The Day I Joined the Air Force – Part Three, The End

In 1968, four years after I joined the Air Force, I received an Honorable Discharge and rejoined civilian life.  I had spent four years as a 30352 Aircraft Control & Warning Radar Technician.  It was my job to keep the radar running that was scanning the skies for any potential enemy aircraft.  In the sixties, with the Cold War raging this meant Russkies.  I had learned how to repair computerized surveillance systems, servo systems, power supplies, radar scopes, ECCM and ECM (Electronic Counter Measure and Electronic Counter Counter Measure) equipment.  It was technical work and in addition to 42 weeks technical school training, I had completed several correspondence courses to advance my knowledge while in the military.

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During my Air Force career, I had received each of my stripes with minimum time in grade and was eligible for a P-4 reenlistment bonus which I declined.  I had earned a career as an electronic technician that enabled me to have numerous job offers with computer firms, telecommunication firms and other high tech companies.  I had more job offers than I knew what to do with.  I owed it all the third of my three life changing decisions.  Here is how the third decision transpired.

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After I completed my basic training at Lackland AFB, I was assigned to a technical training facility that was at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi.  I found the base to be everything I could want in terms housing, bars, night clubs, women and most importantly the ocean.  When I was not in training class, I would go to the beach, swim and try to meet young women.  I developed a tan that would be the envy of anyone.  Many of the local girls seemed to prefer going out with guys from the north much to the dismay and hostility of the local guys.  We were given cards that advised us on which clubs and bars to avoid.  Of course, these were the ones I preferred to go to.  I soon developed a bad drinking habit and spent too many weekends recovering from a hangover.  I was living the good life except for one “minor” hiccup.

I was a notoriously bad student in high school, and I continued to be the same at the airbase.  I hated school and did not want to be in training class.  I continually disrupted class, did not pay attention and gave the training instructor a hard time.  Somehow, rather stupidly I would later realize, I thought the Air Force would have some type of fighting unit.  I still wanted to fight in the ongoing Vietnam war and whether I died or not did not matter to me.  I wanted adventure and excitement and not a classroom with books, assignments, tests and studying.  Everything I hated about high school had now come back to inflict misery on my days.  Perhaps that is why I drank so heavily on the weekends.

Then one day, I received a notice from my training instructor.  He told me that I needed to report to the base commander.  He did not say why.  But I was told to go ASAP.  Now the airbase had almost 20,000 officers and enlisted men stationed there, and it was not every day that an Airman 3rd Class was told to report to the base commander.

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I found my way to the base commander’s office and met his secretary.  She told me to take a seat and that Major General Romulus W. Puryear would see me shortly.  Apparently, he was expecting me.  After a brief wait, I was called in General Puryear’s office.  He was working at a large desk and without looking up, he told me to take a seat in front of him.  He had his back to a large window which looked out over the base.  I waited anxiously for what seemed like an hour before he finally looked at me.  When he did, he told me to look out the window.  “What do you see” he asked?

I replied, “I see two guys up on a scaffold painting the barracks.”

“Do you know what we call them”? he inquired

“Painters”, I said.

“No, we call them Protective Coating Specialists (PCS); and when they are done painting that side of the barracks, do you know what they do next?

“They paint the other side”, I responded.

“That’s right”, said the Commander, “and when they are done that side, what do you think they do next?”

“Paint a new barracks, I guess.”

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“Wrong”, said the commander.  “It takes about six months to paint one side and, in a year, when they have finished the second side, the first side is starting to peel so they will go back to the first side and start painting all over again.  That’s what they will do for the next four years.”

“And” shouted the commander, “If you don’t get your ass back in that class and start paying attention, that is what you will be doing for the next four years as well.  Do you understand me?”

“But sir, I don’t like school and I wanted to be in a fighting unit”

“That is not one of your options.  You have a choice, School or PCS.  Dismissed Airman!”

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It was a rather quick decision on my part but one that altered my life forever.  I choose to go back to class and pay attention.  I finished third in my class behind the squadron wimp, a guy named Sitters, whom many of the other guys picked on and a guy from North Carolina named Michael Atkins who sounded like he had marbles in his mouth when he spoke.  I had assumed Atkins was dumb, but he and I became good friends.  He was quite an intelligent guy.  Stereotypes based on accent were said to hurt President Lyndon B. Johnson and I know they hurt people like Mike.  Can we ever overcome the impact of nurture on our lives?  I guess it all comes down to the decisions we make.  After completing my technical training, I put in for Southeast Asia but instead I was sent on a remote assignment to Unalakleet Air Force Base in Alaska.  I never did get to see Vietnam.  Many people say that I was lucky.

The End.  

These are two of my squadron patches.  One for Unalakleet, Alaska and the other for Osceola, Wisconsin.  I tried twice to get sent to Southeast Asia but both times I got assigned to very very snowy climates.

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The Day I Joined the Air Force – Part Two

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Our lives and destinies revolve around the choices and decisions that we make.  I had already made one of the three most important decisions that would change my life forever.  In Part 1, I described my decision to join the United States Air Force.  Some might argue, that it was fate that made my decision and that I really had no choice.  Others would argue, my decision was more reactive than proactive and thus was not really a choice.  I will not defend myself.  Like an artist who refuses to describe their painting, I will let you decide if I chose or did not choose in each of these decisions.

In Part 2, I will describe the second decision that changed my life.   But let’s go back to my plane trip first.

lackland tiUpon landing at Lackland AFB in Texas, I along with all the other new recruits was ushered off the plane where our T.I. or Training Instructor was waiting for us.  After telling us that we would address him as Sir, he ordered, screamed, yelled and instructed us until we were able to get into some type of formation.  You can imagine the chaos that ensued when a bunch of green rookie “boots” tried to form into a military squadron.  It was early morning and I was dead tired.  I had not been able to sleep at all on the plane.  I presume many of the other “boots” were similarly exhausted.  Nevertheless, it was going to be many hours before we would meet our cots and be able to get to sleep.  In the interim, we would march all over the base getting haircuts, clothes, food and taunts (known as Jody Calls in the military) from other squadrons that often went like this:

Rainbow, Rainbow, don’t be blue

Our recruiter screwed us too

Sound off – One Two,

Sound off – Three Four

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The term “rainbows” was applied to new recruits who had not yet received their uniforms or haircuts and were marching in civilian clothes.  Our civilian “uniforms” made us stand out like sore thumbs, much to the delight of the more “advanced” squadrons.  Their pointing and taunts made us wonder what was in store for us.

Basic training lasted 12 weeks.  It did not take long for me to develop friendships with the same type of guys that I did in high school.  This was generally guys who had little or no respect for laws, traditions, rules or anything getting in the way of a good time.  Needless, to say, one would quickly realize that guys like this (myself included) would not be a good fit for the military.

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Hanging out with my new friends, I soon became involved in a few minor infractions which broke rules and traditions.  Air Force basic training had many rules and my motto had always been that: “rules are made to be broken.”  My friends agreed with this motto and it seemed like we were on a collision course with the military.  My one saving grace was that I did not really find the physical aspects of the military very difficult to deal with.  I had always been athletic and drills and PT (Physical Training) were easy for me.  I even found them kind of fun.  Nevertheless, I was not sure of many of the other restrictions that chafed at my sense of independence.

Then it happened.  One night after lights were out and I was sound asleep, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice saying, “Wake up, Wake up.”  I am a pretty light sleeper and I sat up and saw one of my three “good” buddies who was standing next to my cot.  Roger whispered, “get dressed, we are leaving.”  “Where are we going?” I asked.  He replied, “We are going to rob the BX (Base Exchange) and go to Mexico.  We can have a great time.”

A jumble of thoughts went through my head.   I had previously been arrested for breaking and entering.  The idea of getting away with a base robbery sounded like a stretch.  I was tired and it was late at night.  I responded with “Have a good time, I am going back to sleep.”  That was the end of that.  I did not see my three friends for another six or seven weeks.  I made the second major decision of my life, but I am still not sure what the deciding factors were.

Several weeks later, an officer requested that my T.I. send me to his office.  My T.I. told me to report to the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corp office and to see Lieutenant Perry. I went to the JAG office and reported to the officer who requested to see me.  “Airman Persico,” he started.  “Do you know Roger” and he named the other two of my former friends.  “Yes, sir” I replied.  “Well, they have requested you as a character witness in their upcoming trial.  Seems like you were their only friend on base.  You are hereby ordered to report to this office in two weeks.  (I do not remember the date).  I am representing them at their court martial trial for theft and going AWOL (Absence without official leave).  Dismissed!”

Two weeks went by and I had a lot of time to think about what I was going to say.  I would wow the court with my elocution and polemics.  In no time at all, I would have the charges against my friends dismissed.  I was confident in my ability to persuade the court.  I left my barracks at the appointed time and found my way to the courtroom where the trial for my friends was being held.  I gave my name upon entering and took a seat that was assigned to me.  I was soon called to the stand and told to swear that I would tell the whole truth etc.

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An officer, I would never know if he was the defense or prosecuting attorney asked me my name and if I had any knowledge of the three men on trial.  I replied that I did and then I started in on my rehearsed defense.  I was quickly told to be quiet and to only answer a question when asked or I would be held in contempt and find myself in the brig along with my three buddies.  My questioning went on for five minutes or so and it seemed like everything I said only dug a deeper hole for the defendants.  When they were through with my testimony, I was dismissed and told to report back to my squadron.  I felt like a total failure.

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My friends all received time in jail and a dishonorable discharge.

I soon left Lackland AFB for my training assignment in Biloxi, Mississippi AFB as a Radar Technician.  I would never see or hear from my former friends again.  I often think back upon the decision that I made and the impact that a different choice would have had on my life.   Did I make a choice or was it destiny?

In Part 3, I will describe the third of my 3 most important life decisions and the impact that it has had on my life.

“We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us.”  — Ken Levine

 

 

 

 

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