Dear Black Hills Veteran’s Writing Group/Brother and Sister Veterans
How Do I Join? And Does a Non-Combat Cold War Vet Qualify?
I was excited to see your recent Rapid City Journal article [1-4-16] about the upcoming meeting (Cpl Bergstrom’s first-person Tunnel Rat story) and I am truly looking forward to joining you this coming Saturday. I’ve been interested in your organization for several years now, but only in my current ‘semi-retirement’ do I have a schedule that finally allows me the chance to attend your meetings.
My main reason for writing is to ask: What ‘credentials’ are required to join/participate in your group? If anything I’ve ever done in uniform qualifies me for membership, how can I get involved? Might I be able to assist others with any skills I may possess? Would it be possible to gain professional insights from exposure of my own current Veteran’s writings to the reviews of more accomplished authors? I would most definitely like to be involved in whatever way I can, but ONLY if my credentials pass muster with the real heroes you’ve already got on-board.
By way of background, I am a U.S. Air Force Cold War/Desert Storm-Era Veteran. I entered active duty voluntarily on 8 Dec 1981 and proudly served until 10 Jul 1996, serving both in CONUS and overseas. I will gladly present a copy of my DD214 if required.
I served my first enlistment as an Air Force Security Policeman (81150 Security Specialist/Airbase Ground Defender). I spent most of those early duty days as a scrawny Michigan-born kid armed with an M-16 and 180 rounds of ammo in support of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing’s Minuteman II ICBMs. I was proud to be SAC troop, through and through. Like most of the 300 or so personnel in my squadron did on a daily basis, I spent long hours posted on sentry duty at remote missile Launch Facilities. I guarded routine nuclear weapons convoys, both on the ground and in the air aboard UH-1F ‘Hueys’ as a member of the Airborne Fire Team. I escorted untold numbers of missile maintenance crews while on site to help enforce the SAC Two-Man policy. I also served as a Scheduler/Dispatcher for my squadron, and as a volunteer Fire Team rifleman/assistant M-60 gunner on the 44th Security Police Group Airbase Ground Defense Flight. My all-too-few years as a member of the ‘Fellowship of the Badge and Blue Beret’ were some of the most physically demanding work I’ve ever done. No doubt it was also the most dangerous. But I dearly loved it, the camaraderie of the USAF Security Police (what later became today’s Security Forces), and being part of a vital shared mission in that career field. It was a job I would have done for free, provided my spouse at that time and baby daughter hadn’t cast their votes on the matter.
My remaining enlistments I served as an Air Force Historian Technician (79272/3HO72). As a Wing Historian (a staff-level advisor to each of the Wing Commanders I served) I researched and answered thousands of historical data queries from my commander, wing, group and squadron staff, other bases, and the general public. I conducted and transcribed dozens of oral history interviews of active-duty and veteran personnel. I prepared numerous special studies on individual historical subjects or specific units and missions. I even deployed as needed to participate in and chronicle major mission events that involved my assigned unit (such as the 28th Bomb Wing’s B-52 missions to Cairo West Airbase, Egypt, during Bright Star ’85). My main duty, however, was to routinely collect thousands of documents, statistics, photographs, mission and after-action reports from every unit in my wing, extract, analyze, and otherwise summarize them into something coherent for future researchers, and report those findings via exhaustively sourced, multi-volume, (mostly) classified quarterly and semi-annual history reports that I sent up the chain to my assigned wing’s higher headquarters. In that capacity I was equally reviled, overlooked, marginalized and accepted. For the most part I managed to meet the academic and intellectual challenge. I was the Historian for Ellsworth’s 28th Bomb Wing under two separate Major Commands: from 1984-1986 during its last glory years as the “Showplace of SAC”, and from 1993-1996 during its earliest years under Air Combat Command. I was also the Historian for the 38th Tactical Missile Wing (GLCM), assigned to United States Air Forces in Europe during the vital (albeit internationally controversial) last years before the Berlin Wall fell (1986-89). There I also covered the first Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty inspections ever conducted by our former adversaries, representatives of the USSR, on active NATO/U.S. Air Force installations. Likewise I became the last Military Historian assigned to assist in chronicling the final chapters of the USAF’s third oldest training base -- Chanute Technical Training Center -- before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission forced Chanute Air Force Base to close its gates after more than 75 proud years of peerless service.
Outright and plainly stated, I was no hero. Likewise, I never saw combat. Not in the classic, ‘shooting range firing both ways’ sense. But -- like many thousands of my Cold War brothers and sisters who (by the courageous and faithful performance of their often-hazardous daily duties) fought Communist world domination and the ‘Evil Empire’ from 1946-1994 -- I too served. While I was never ordered to open fire on live enemy targets, even I – nothing more nor less than any other of my fellow Airmen -- voluntarily trained for combat duties, participated in deployments to practice combat duties, spent countless days ‘dragging bags’ in mobility lines readying for combat or combat-support duties, and endured interminable weeks in chemical warfare gear preparing for combat in an NBC environment if the enemy launched first. Even right here it Ellsworth, 5,196 miles from Moscow, we stood the line at a place that would been a guaranteed future Ground Zero, one of the first places to be targeted in a potential Soviet nuclear first-strike. We were a mere 30 minutes suborbital missile flight time from obliteration had there ever been a World War III.
In hindsight, like many other G.I.s from my era, I sorely wish I could have done more. I wish I’d been able to serve in a more noteworthy (or publicly respectable) capacity; if only to test (and hopefully prove) myself more fully. If only to silence the disrespect of that small percentage of ill-informed fellow Veterans and civilians who somehow consider us less because we were never fired upon. Let no man ever say in my presence that ours was a bloodless war. While the numbers of our “peacetime” casualties were fewer, to those of us who lost good friends and colleagues to the ever-present risks of normal duty while holding that line against an enemy most of us never saw, it only makes their loss more poignant and profound. Some might think me a fool for saying this, but I wish my commanders would have sent me into harm’s way instead of some younger, perhaps less-trained or more fearful troop. It’s not that I had a death wish, then or now. It’s just that I wonder if perhaps by doing so, that my service in the right place at the right time might have saved another G.I.’s life. Unfortunately I will never know. My unqualified survivor’s guilt not-withstanding, apparently it was not meant to be.
Even for those of us who volunteered for Desert Storm, not all of our boots ever touched foreign soil. My bags were packed for world-wide deployment long before The Storm began. Shortly after General Schwartzkopf ordered the advance, I received an official letter and a comprehensive ‘what-else-to-bring’ list from a USAFE colleague who had been emergency-detailed to Riyadh from his base in Germany; the guy already in-theater I was next-in-line to replace. After that, my orderly room included my name among many others on a set of pre-deployment orders, and I even got a “chalk number” for the next outbound mission. Then it was all over. Alas, none of us get to pick our wars.
All that having been said, my 14 years, seven months and three days in the United States Air Force remain "The best job I ever had." I’d do it all over again (and then-some) if I could.
My current post-retirement "3rd Career" involves returning to my first love, full-time writing. I presently have several (my bride would say too many) irons in the fire. I've got a slowly-growing collection of poetry I hope to publish shortly. When I'm not penning verse, I'm neck deep in my first attempt at a novel, a psychological crime thriller. Lastly, and most dear to my heart, I'm rounding the bend on completing a very personal, partially-autobiographical non-fiction Cold War history I've titled, "Return to Julie-Six". It is my attempt at survivor's-guilt therapy, my catharsis, my penance, and hopefully, my forgiveness of myself for the errors and oversights of my earlier life. I covers much of the story of a single Air Force squadron (my first and closest unit, the 45th Missile Security Squadron) that quietly and professionally served here at Ellsworth from 1977 through 1994, most of it entirely under the radar of history. I dedicate the book to the many hundreds of my fellow brothers and sisters who served in that now-long-inactivated unit during its short but important life. But my main focus is to memorialize a handful of good friends and coworkers -- eager young patriots and skilled professionals all -- who unheralded, unknown, and shamefully forgotten, paid the ultimate price for peace and freedom right here on the lonely windswept plains of western South Dakota. I must write so that I can sleep at night. And so that their lives and service will matter...and be remembered.
Thank you for your consideration. Again, I look forward to meeting some of you this Saturday.
Bret S. Whitmore, Veteran
former TSgt, USAF