Without people, you are nothing.
- Joe Strummer, Punk-Rock Warlord.
On November 1st of this year, I retired from active duty ending more than 31 years of military service. It was a great run – starting as an enlisted man in the Army National Guard for 10 years and then following that with 21 years as an officer in the Air Force.
Along the way there were many adventures: Basic Training, in the Alabama heat where I was trained to be a cold warrior by sergeants who had fought in Vietnam; a transition to the Air Force after completing Officer Training School (again in the Alabama heat!); three trips to the Mideast; assignments all over the place as an intelligence officer; and finally, retirement for a return to small town America. I achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant with the Army and Lieutenant Colonel with the Air Force not that it really means anything but quite a climb from E-1 slick-sleeve private to squadron command as an O-5.
I suppose I could tell stories about Desert Storm or the ridiculously long struggle that Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom became. There were so many important tasks, jobs, struggles, assignments and missions over those 31 years. Yet, the memories of what we did seem the least important to me today.
No. When I get nostalgic – and if you ask my kids, they can tell you I am blessed (or cursed) with an acute sense of nostalgia – it’s the people I served with that dominate my memories.
I can still see, vividly in my mind, the 4th platoon barracks at Fort McClellan Alabama in 1984. It’s Basic Training and there are all my comrades. Tim Sapp, a John Belushi look-alike from West Virginia. Ed Sensel, the only guy who would talk books with me – the intellectual from Illinois. John Friant (Chattanooga Tennessee), Horace Johnson (also from Tennessee) who paid me one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me: “Cheetham, you are a man with heart, because you made it through Basic with a smile on your face,” he said to me when we said goodbye in December 1984.
There was Ricky Angle who tried to go AWOL when he got a “dear john” letter from his high school sweet-heart. Gary Griffin and I tracked him down in the woods outside our barracks and dragged him back. The Drill Sergeants never knew what happened that night – but I can still show you the gouge in my old boots – that I acquired while tackling Ricky that night in the woods.
Griffin was my best friend, a Bill-Murray wannabe who had memorized all the dialog from the movie Stripes. And of course there was Bobby D. Wilcox, the tough black kid from Newark New Jersey who had the bunk below mine. We were inseparable throughout training and proved that the military knows more about team-building and race relations than any of the fools in politics do.
I remember them all – their strengths and weaknesses, their jokes – I remember their stories. In December on 1984, we all parted ways and I never saw any of them again; but I still hear their voices. I still remember conversations, fights, and most of all laughter.
I went to war in 1991 with the 772d Military Police Company. I was a squad leader and it was exciting. But I remember the people I served with. I can still name every single one of the men in my platoon from memory. These were the citizen soldiers of the Army National Guard: Cops, union workers, college students, and bartenders. They answered the call and went to war in a strange place called Iraq.
I could describe missions, I suppose. But I remember Paul Caraher, Pat Deyoung, Scott Hennessey, Chris Brown, and Larry Quinn. I remember playing whist with a lousy deck of cards waiting for the next mission. I remember playing pranks and telling jokes. Most of all, I remember how great these young men were. They did their jobs so well. My assistant squad leader, Larry Quinn was and is the most talented guy I have ever met. He was good at everything and he was humble. I spent the rest of my career telling Larry Quinn stories. When I became an officer, I always would teach my sergeants and subordinate officers to be more like Larry Quinn.
When I left the 772d Military Police Company to go to Officer Training School and transition to the United States Air Force, I never saw these guys again (with the exception of Larry Quinn that is). They are now memories – ghosts of times gone by; but I often think of them. I don’t think about what we did, I think about who they are.
Twenty-one years in the Air Force went by in a blur. So many duty stations and assignments! But as I sit here today the names and faces flood my mind. My first commander in Minot North Dakota, Ronnie Wright who was in his 40s but still was the best basketball player on base (I learned that the hard way). Bull Ternus a genuine character from Texas, who could bench press a school bus if necessary. Frank Dalmau, a graduate from the University of Puerto Rico who spent most of his time in North Dakota muttering “frio, frio!”
An assignment in Germany where I met incredible friends. Don Bridges, a bright, skilled leader who took every challenge in stride. Chris May, another one of those people who was good at everything and was able to laugh in any situation. Veltz, Thurgood, and Beldon – the law firm. I remember unplanned barbeques, children being born, ridiculous amounts of beer, and all of us together. I don’t remember 3 years of missions – just 3 years of friendship.
And so it goes.
A year of intelligence training in Texas? Let’s see what do I remember from all the lectures, training, and exercises? I remember Russ Powell and Kevin Pendleton and Alan Acree. I remember their jokes, their hopes, their dreams, and their outstanding characters.
In Florida, at Patrick Air Force Base, I worked a challenging national intelligence mission, but I remember a character named Les Oberg who would always say something funny when we needed it most. I remember Brian Lawson and John Dibert – two great Christian friends – and how we grew in our faith together.
Moody Air Force Base Georgia – an exciting job providing intelligence support to the Air Force Rescue Wing air crews and pararescue teams. I can recall playing ultimate Frisbee with the intelligence professionals that worked for me: the muddy fields of Georgia, the trash talk and how my team always won despite the best efforts of a gigantic sergeant named Tony Smith to stop me from winning. The intelligence team was full of talented, dedicated people – and after I left Moody AFB, we never crossed paths again.
An unforgettable assignment to Shaw Air Force Base South Carolina as a Major where I worked for a superb commander named Bulldog Slawson. He was tough and he loved the troops – and they loved him right back. That squadron the 609th Air Intelligence Squadron had without a doubt the most talented group of people I’d ever been around – Roberts, Long, Static Kling, Smaugh, LaFurney, Cooter, Spencer, Coleman… the list is long. Our mission was huge because we were part of CENTCOM and these were the dark days in Iraq 2004 – 2007. There were deployments, new mission sets, setbacks, and difficulties. So why do my memories get filled by the greatest Christmas parties since Old Fezziwig?
I spent 5 years in Virginia for two different assignments. The first time through I met the best officer I’ve ever served with, Cathy Jumper. She was smart, tough, funny and worked harder than anyone else I’ve known. We were tasked with training future officers and I remember all those cadets. It was a fun job and an important one. I think we did a great job because people tell me we did, but all I really remember is laughing with Cathy.
My second spin through Virginia led to Langley AFB where I got to work for two of the most outstanding people you’d ever want to meet – Keith Watts and Dan Johnson. Keith was my commander and boss. He was very bright and could explain anything to you if you gave him a white board and a marker. Our squadron mission was global intelligence – and it was a huge mission. I know there were incredible challenges for our intelligence team, but I cling to memories of late nights in Keith Watts’ office, drinking a “wee dram of the whisky” while he explained the intricate details of an intelligence sensor on a white board – whiskey in one hand, marker in the other.
Late in my career, I had my own chance to command an intelligence squadron, this time in Las Vegas Nevada. It was a great assignment; I loved it. Anyone who has ever served will tell you the best jobs are command jobs. They are also challenging, busy jobs with lots of long hours. I remember Burt Okamoto who like Larry Quinn, was great at everything; Grip Schnakenberg, possessor of a photographic memory that led to colossal baseball trivia battles; Ulysses Zeigler, the most loyal NCO I’ve ever encountered; Lisa Corley, Snow White, Bethany Brown, Rocket, and McFly. These are the people who did the job for America. There are many others. When I remember my command tour, I see all the faces of the Airmen who got it done every day.
You get the idea. Give me enough time and a glass of bourbon and I could regale you with tales of the best people on earth, the people I served with during my 31 years in the military. They are unforgettable; they are the best this country has to offer and I got to work with them for a really long time. Most of them, I have not seen in many years and may never see again.
Yet, not a day goes by where I don’t see someone from the past in my mind’s eye. Someone in a uniform, in a strange place, far away from home. It is hot and there is an awful lot of important work to do. And we are all laughing.
Copyright © 2015 cjcheetham
Everything great that has ever happened to me was because I have such a supportive and loving family, that I don’t think I deserve. Thankfully, God often gives me what I don’t deserve. I would have never achieved anything without my wife Christy backing me all the way and making me a better person. My kids Emma, Eli and Lizzie have put up with the moves, the long hours, and the separations; always with dignity and dedication. In fact, truth be told, my kids are the best people I’ve ever known – and I’ve known all the greats.