SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Col. John Howard, 375th Air Mobility Wing commander welcomed retirees to Scott Air Force Base’s 32nd Annual Retiree Appreciation Day.
Retirees had the opportunity to take advantage of information booths from organizations such as the American Legion, Red Cross, Air Force Sergeants Association, Veteran’s Affairs, and Airman and Family Readiness Center, as well as have the opportunity to receive immunizations and update identification cards.
Retired Rear Admiral Lee Metcalf, key note speaker for the event, encouraged retirees to continue their service by interacting with the generations that followed them.
“Don’t cut yourself out of the game,“ said Metcalf, as he referred to the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes. “‘People do not quit playing because they grow old. They grow old because they quit playing.’ So don’t quit playing.“
Howard also echoed Metcalf’s words.
“They want to hear your stories,” said Howard, ensuring the retirees knew that their stories are valuable and essential to current military members.
Both Metcalf and Howard took the time to speak to some of the veterans, including WWII veteran Dale Hendricks.
He and his wife, Madeline, seemingly inseparable during the event, have been married for 71 years and have known each other for 85.
When Metcalf spoke to the couple, he told them how he’d been married for 43 years. Dale’s teasing reply: “That’s a good start.“
Dale served as a staff sergeant during the war, enlisting in December of 1941, 10 days after Pearl Harbor.
Dale credits his happiness to the support of Madeline.
“Everyone has to have a touch point, and she has always been mine,“ said Dale. “I’ve known her for about 85 years and I still like her.”
“Well, I just chased him,” Madeline said with a laugh. “Wherever he went, I followed.”
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, 372 WWII veterans die each day. In 2016, only 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII were alive.
Many other veterans of today served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Air Force Master Sgt. Gregory Mask was one of those service members who served as a personalist.
“I had to opportunity to serve in Desert Storm—actually Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” said Mask.
“I was amazed at what we’re able to do as people working together. The camaraderie, the way we train and learn and execute,” added Mask.
One of those times was while he was stationed in Grand Forks and a great flood overwhelmed the city.
“We took in 5,000 members from the local community, and we housed them in the three-bay hangar,” said Mask. “We worked 12 hours a day for about three weeks straight. Ops tempo was really high for what we had to do, so we had to house those people.
“It was a collaborative effort to see everyone pitching in. And we were able to do that ... because everyone was trained and talented and could provide certain human capital to make that happen.”
Another veteran in attendance was retired Tech. Sgt. Michael Ellis, who started off as an Air Force medic, became a recruiter, and retired in 1993, where he then became an educator and a counselor.
“In 1973, just at the end of Vietnam, I trained as a medic,” said Ellis. “We went and brought the guys back home. For a long time I didn’t wear the Vietnam hat.”
A friend convinced Ellis that he’d done his part and deserves to wear the hat too, despite not being in the theater where war took the lives of over 58,000 men.
Ellis and his wife boast about their children, who have also followed the military footsteps their father made for them.
“All our folks are Air Force except my traitor son,” Ellis said with a laugh, adding that he is still in trying to reach 20 years.
Ellis’s advice to future generations is to take advantage of the education benefits the military offers.
Retired Master Sgt. Maurice Bridges Sr., who enlisted in 1973 and gave 33 years of service to the Air Force, also offers this advice.
“To be honest with you, I probably would have ended up in jail or dead if I hadn’t joined,” said Bridges.
“I was born in Chicago, and I went to high school. I had good parents; I was taught right from wrong.
“And I saw myself getting into ways that were not productive, so I joined the Air Force.”
He retired as an air technician for the 126th Air Refueling Wing at Scott and considers himself a fixing person, continuing to fix and better things through his service with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I advocate for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which I’m a member of,” said Bridges.
“We were responsible for the G.I. Bill. It used to be if you didn’t use it in 10 years, it’s gone.”
Many reforms have occurred to a military member’s education benefits. Bridges encourages service members to take advantage of that.
Army Col. Charles Jorgenson joined in 1970 as an enlisted maintainer to beat the draft, became a warrant officer in 1976, and transitioned to a commissioned officer in 1978.
“I just stayed in,” said Jorgenson. “And then it got to a point where there’s actually a mandatory retirement day where you’ve got to get out. And I reached that, so they said, ‘Get your butt out of here. Go do something else.’
“I retired in 2007, and the next day I went back to work for the government as a GS employee in the same job I was in before, and I’m still working for the government.”
For Jorgenson, working with Soldiers, Airmen, and Sailors has always been the best part of his job, and his need to serve still continues to this day as he works on Scott AFB.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. James “Red” Tucker joined the service after graduating Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
After military service, he returned to New Madrid, Missouri.
“New Madrid County was one of the poorest counties in the United States of America,” said Tucker. “My mother was a poor, single parent on welfare. I worked the fields growing up. Joining the Army was an opportunity that would take me to a different level.”
Tucker reflects on his service, admitting that racial issues were a challenge.
"I was promoted one time in 17 years,” said Tucker, “and I saw people getting promoted over me who didn't have my educational qualifications or military credentials. I was determined to retire and have benefits, so I would be able to live a halfway decent life once I left the military. I achieved my goal. I kept my eyes on the prize, and I retired. I enlisted with the intention of serving, and I served.”
Now Tucker continues to serve by being an advocate for others who face discrimination, by highlighting the good things his community does, and by taking care of his son, Undray, who suffers with autism.
Tucker served three years active duty at Fort Carson, Colorado, and seventeen in the Colorado Army National Guard. He also is a retired high school social studies teacher and the recipient of three honorary doctorate degrees.
Erich Haring joined the Air Force in 1967 to do something good for his country. As an E-4, he fixed F4 Phantom jets.
“We’d fix them, load them, and fly them again as fast as we could go,” said Haring, before mentioning the accident that left him medically retired.
“I tangled with a sidewinder missile, and I lost,” said Haring. “But you wouldn’t believe how lucky I was.”
The unguided missile went off while Haring was working on the plane. The missile missed the line truck—a load full of 500-pound bombs—and a crew chief before shattering into revetment wall.
The missile missed Haring’s head by a quarter of an inch, but he still suffered serious injury.
“When you lose a piece of yourself—in this case it was my arm—it takes a lot of adjusting,” said Haring. “At first I asked if I could stay in. I have a lot of knowledge; I could do something.”
The military did not keep him, and Haring started his road to recovery.
Haring admits that the adjustment was hard, but he also remembered recognizing how lucky he was as he looked at others in hospital beds around him, which took his breath away, he said.
Haring feels lucky that he did not face post-traumatic stress, reflecting on those who came before him, including his father.
“My dad was in WWII. He was in some of that awful stuff like you saw in Vietnam,” said Haring.
“In fact, until the day he died he couldn’t talk about it. I think about it all the time, and not just him—others too.”
This generation of service members, carried on the shoulder of past generations, keeps the past generations alive by carrying their stories, suggested Metcalf. Retiree Appreciation Day is just one of the ways their legacy can remain alive, but with an eager open ear, it’s hopeful that their stories can continue for centuries.