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Finding those heroes among us

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
It's amazing how in the most normal of life's situations, you can have an encounter that adds perspective to your life and reminds you of what's really important.

I had an encounter like this recently while shopping at the base commissary at Scott Air Force Base. It started as soon as I entered the store. As I walked in, I saw an older gentleman and his wife -- the man was in a motorized scooter with the shopping basket on the front and his wife was pushing a shopping cart.

As I first walked past the couple, I exchanged a "hello" with them and went about my business -- which included a stack of about 30 coupons looking for my "deals of the day." As time passed, it seemed this couple and I were frequenting the same aisles throughout the store, and as fate would have it, we ended up in the checkout line at the same time with them in front of me.

While we waited, I struck up a conversation with them since we were going to be waiting a while. I first asked the man if he retired from the military. He said, "Yes sir -- retired Air Force."

Since I wasn't thinking he was very old, I asked, "How long has it been since you retired?" It was his answer that changed the whole course of this conversation.

"I retired in '62 as a chief," he said. "I started my career as a B-17 (Flying Fortress) gunner back in 1942."

So there it was, I was in the presence of a pair of American heroes from the "Greatest Generation." First, the retired chief master sergeant is a hero because he served during a time of transition in our nation -- World War II, Korean War and the start of the Vietnam War. And his wife is a hero too. She is like many military family members who've paid a deep sacrifice while their loved ones are off to war.

As an additional note, in addition to serving nearly three years in World War II, the chief said he also did a year of duty in Korea and served in many capacities during his career working in positions that were part of the Cold War lore to include near a post along the Berlin Wall.

To add to the chief's impressive resume, he was one of the first chief master sergeants the Air Force had seen. The Air Force didn't even have an E-9 rank until the Military Pay Act of 1958 which created the senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant ranks. To boot, for this man to make E-9 inside of 20 years, also means he was very good at his job.

I also asked his wife how long they were married. She said they "got hitched" when he returned from World War II in 1945 and said she was surprised he made it back. Being a B-17 gunner, especially in the European theater where he served, the life expectancy for the number of missions they did was not very high. One history source said the life expectancy of the average B-17 crew was just 14 missions.

Our conversation included a little about me. I told them what I did for the Air Force, had a great family, that I'd been in for 20 years and am about to retire. The chief asked, "Have you been deployed?" I said simply, "A few times."

At this point we were nearing the front of the line and they split off to one lane and I went to another. It had only been five minutes but I felt like I had been among the presence of greatness. When we split, I told them it was nice to talk to them but I wasn't done chatting with them just yet.

As the checkout process took a little longer for me with the many coupons I had, they ended up finishing around the same time as me even though I had less items. So we met up again as we were heading out the door.

I said them, "It was a great pleasure to talk with both of you. Thank you to both of you for your service and for all that you've done for our nation. To have met someone like you from our Greatest Generation has been my distinct honor."

Their answer was simple.

"We just answered the call when our nation needed us," the chief said. "I was just glad stay on and serve over 20 years. So to you, I want to say thank you for your service as well. Being in the military is never an easy job and today is no different."

His wife added, "We love our military men and women so coming here to the commissary and seeing the people in uniform with their families brings us back to how it was for us.

"Thank you to you as well...and I bet you would never guess that I'm 84 and he's 87," she said with a chuckle.

"Not a day over 29," I said. She just smiled a big smile. With that said I helped them get their groceries into their car, shook the chief's hand and gave his wife a hug. For me, it made my day just meeting them.

As I walked to my car with my cart full of coupon-acquired goods, I thought of how rare of a meeting that was. It also made me realize there are many, many more people like them in our communities across America. From here on, I am going to keep an eye out for more of those people find those heroes among us.