally that’s what we called him.

 

For some strange reason, I made rank very quickly in the Air Force. I sewed on my third stripe shortly after arriving in Vietnam, and in August of 1970, having served exactly two years, I was notified I was being promoted to Staff Sergeant. (E-5) I was just as surprised about this as anyone, for I had performed no heroics, or spectacular feats to earn this promotion. Tsgt Jones, was incensed at the news. He would often, very loudly, proclaim “I guess you have to wear white sox to get promoted in this man’s Air Force.” (I had white sox sent from home because the GI issue sox weren’t worth a damn)

 

Jones constantly derided many of us in our unit. At one time he attempted to have us put on report for some trumped-up (pardon the pun) charges. The Kansas NCO intervened and the charges were dismissed. (Having a powerful friend was a good thing to have, in the Nam)

 

Back to the World

 

I had eighteen months left to serve after my tour of duty in Vietnam. I was sent to March Air Force Base in Riverside, California to complete my military commitment. Great climate, great duty. Now assigned to a paper pushing desk job in an air-conditioned office, life was good.  My NCOIC at March Air Force Base was Staff Sgt Tyrone Glover, a career airman. (Lifer) Glover, a black man, had been in the air Force for about fifteen years already.

 

Racial issues then, as now, were very prominent in our nation. Rioting in the U.S. had brought these issues to the forefront. Racial strife in the military, at the time, was also problematic. Racial fighting at the larger military installations were becoming a real issue, for all branches of the service. In Vietnam, rioting at the infamous Long Binh jail facility in 1968, dragged on for months.

 

Sgt Glover was one of the most competent NCO’s I had come across in the air force, and I had seen many. A quiet, hard working individual, he led by example. And although he did not have to, he worked right along side the rest of us in the office. He was also a very fine human being, and another person I became lifelong friends with.

 

Now, suddenly, I was conscious of my rank. How could I be the same rank as this individual, so competent in his work with so much time in service? We both served in Vietnam, so that wasn’t the reason I had been promoted so much quicker.

 

Soon I noticed other things occurring in our day to day operations which pointed to one thing; institutional racism. Now aware of it, I recognized it as I went through our day to day routines.

 

But the Air Force was changing. Racial strife at March Air Force base, prompted the creation of a task force to address the issues. I was appointed a member of the task force, and though it was a frustrating, and at times enraging experience, I am proud of the work we accomplished as a group.

 

And things finally broke open for Sgt Glover. In the spring of that year, he was promoted to Technical Sergeant and he eventually retired from the Air Force as a Master Sergeant. I was happy for him. I haven’t heard from Tyrone for several years; his daughter had told me he was ailing and I suspect he has now passed on.

 

One of many

 

Sgt Glover was one of many fine career  NCO’s I came across during my time in the service. I also had the occasion to work with army NCO’s and a few Marine NCO’s during my time in the military. We, as a nation, should be forever grateful that such fine men and women are willing to dedicate their lives to the defense of our nation and it’s principles. God bless the lifers.

 

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About the Author

Joe Campolo Jr.

Joe Campolo Jr.

Joe Campolo, Jr. is an award winning author, poet and public speaker. A Vietnam War Veteran, Joe writes and speaks about the war, and is a Veteran's advocate. Some of Joe's stories are gripping, some humorous. Joe also writes about other experiences, many of which are also humorous. Joe enjoys fishing, traveling, writing and spending time with his family. Joe loves to hear from his readers, please send him a note on this page or the contact page! (and order one of Joe's popular books from the link on his author page)

Comments

  1. I identify with The Kansas NCO when I was in Thailand and thru my career in the Air Force…anything you needed, I could find, from Nomex flight suits to whatever…enjoyed your story…I served from 11 Sept 1963 to 1 April 1984, when I retired out of the Armament Lab at Eglin…

  2. Okay, Joe, nice profiles of AF NCO lifers, and your meteoric rise in rank 🙂 I probably can write a novella about the different NCO’s I met during my Army service in the US and Vietnam. I mention the master sergeant at OCS in my memoir who was extremely helpful to me, and another MSGT who I worked for at Ft. Benning who was lso helpful. Both men were professional and fair. In country, it was a different story. My NCO’s were largely lifers and mean and lazy. Of course, I worked at a major HQ unit, not in a combat unit. I guess that type tend congregate where it is safer. 🙂 Good job.

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