In 2012, Britain’s National Army Museum organized a contest asking its patrons which of Britain’s historical enemies was their greatest foe? The answer turned out to be the man who, almost through sheer force of will, and despite a lack of trained and equipped troops, organized the worst defeat the British Empire ever suffered. Ever.
The man was George Washington.
When considering the winner of the contest, the museum took into account Washington’s spirit of endurance against the odds stacked in the British Empire’s favor and the enormous impact of his victory – not in the two centuries to come but in the immediate aftermath.
“His personal leadership was crucial,” said historian Stephen Brumwell, who called the American victory the Empire’s worst defeat. “His army was always under strength, hungry, badly supplied. He shared the dangers of his men. Anyone other than Washington would have given up the fight. He came to personify the cause, and the scale of his victory was immense.”
Each possible commander must have led an army against British forces in combat, which ruled out enemies like Adolf Hitler. Candidates must also have been within the National Army Museum’s timeframe of the 17th century onwards, which ruled out enemies like William the Conqueror, who actually conquered Britain and changed Western Civilization forever.
The 8,000-plus votes in the survey put Washington well above other notable British enemies, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Irish Independence leader Michael Collins, Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ukrainian photographer Oleksandr Ranchukov, who died last year, primarily made a name for himself shooting architecture, and his pictures of buildings and urban spaces have appeared in several academic publications. But he also liked to take his camera out onto the streets of his native Kyiv and other cities to pursue his own gritty brand of street photography.
As he took many of these photos in the 1980s, his bleak black-and-white images provide a record of life in the latter days of the Soviet Union that stands in stark contrast to that which was portrayed in the official propaganda of that era.
In a recent essay on his work, fellow photographer and art critic Oleksandr Lyapin said Ranchukov primarily saw himself as a chronicler of his times and hoped his images would “complement the story of the sad end of the U.S.S.R., the dull streets of the city showing its decay…”
According to photographer and critic Oleksandr Lyapin, Ranchukov wanted to capture for younger generations “the faces of Soviet people — in a way very different from how they are presented on posters.”
People at a stall in Kyiv drink kvass, a fermented beverage made from bread, which is still a popular summer drink in many former Soviet republics.
“Ranchukov was a street photographer, but he had almost no interest in the aesthetics of street photography,” Lyapin said. Instead, he simply “painted the picture of Soviet everyday life — dull and inexpressive, even dead: identical gray streets, unsightly clothes, street vendors, puddles, and dirt.”
Many of Ranchukov’s photographs capture aspects of Kyiv life that have since disappeared forever, such as this cobbler’s kiosk in Zhytniy Market, which was once a familiar sight to generations.
A woman in a Kyiv alleyway walks past a poster proclaiming, “Glory to the Communist Party!”
Needless to say, conditions for street photography were not ideal in the somewhat paranoid milieu of the U.S.S.R., which is probably why Ranchukov relied mainly on the Soviet-era Kiev 4 camerafor most of his city shots. According to Lyapin, this “quiet but very accurate” device meant that Ranchukov was often able to photograph people without being noticed, thus ensuring a natural, realistic depiction of Soviet streets.
In addition to capturing what one critic has called the “gloomy dignity” of Soviet life, Ranchukov was also on hand to record the dramatic changes that occurred on the streets of Kyiv as the Soviet system rapidly collapsed. Indeed, his shots showing the advent of capitalism in his native city rank among his most striking images.
Curious residents inspect an American automobile on the streets of Kyiv.
A man in Kyiv reacts as people line up outside a shop selling American jeans.
Not surprisingly, for most of his career, there wasn’t much official appetite for Ranchukov’s warts-and-all approach to street photography and it wasn’t until the latter days of perestroika that he and other like-minded photographers were allowed to exhibit their depictions of city streets.
Nonetheless, even in such relatively relaxed times, these photographs’ unflinching look at Soviet life caused consternation among the authorities, and one of their first exhibitions in Kyiv was shut down after just one day by scandalized KGB and Communist Party apparatchiks.
Oleksandr Ranchukov (1943-2019)
Although these images didn’t go down well with Soviet bureaucrats, they obviously struck a chord with ordinary Kyiv residents, and crowds of people lined up to see them when the exhibition reopened at another location sometime later.
One of those who visited the Ranchukov exhibition in 1989 was a Canadian exchange student named Chrystia Freeland, who later became a prominent journalist and politician and is now her country’s deputy prime minister.
Describing Ranchukov as a “brilliant and prolific documentary photographer,” Freeland was instrumental in getting his images and those of some of his peers to the editors of The Independent newspaper in London, who “were hugely impressed by his work, and promptly published it.”
People form a line to buy herring in Kyiv.
“I was deeply moved by his ability to reveal the reality of life in Ukraine — the country’s people, places, and streets,” she told RFE/RL in an e-mail. “In capturing a key moment in Ukrainian history, often at personal risk, Oleksandr laid the groundwork for future Ukrainian photographers and artists to bring their work to the world stage. “
Unlike his architecture photography, Oleksandr Ranchukov’s portraits of Soviet street life have never been published in book form. You can view other Ranchukov images and find out more about his life and work here.
Marine Corps boot camp is a slice of hell that turns civilians into modern-day Marines.
With constant physical training, screaming drill instructors, and so much close-order drill recruits eventually have dreams about it, spending 12 weeks at boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina or San Diego, California can be difficult for most young people.
Having stepped off a bus and onto the yellow footprints at Parris Island on Sep. 3, 2002, one of those young people was me. While in hindsight, boot camp really wasn’t that bad, I thought then that it was the worst thing ever. While writing this post, I thought I would speak in general terms, but since my mother kept all my correspondence home, I figured I would go straight to the source: my original — and now-hilarious-to-read — letters back home.
Drill instructors are the worst.
Having a crazy person with veins popping out of their neck scream in your face and run around a barracks throwing stuff can be quite a shock to someone who was a civilian a week prior. Although I later learned to greatly respect my DI’s, I didn’t really like them at the beginning, as my first letter home showed.
“Our DI’s are complete motherf—king a–holes. There’s no other way to describe them,” I wrote, before including a great example: “Today they sprayed shaving cream and toothpaste ALL OVER the head and we had to clean it up. Yesterday, threw out all of our gear, had to change the racks, and sh– was flying.”
Sounds about right.
My recruiter totally lied to me.
It’s a running joke in the Marine Corps (and the greater military, really) that your recruiter probably lied to you. Maybe they didn’t lie to you per se, but they were selective with what they told you. One of my favorites was that “if I didn’t like my job as infantry, I could change it in two years.” That’s one of those not-totally-a-lie-but-far-fetched-truths.
In my initial letter, I took issue with my recruiters for telling me that drill instructors don’t ever get physical. Most of the time they won’t touch you, but that’s not exactly all the time.
“Oh, by the way, recruiters are lying bastards. They [the drill instructors] scream, swear a lot, and choke/push on a daily basis,” I wrote. (It was day three and I was of course exaggerating).
Mail takes forever to get there.
Getting mail at boot camp is a wonderful respite from the daily grind at boot camp, but letters are notoriously slow to arrive. In my letters home, I complained about mail being slow often, since I’d ask questions in my letters then get a response of answers and more questions from home, well after I was through that specific event in the training cycle.
“Sometimes I write more letters than everyone back home and I have way less time to do it,” I wrote in one letter.
The other recruits were terrible.
I’m sure they said the same thing about me. Put 60-80 people from completely different backgrounds and various regions of the United States and you’re probably going to have tension. Add drill instructors into the mix constantly stressing you out and it’s guaranteed.
Then of course, there’s the issue of the “recruit crud,” the nickname for the sickness that inevitably comes from being in such close proximity with all these different people.
Throughout my letters home, I complain of other recruits not yelling loud enough or running fast enough. “They don’t sound off and we are getting in trouble all the time,” I wrote. No doubt I was just echoing what the drill instructor has given us as a reason for why he was bringing us to the dreaded “pit.”
Getting “pitted” is the worst five minutes of your life.
Marine boot camp has two unique features constantly looming in the back of a recruit’s mind: the “pit” and the quarterdeck. The quarterdeck for recruits is the place at the front of the squad bay where they are taken and given “incentive training,” or I.T. — a nice term for pushups, jumping jacks, running-in-place, etc — for a few minutes if they do something wrong.
But for those times when it’s not just an individual problem — and more of a full platoon one — drill instructors take them to sand pits usually located near the barracks for platoon IT. Think of them as the giant sandboxes you played in as a kid, except this one isn’t fun. For extra fun, DI’s may play a game of “around the world,” where the platoon is run from one pit to another.
Bold, functional, and hardcore were the first words that came to mind when I unboxed the Benchmade Infidel 3300BK-2001 double-edge dagger. It feels light but still strong. Every edge and line is incredibly clean, and at a nearly $500 price point, it should be that way.
It is an incredibly comfortable blade to carry, for its size, thanks to the tip-down, deep-carry pocket clip. If you’re the kind of person who wants to carry this type of tactical blade on a MOLLE capable host, you can certainly do that — although I’m not sure that its anodized blue color makes it the best choice for that (in such a case, you might prefer Benchmade’s fixed-blade Infidel instead). That being said, my preferred method of carrying is in my pocket, so this is a great option for me. While the color isn’t my normal choice, when I consider that I’ve got a box full of black and gray tactical knives, it is actually kind of refreshing to have something that stands out a bit.
This iteration of the popular Infidel OTF (out-the-front) platform features the introduction of a bold new anodized blue handle (.59″ thickness) to a family of tactical knives that sported more traditional colors. The handle material is 6061-T6 aluminum. It looks a little blocky from certain angles, but it is very comfortable to hold and deploy. The total weight comes in at 4.90oz so it isn’t heavy enough to be noticeable while carrying. I’ve got average-sized hands and this knife feels great in every way. It wasn’t simply the handle color that got an upgrade — the blade did too.
The 3.91″ length blade now sports a DLC (Diamond-like Carbon Coated) finish on a new CPM-S30V steel with a thickness of 0.118″ and a hardness of 58-60. When the plain double-edged blade is closed the handle length is 5″; when the blade is open the overall length is 8.91″. Deploying the blade is a clean action. There is no unnecessary play with the release button, and it doesn’t require superhuman strength. For the first few days I carried this knife I was admittedly nervous about a negligent discharge, but soon came to realize it wasn’t a valid concern due to its quality.
The Infidel 3300BK-2001 comes with a MSRP of 5 (depending on where you look it may be slightly more or less). This Benchmade “Black Class” blade is in the company’s highest tier of quality. It is considered an “Unlimited Limited” product, meaning that it will only be available for one year. If you’re looking for a defensive blade that conceals easily in your pocket but also has a bit more character than the typical tactical knife, this is one to consider. This blade will be available for purchase on 8/20/2020.
Left: Bob Gunton. Right: Bob in Vietnam as an RTO. Photo credit Bob Gunton.
Bob Gunton is a prolific stage actor known for his roles in Evita and Sweeney Todd on Broadway where his most well-known film role is as Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption. He served with distinction in the Vietnam War in the last great multi-unit battle of the conflict, The Siege of Firebase Ripcord. This is his story.
Special Note: “Bob Gunton has just completed a memoir entitled “…OR AM I BEING OBTUSE?…”
WATM: Tell me about your family and your life growing up?
My mom and dad met at a USO dance on Santa Monica pier and within two weeks they were married. I am the oldest of six children, three boys and three girls. My parents were from the coal country; my father being from Pennsylvania (Anthracite-hard coal) and my mother being from the coal country of Montana (Bituminous-soft coal), so I have the hard and soft coal running through my blood.
I had been influenced by many folk singers in high school where I was affected by the ethos of folk music through such acts as The Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. I put together a trio called The Deacons. We went around to coffee houses to perform, like the Mon Ami in Orange, CA. Around the same time as we performed at Mon Ami, Steve Martin was on the marquee as well since he grew up in Orange County.
I went to the seminary of Paulist Fathers — St. Peter’s College in Baltimore, Maryland for a few years from 1963 to 1966. I had started out as a supporter of the Vietnam War in 1963. I’d even made a speech at my high school for a Toastmasters Speech Contest about the “domino theory,” but then my views changed rather dramatically after the seminary. My opinion shifted especially after Senator Eugene McCarthy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy moved away from the Democratic party line supporting the Vietnam War.
A friend and fellow seminarian classmate arranged for me to audition for his father, Paul Crabtree, who was a successful Broadway actor, writer and director. He’d written a musical called TENNESSEE, USA! for the new theatre he had founded — The Cumberland County Playhouse — in Crossville, Tennessee. It was going to run during the summer between seminary and Novitiate. I had done a couple of operettas in high school. when my thoughts were of making a difference as a priest. After that wonderful summer I recognized that I was gifted far more in music, acting and performing than in what was required to be a good priest. I left the seminary and had gone to UC Irvine to study theater when I dropped out for a semester to do Carousel in Tennessee. I knew I was chancing being. drafted. And when I returned to California, I was.
When I was called up, I had to spend some time thinking if I was a Conscientious Objector (CO). My father had been in the Marine Corps during WWII in the Pacific and I had grown up steeped in WWII history. My father’s six brothers were all WWII veterans as well. By that time, I was opposed to The Vietnam War. I probably could have gotten a CO because of my divinity school experience. But although I was opposed to the Vietnam War, I was not opposed then to a just war in general. I didn’t feel I had the right to be a CO because of my political beliefs. I also had to ask myself if I could measure up to my father, he was a supporter of the war. My father and I had lots of very agitated and loud arguments about the war.
After my time in Vietnam and I had come home I discovered that my father had grown long hair, sideburns and had himself had come to oppose the war. My willingness to go fight may have affected him in some way. While I was in Nam I had been given the Bronze Star with a V (for Valor.) Our local paper had run a story on it. Many years later, when my father passed as the eldest son, I had to clean out his belongings etc. I found in his wallet a folded-up piece of plastic covered newspaper clipping about my Bronze Star award. He had carried it in his wallet for many years. All of this brought us much closer together than in the first twenty years of my life. I had earned his respect and we could speak to each other as not just father and son, but as survivors of conflict.
WATM: What is the most distinct memory of your mother and your father?
Hmm…It’s a memory shared with me after Dad had died. While he was alive my father’s Marine Corps buddy, Robert Newtbaar, had borrowed my father’s dress blues and wanted to return them. When I came to pick them up, he told me a story about my father. When my father and he were on a troop ship heading to Hawaii, then on to the South Pacific, Newtbaar had become very depressed and anxious about what might happen to him. He decided he was going to jump overboard. Newtbaar made a move and was on his way over the rail, when my father dashed over and pulled him back onto ship amid a volley of curses. Newtbaar said very tearfully that my father had saved his life.
After they got back and were mustered out of the Corps, Newtbar, who was from a fairly wealthy family, came to my father with ,000. He loved to hear my father sing, especially Frankie Lane’s hit songs. like “Georgia,” “Jezebel” and “The Flying Dutchman.” Newtbaar told my father he had the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. He wanted my father to go to Hollywood and be a singer.
However, my father already had a wife and two kids and was working in a grocery store. He was in no position to give up his responsibilities for his family in order to pursue a singing career. He’d actually had to rejoin the USMC at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro just to find housing for our family. A few years later Dad suffered an injury in a grocery store in Santa Monica which resulted in a case of amnesia. He eventually recovered from his injury; however, he lost a lot of memories of WWII and the early post war period. We had some pictures from his time in the service. I also learned from his friends some of what my father had experienced. It was touching for Newtbar to share these stories with me and they impacted my life.
My family would occasionally in the summer and drive up to Montana to visit my grandmother and uncle on my mother’s side. Part of the journey up there was along a stretch of highway which was called the Grapevine which is now the I-5, which was full of steep switchbacks and rapid changes of elevation. My father was agoraphobic which I learned through my childhood. As an adult I took my parents NYC and then to Windows on the World, which was a restaurant overlooking the city in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on floors 106 and 107. My father stood at the back of the elevator once the doors opened to the restaurant, saw the tip-tops of skyscrapers. He barely was able to inch his way around with his back against the center walls. It was the most vulnerable I had ever seen him.
The WTC memory makes me flash back to those trips to Montana where my father would look out the window over the rocks and chasms below. After looking he would get anxious and sweaty. My mother would reach out and touch his shoulder. She’d start singing “Whispering Hope”, which is a gospel song, but also popular at the time. As she began singing, my father would join in. All of a sudden, we kids in the back seat, comforted by the sound of their soothing harmony. For us, their duet signified their love for us and their shared history together.
The grapevine highway. Photo credit SVC History.
A view from Windows on the World in the WTC’s North Tower. Photo credit Literary Hub.
WATM: What values were stressed at home?
Our Catholic Faith; our blue-collar status; my parents’ Depression-Era values, sense of responsibility. All of us had to pitch in. My father was self-taught and a great reader but was educated only through the seventh grade. My mother had been a schoolteacher in a one room schoolhouse in Montana. There was a strong expectation that all of us would work hard in school and be a good person. Basic, decent 1950’s values.
Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want painting. Photo credit artsy.com.
WATM: What influenced you to join the US Army, what was your experience and what lessons did you take away from your service?
I was drafted. Basic and Advanced Infantry training were tough physically in many ways since I was not particularly athletic. I was appointed cadence caller for our early morning five-mile runs probably because of my loud voice. One of my cadences calls was, “…we are the mighty, mighty mighty Charlie, everywhere we go people want to know who we are, so we tell them, we are Charlie, mighty mighty Charlie…” Classic. Although I sometimes ad libbed a couple, including: “If you got a half a buck….Call someone who gives a (bleep.)” I was sent to Nam near the end of the war during Vietnamization and was put into an S-1 shop for the 101st Airborne in Bien Hoa. What a relief! My thoughts were of a dry hooch, spit-shined boots, pressed combat fatigues, and weekends in Saigon. I lasted at the S-1 just one week. Because American grunts were being phased out of the war, the Division Commander wanted all soldiers with a combat MOS to be sent out into the field to get the ARVN up to speed. I was an 11B-20 –infantry, boonie rat, ground pounder — so off I went to “the bush.”
I was sent up to I Corps in Quang Tri province, in I Corps. I reported to the 2nd of the 501st Battalion Headquarters and then to their Charlie Company, Third Platoon. The platoon leader, SGT Yonashiru, took a look at me — being six feet tall and husky. the PL asked, “who’s the (effing) cherry?” He scoped me out. Given my height and apparent strength he ordered me to take the “gun” or the “radio”. The “gun” was the .50 caliber machine gun. I chose the radio, which seemed kind of “show business” to me. Apparently, some of the grunts initially thought I might be a Criminal Investigation Division (CID) narc because I showed up by myself to the unit with spit shined boots, crisp fatigues. I was also a few years older than the rest of the platoon. I was warned by a fellow soldier about being viewed as a narc and warned me about “fragging.” Fragging described when someone rolls a grenade under another soldier’s hooch to get rid of a “problem”. For the first time in Vietnam I was really scared.
I went into the company area and went up to a soul brother and asked for a doobie. I’d never smoked grass in my life. He handed me a joint. I stood there in the company area and toked up so anyone watching would see. I then went back to my hooch and passed out for like twelve hours. From then on, I was one of the guys and no longer a target of fragging. I was now “in” in the outfit.
Bob in a UH-1N high above Thua Thien Province, Vietnam 1970. Photo credit Bob Gunton
They made me the platoon, eventually company, and then battalion Radio Telephone Operator (RTO). Near the end of my year there in July 1970 our battalion was Op-Con to the 3rd Brigade of the 101st. They were seeking to take over a hilltop above the A Shau Valley where the US had been driven out a few years earlier during the “Hamburger Hill” period. Fire Support Base Ripcord was going to be emplaced during this two-brigade assault operation. At this time, I was just given the battalion RTO job and would be with the battalion CO, XO and the like on Ripcord itself. At the same time, my guys with Charlie company 2nd of the 501st were going to assault the area around FSB Ripcord with fellow companies of the 3rd Brigade. Bn Intel determined that thousands of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were going to assault the FSB. A day or two after the Brigade-sized assault on the AO, my former unit was caught in a command detonated ambush followed by an early morning assault by the NVA. All during this time I had been talking on the radio to my guys, handling supply and normal stuff.
One of my best friends there was fellow soldier Joe Patterson, a funny guy and great audience for my shenanigans. The night before they were hit, we were talking on the Delta One radio which was scrambled so the enemy could not intercept our transmissions. He told me, “Gunton, I have a really bad feeling about this one.” There had been no contact yet, but he still felt bad about the operation. Sure enough when the unit was hit, Joey was gravely wounded. I called in the MEDEVAC for him and for our company commander. We had one KIA from Charlie’s Headquarters Company where this soldier had had to go out to replace someone’s weapon and had to stay overnight and was killed during the assault. It was a terribly fraught and frightening time.
Bob along the Song Bo River. Photo credit Bob Gunton.
There were many major encounters around Ripcord which turned out to be the biggest, final, multi-unit battle in Vietnam. There have been books and films about it. We went on like that for about a week or longer. In the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) we had three RTOs. The intel suggested that the firebase itself would soon be under attack. At one point the NVA got really lucky when they shot down a Chinook over the ammo dump as it was unloading ammo. All of the crew survived the crash, but the entire ammo dump started cooking off: phosphorus, artillery, HE and CS rounds. All of that CS gas started infiltrating into the bunkers where none of us had gas masks, so we had to take our t-shirts and wet them to put over our face so as not to be forced out of our bunkers.
At one point I had to urinate really badly. With the rounds cooking off and NVA mortars coming in, I wasn’t about to saunter outside to one of the “Piss tubes.” The bunkers were well constructed and had screen doors. I got to the door and decided I would open the door, step out halfway or so and then take a whiz. I was just about to finish when I heard, “TROOP!” right behind me. It was the brigade commander whose call sign was Black Spade. I stood to attention and zipped up. Other soldiers were in that part of the bunker when the Brigade Commander told me with cold anger:, “if you have to go take a piss, go find a piss tube. We are NOT animals in here.” It was a very embarrassing moment. I felt lower than snake shit. A few days later the Brigade Commander was evaluating positions outside when a mortar round landed directly on him. He and a fellow officer were killed immediately. The terrible irony of that sequence of events rocked me for a while.
Companies then started being extracted from around Ripcord and then it was our HQ’s time to leave. We knew Ripcord was going to be abandoned and the Army would blow up what they could, then carpet bomb it with B-52 strikes. We got back to LZ Sally and all of us in HQ company gets called together. A member of the battalion staff informed us about how two Delta One radios had been left behind in our TOC on Ripcord. The NVA could potentially use those radios against us. They needed two “volunteers” to go back and get them, which really meant the two who were least “short” would go. I was pretty damn short — but not short enough. I went with another younger RTO on a slick (Huey helicopter) to head back up there. On the way out, one of the pilots turned around in the chopper and made a hand dunking motion. Ripcord was taking incoming fire. We had to jump off the helicopter at about five or six feet off the ground as he was not going to land because of the incoming.
We found a hole to jump in and then found the Delta One radios. There were a lot of wounded soldiers that needed to be taken off the fire base before anyone else could go. We knew that no one could head back to base until all the wounded had been evacuated. So me and the other RTO jumped in and helped load the wounded onto slicks while the mortars and rockets continued falling. Just before the sun set over Laos we were able to get on a chopper to head back. I don’t think any of that involved any kind of valor much less heroism, but the battalion commander put us in for Bronze Stars, particularly for the MEDEVAC loading.
The questions of what is cowardice, what is heroism, what is self-preservation have been with me all my life. I’ve even used them in my acting. Everything is shades of gray, especially when it comes to combat and moral decisions that we make. Was I wrong not to go the piss tube with the self-preservation involved and the death of Black Spade as he followed his own advice and left the 3rd Brigade without leadership for a while. These experiences have definitely shaped my moral view of the universe. I have to accept that even the worst situations, the best remedies are going to be mixed. How we are trained, our wisdom, and education play their parts in our decisions and choices. But we are human, have mixed emotions, and inner conflicts. I have applied these in my life successfully and unsuccessfully.
MEDEVACs are miles ahead of what we had in Vietnam. There was an instance where a soldier from our recon platoon left the wire at night to take a crap. One of his buddies mistakenly set off a claymore on him and killed him. When the chopper came in to evac the body there were huge winds in the AO and they could not get a jungle penetrator through the triple canopy jungle to get the body out so they threw the soldiers a body bag. The soldiers then had to hump the corpse out for three or four days to get to a place where the chopper could get in.
I helped prevent a mutiny earlier that year where a loach (OH-6 Cayuse helicopter) had been shot down where I was a company RTO then. Our company was tasked to go down into this valley area to find the chopper to see if the pilot had survived. Our company commander was against the war and did all he could to stay out of it. He was one of the only officers I had met like that. The company commander wouldn’t lead down and the battalion commander call sign Driver had to fly out. The company commander was ordered to go down after being chewed out by the battalion CO and I told him, “we got a lawful order to go down and we needed to go otherwise this is bad stuff.” We did end up following orders to go down where we found the loach with the pilot dead. The pilot’s body was able to be sent back to Graves and Registration for eventual burial. I was against the war but found myself on the other side of the argument with the company commander. It was gray even then and was not cut and dried. Our mission was, for most of us, to save each other and our buddies got back.
Charlie company had its 50th reunion, almost 50 years to the day many were injured including Joey Patterson at the FSB Ripcord battle. Due to Covid-19 I was not able to fly out to Pennsylvania. However, I did do a Zoom call and got see them all and meet their wives. Joey and I caught up as well. It was a great virtual reunion due to the COVID pandemic. Keeping the threads of your life together along the way can give you a better sense of where you are from and going.
WATM: What values have you carried over from the Army into acting and film?
When filming a movie, you are all in it together where everyone has their own duty. The expectation is that everyone knows exactly what they have to do and to do it as quickly and gracefully as they can. It includes keeping spirits up when waiting out a rainstorm to restart filming and when moving locations and loading up the trucks is like heading to another combat assault. So, I must have my shit together and know my lines cold. There is a lot that carries over from being in the military to working on a film production. You depend on each other and don’t want a weak link and sure as hell don’t want to be that weak link.
WATM: What is the most fulfilling stage and/or film role you have done?
Warden Norton from The Shawshank Redemption without a doubt is the best role I have ever had. It is the best movie I have ever been in. I have been back to many reunions and celebrations at the prison. People go to visit the prison and stay overnight. They even have a Shawshank trail where people get to see all the outside filming locations and then take a tour of the prison where it has artifacts from the movie. I have been to every continent except Antarctica and everywhere I go people come up to me to speak about The Shawshank Redemption. People come up to me in Europe, South America, Australia where to be a part of a movie that is such high quality and well-known across the board is truly a blessing.
I was invited to Akron for a special day celebrating Shawshank Redemption and by the local AA Akron baseball team the Rubber Ducks to throw out the first pitch. They also ordered from China a thousand bobble head Warden Nortons. The first thousand people to come in would get one where I would sign them. I have one for myself and have given a few away too.
*He shares some of the best quotes people request when he signs autographs from the film are, “Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me,” “Lord, it’s a miracle! The man up and vanished like a fart in the wind,” and “…or am I being obtuse.”
Mr. Gunton as Warden Samuel Norton of Shawshank State Prison. Photo credit to IMDB.com
Mr. Gunton in Akron with the Warden Norton bobble head. Photo credit Lake Highlands Advocate.
WATM: What was your experience like in working with such theatrical talents as Hal Prince, Patti LuPone, Theodore Mann, Susan H. Schulman, Beth Fowler and then with such film talents such as Oliver Stone, Tim Robbins, Frank Darabont, Clint Eastwood, Sly Stallone, Sandra Bullock and the like?
Hal Prince was a key person in my career and am grateful to him. Oliver Stone was interesting and challenging — a brilliant man. I enjoyed working with Robin Williams perhaps more than anyone else. Jim Carrey is a deep thinker as well as being very charming, well-read and generous. Jim was extremely funny as well. I have liked most everyone I have worked with.
I got to play a chaplain in a film with Stacey Keach named Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the USS Indianapolis. I enjoy playing priests and military personnel because I feel I can put a little spin on the ball and make them more interesting and factual. My chaplain character got eaten by a shark. I had to do some tricky timing with holding my breath for the scenes of being eaten by the shark. Two divers were holding my feet where they start shaking me and then pull me down really fast. If my timing wasn’t spot on in taking in breath, then having to hold it while they release a blood bag, to show his guy is really gone it can be problematic. It was tricky to film, but nothing like the crew from the Indianapolis though. Floating on a funky, tiny life-raft, off the coast of the Bahamas, with Stacy Keach and I laughing our butts off, was not a hardship assignment.
Working with Clint Eastwood was good. He has a fantastic crew. He was a gentlemen and one of the quietest directors I have ever worked for. He got that from doing so many Westerns where a director would yell “action” and people would get thrown off their horse when it bolted from the shouting. Instead of “action” Clint would just quietly say, “go ahead.”
I have maintained close ties with the Paulist Fathers even done work for Paulist Productions as well. In the film Judas shot in Morocco in 2004, on a huge set representing The Temple in Jerusalem, I played the High Priest Caiphas. Hotter than blazes in very authentic robes etc. But I really enjoyed it.
Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown in The Shawshank Redemption.
WATM: What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?
After my service I went to NY hoping for a career in Theater. Many of my peers had gone to Yale or Julliard or Northwestern and other great schools. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. It wasn’t about their not serving in the war, it was because I felt they had a two- or three-year head start on their careers. Establishing a career in theater means doing low paying jobs, children’s theater and dinner theater etc. out in the boondocks. Then, if you are fortunate you work your way up to Broadway. These guys had already networked with people from their professional schools and had jumped ahead of me. I felt I had missed out on that networking.
While on Broadway after finishing “Evita” my agent told me about a play I should look at doing off-off Broadway, with no pay. Having just come from a big Broadway musical hit it didn’t sound that appetizing it was entitled “How I Got That Story”. It was about Vietnam. There were only two actors. One of the roles was a journalist and the other role was every person in Vietnam that the journalist runs into while trying to get the story of why we were in Vietnam and what it all meant. 22 different characters! Because I had been there and seen and heard and lived with a wide range of people, both genders and three races, I knew who these people were, how they spoke, walked and behaved. The roster of characters included: a Madame Nhu character, a nun, a crazy photographer, a Viet Cong officer and, most surprisingly, a 16-year-old Vietnamese bar girl. The man who wrote this play had served as a CO medic in Vietnam. I told my agent: “I don’t care if I don’t get paid, I have to do this.”
We performed in a tiny rooftop theater behind the building where John Lennon had been killed. The play got excellent reviews and was covered by many journalists who’d gotten their start serving in Vietnam as reporters. It got a lot of ink in all the newspapers, especially in the New York Times. We eventually transferred to an actual Off-Broadway theater in the theater district and we ran for nine months or so. The main thing is everyone in town saw that show including casting directors, fellow actors, movie directors including Alan Pakula (To Kill a Mockingbird, All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice). Alan came backstage after a performance. He said he wanted me to play an Arab in the film Rollover. He asked to meet a couple of days later where we talked mostly about Vietnam and the movie. I never auditioned. I knew he was going to have me do it and he did! It was the largest salary I had ever had for acting up to that point and opened a myriad of doors for me.
“How I Got That Story” really kicked off my career as a dramatic actor and not just a song and dance guy. At the Opening Night Party we had among others, the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Also Ed Murphy, my seminarian buddy, who had served in Vietnam as well. This entire chapter was like karma where nothing is ever wasted; that there is always something that even terrible experiences can feed your soul or change your life. In a good way. If, of course, you survive it.
Vietnam was tough, sad, and frightening, although we also often laughed our asses off with our morbid humor in part to expel our anxiety. Vietnam served an important role in my character development as well as my work in theater and in films.
On a side note, Afghanistan is one of the few wars I can say, “yeah we belong there.” We need to be there to keep them from doing anything like what happened on 9/11 ever again. I’d sign up, but I don’t think that they would have me.
“How I Got That Story” featured in the NYT from the Feb 18th, 1982 paper. Photo credit nytimes.com.
WATM: As a veteran, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood and stage arena?
We need to encourage veterans who have a story to tell them. We have had some good recent movies like American Sniper and The Hurt Locker. Most people who don’t have military experience hear our stories finding them exotic and dramatic. It is life and death with a cast of interesting characters. As an Army draftee I saw the full spectrum of humanity which makes for a lot of interesting stories.
WATM: What are you most proud of in life and your career?
Being a father to my daughter, Olivia. And happily married to a former high school classmate, Carey. Career-wise Shawshank and my last Broadway show, “Sweeney Todd”, which is the toughest stage role I had ever attempted and was well received. It felt like climbing Mount Everest to do it. It was my “swan song” to Broadway and am glad to have gone out on top. I am proud of my friendships from the seminary, Vietnam, theater and fellow film actors. I am also proud to have made it to this age and to still be working.
Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is a now a master photographer, cartoonist and storyteller.
There is a saying among the airborne forces (words to the effect): “The sky, even more so than the land or the sea, is terribly unforgiving to even the slightest mistake.”
I have been in ground combat units, airborne units both low and high-altitude operational in nature, and have extensive experience in both maritime undersea and surface operations. I agree that airborne operations are likely more dangerous than those maritime, but I insist that the land is by far the safest of all; in fact, I’m conducting a fairly safe land operation right this very minute!
Combat diving puts one in many claustrophobic situations. I happen to be mildly claustrophobic; I think a great percentage of us are, but I also happen to be clinically horrified of heights to the point of near incapacitation. For me, therefore, parachute training was the most stressful. That notwithstanding, I have ~800 parachute jumps to boast of.
While I know of many deaths, near deaths, and injuries from parachute operations (mostly broken limbs from landing and spinal injuries from hard parachute openings), I also have personal experience with two fatalities just in the basic training course for Special Forces underwater operations. In both cases the deaths were attributed to heart attacks. I should mention that the Army’s diving school is one of the most stressful, mentally and physically, in the world.
One of the concerns in airborne operations are early or late exits from the jump aircraft. As you may know, paratroopers try to land in a pre-designated area of land know as a Drop Zone (DZ) that is largely devoid of structures and obstacles like trees and communications lines. Therefore urban areas are avoided and deserts make for great DZs indeed. High altitude jumpers with highly maneuverable parachutes fancy the motto: “The whole world is a Drop Zone.”
In a jump aircraft, the pilot turns over control of the jump to the Jump Master in charge by way of a simple pair of lights located at the jump doors; one is red and the other green. Minutes from the DZ, the pilot will illuminate the red light indicating “no jump”. Once the pilot feels he is safely over the DZ, he will illuminate the green light indicating “safe for jump.”
(Sweet shot of a paratrooper just out the jump door with the green “Go” light illuminated.)
Paratroopers exiting on a red light is considered a major safety violation and is not tolerated across the community. Each incident warrants some measure of investigation to determine fault and safety conditions at the time. Such was the case of Red Light Randy.
Delta does very few if any low-level static lines drops, favoring the greater potential of drops from altitudes of 12,500 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) and above. Red Light Randy had a mission for which a low-level drop was needed, so he set out for a couple of rehearsal jumps prior to the mission.
The practice jumps went well, but on the night of the actual mission, the pilot failed to put the red light to green once over the DZ. Randy had positive visual recognition of his DZ reception party below, but had no jump authority. Frustrated at the sight of his DZ wasting away below him, he stuffed his team out the door with a frustrated enthusiasm. At a point along the exit the green light finally came on.
(A low-level drop has a much greater penchant to keep men less dispersed ever ground than a high-level drop.)
There was never a decent explanation given by the pilot for the late green light that caused Randy, the last to exit, to come down in some modest scrub past the far edge of the drop zone. There were no injuries or loss of equipment, and Randy and his men enjoyed a mission success for the night.
The Air Force reported the “incident” as an early exit on a red light, but the swift and efficient investigation that ensued determined that the pilot gave a late green, threatening a separation in Randy’s team. In combat it is not the prerogative to circle back and drop the rest of the team, so inevitably the loss of so many men of Randy’s team would have monumentally jeopardized mission success.
So the early red light incident was over… or was it? The “potential ball-breaking” alarm sounded. The details of the event were rocketed off to me, and I got to work straight away producing the feature cartoon:
The drop aircraft is depicted still on departure field runway with Randy announcing the command to jump, The first man exits only to splat face-down on the tarmac. Early exit on red for Red Light Randy!
“Measured by its major accident rate per 100,000 flight hours, which is the military standard, the Harrier is the most dangerous plane in the U.S. military,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Alan C. Miller in the video below. “Overall the Marines have lost more than one-third of the entire Harrier fleet to accidents.”
The first Harrier model, the AV-8A had a Class A mishap rate of 31.77 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. The Marines improved the rate to 11.44 per 100,000 hours with the introduction of the AV-8B in the mid-1980s, according to Miller.
By contrast, the Harrier has more than twice the accident rate of the F-16, more than three times the rate of the F/A-18, and about five times the rate of A-10.
Despite its astronomical accident rate, the fighter is beloved and remains in service more than 40 years since its introduction in 1971.
“One Marine general who flew the plane early on described it as an answer to a prayer,” Miller said.
The Corps’ need for an aircraft with a vertical landing and short takeoff capability can be traced to the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal. The Marines lost over 1,000 men during that fight and felt abandoned by the Navy to fend for themselves.
“Since then, the precept that the Marines in the air should protect the Marines on the ground has been an essential part of the Corps’ ethos,” Miller said.
This History Channel video shows how the Harrier supports the Marine Corps’ mission to fight anywhere, anytime regardless of the risks:
In May 2004, about 20 British troops were on the move 15 miles south of al-Amara, near the major city of Basra in Iraq. They were on the way to assist another unit that was under fire when their convoy was hit by a surprise of its own.
Shia militias averaged five attacks per day in Basra when the U.K. troops arrived. British soldiers tried to arrest Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for supporting the violence and the locals were not happy about it. An unpredictable level of violence broke out. British troops were frequently under assault – an estimated 300 ambushes within three months.
“We were constantly under attack,” Sgt. Brian Wood told the BBC. “If mortars weren’t coming into our base, then we were dragged out into the city to help other units under fire.”
Wood and other troops from the 1st Battallion of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment were on their way to aid Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who were attacked by 100 militiamen from al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army when their vehicle struck an IED. The surprise attack actually hit two vehicles carrying 20 troops on a highway south of Amarah. Mortars, rockets, and machine guns peppered the unarmored vehicles.
Rather than drive through the ambush, the vehicles took so much punishment they had to stop on the road. The troops inside dismounted, established a perimeter, and had to call in some help of their own. Ammunition soon ran low.
The decision was made: the British troops fixed bayonets.
They ran across 600 feet of open ground toward the entrenched enemy. Once on top of the Mahdi fighters, the British bayoneted 20 of the militia. Fierce hand-to-hand combat followed for five hours. The Queen’s men suffered only three injuries.
“We were pumped up on adrenaline — proper angry,” Pvt. Anthony Rushforth told The Sun, a London-based newspaper. “It’s only afterwards you think, ‘Jesus, I actually did that.’ “
What started as a surprise attack on a British convoy ended with 28 dead militiamen and three wounded U.K. troops.
Jihadi propaganda at the time told young fighters that Western armies would run from ambushes and never engage in close combat. They were wrong. Irregular, unexpected combat tactics overwhelmed a numerically superior enemy who had the advantage in surprise and firepower.
USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Wikimedia Commons).
In January 1968 the USS Pueblo, a research ship being used by U.S. Navy intelligence, was captured off the coast of North Korea by the North Koreans. The North Koreans claimed the ship was in its territorial waters and viciously attacked it, killing one of the sailors aboard.
The United States says the ship was in international waters and the capture of the Pueblo was just the latest in a series of violent incursions by the North Koreans against American and South Korean forces. The capture of the ship was a disaster for the U.S. Eighty two of its sailors were held prisoner for 11 months at a time when American forces were engaged in Vietnam and the situation might blow up into an all-out war.
What’s worse is that the ship was also loaded with some of the United States’ most sensitive information. This included the Navy’s most advanced electronic signals gathering equipment, classified documents pertaining to its mission, and the machines needed to decrypt coded American intelligence messages.
The machines were of particular significance and their capture was the biggest disaster of all. The North Koreans boarded the Pueblo and took its cipher machine right to the port of Wonsan, according to CIA Historian H. Keith Melton. Though they had the machines they needed, American codes still required code cards, which the crew of the Pueblo burned.
Thousands of miles away, however, the communists were getting the code cards from one of the most notorious American agents for the KGB, John Walker.
Walker had spent the first part of his life as a U.S. Navy warrant officer, serving for 20 years as a radioman. He went to work for the commander of the Atlantic submarine force, using his top secret security clearance to run the entire communications for the submarine force. All the while, he was attempting to live a lifestyle that was well above the pay for a chief warrant officer.
With his debts rising and his marriage on the rocks, Walker decided to use his position for his own monetary gain. He walked into the Soviet Union’s embassy in Washington and sold them a top secret Navy communications cipher card and offered his ongoing services for a weekly salary.
As with most spies getting a new source of funds, he wanted more and began to give the Soviets more information for more money, while recruiting a spy ring of his own. The ring included his son and brother, who were also in the Navy, and another naval warrant officer, Jerry Whitworth.
The information Walker provided the Soviet Union was astonishing and critical to the defense of the United States. He also provided information about U.S. troop movements and planning for ongoing operations in Vietnam, which the Soviet Union no doubt shared with their communist allies in Southeast Asia.
Along with that information, Walker provided the locations of all American nuclear submarines, nuclear launch and command and control protocols, locations of planned airstrikes in North Vietnam, war plans and manuals related to Navy operations in both the Pacific and the Atlantic.
Walker also provided the Soviets with the U.S. Navy’s cipher cards, so when the North Koreans captured the Pueblo and its onboard encryption machine, the communists had everything they needed to intercept and read American intelligence radio signals.
It’s the red, white and the blue. It’s the patriotism, the pride and the spirit. It’s songs about the homeland, and it’s thanking those who serve — pledging allegiance to all it represents. It’s the recognition of the American flag, and we’re here for it!
Celebrate the U. S. of A. with us through these favorite memes.
And a S/O to our forefathers for their support:
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Richard Overton, a 112-year-old World War II veteran who lived to be the oldest American man, was laid to rest Jan. 12, 2019, at a historic cemetery in his hometown of Austin following days of tributes.
The grandson of slaves, Overton volunteered to join the Army in his 30s and served in the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, an all-African American unit. He deployed to the Pacific Theater from 1942-45 with stops in Guam, Palau, and Iwo Jima.
Overton left the Army in 1945 at the rank of corporal. He went on to work in furniture sales and later in the state treasurer’s office when future Texas Gov. Ann Richards headed the agency, according to a Stars and Stripes article.
He will be buried at the Texas State Cemetery, the final resting place for many notable Texans, including Richards.
Richard Overton, a World War II veteran who lived to be the oldest American man, presents the game ball before the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, Jan. 9, 2016.
(Photo by Sgt. Bethany L. Huff)
Before his death on Dec. 27, 2018, Overton was believed to be the second oldest living man in the world at 112 years and 280 days old, according to data by the Gerontology Research Group.
On Jan. 9, 2019, both U.S. senators from Texas introduced a Senate resolution to honor Overton.
In it, the resolution called Overton “an American hero that exemplified strength, sacrifice, and service to the United States of America.”
In recent years, the supercentenarian was honored at several ceremonies and sporting events.
He visited the White House multiple times and, in 2013, then-President Barack Obama spoke of him during a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
“When [WWII] ended, Richard headed home to Texas, to a nation bitterly divided by race,” Obama said in his speech. “And his service on the battlefield was not always matched by the respect that he deserved at home. But this veteran held his head high.”
Richard Overton, a World War II veteran who lived to be the oldest American man, meets with President Barack Obama before a Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11, 2013.
(White House photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Earlier that year, Obama said the veteran visited Washington, D.C., for the first time as part of an honor flight. During the trip, he paid his respects at the WWII Memorial. He also saw the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
“As Richard sat in a wheelchair beneath that great marble statue, he wept,” Obama said. “The crowd that gathered around him wept, too — to see one of the oldest living veterans of World War II bear witness to a day, to the progress of a nation he thought might never come.”
On Jan. 3, 2015, Overton represented the Greatest Generation at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, where he presented the game ball before the annual high school football all-star game.
Then on March 23, 2017, the San Antonio Spurs brought a 110-year-old Overton down to the basketball court during one of its NBA games and gave him a personalized jersey with “110” on it.
In 2017, the City of Austin also officially renamed the street where Overton lived to “Richard Overton Avenue.”
While in his 100s, Overton was still known to drive his own car and mow his lawn. In a 2013 interview with CNN, he credited God for living such a long life that included a few vices.
“I drink whiskey in my coffee. Sometimes I drink it straight,” he said at the age of 107. “I smoke my cigars; blow the smoke out. I don’t swallow it.”
No matter how you feel about the Confederate States of America or the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, it’s undeniable that relics from the Civil War belong in a museum.
But which one?
A face that screams “wanna fight about it?”
In 1863, a Pvt. Marshall Sherman from the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment captured a Confederate battle flag from the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa. His bravery that day earned him not only the keepsake of his heroics, but also the Medal of Honor.
“We just rushed in like wild beasts. Men swore and cursed and struggled and fought, grappled in hand-to-hand fight, threw stones, clubbed their muskets, kicked, yelled, and hurrahed,” said Minnesota soldier William Harmon, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
The flag, no longer on public display, resides at the Minnesota Historical Center in St. Paul. And Virginia wants it back.
“Come get it. Sincerely, the 1st Minnesota Infantry”
The 1st Minnesota wasn’t only at Gettysburg, though the unit took a beating there. They were also at First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Seven Pines, and First and Second Fredericksburg, just to name a few. It was at Gettysburg that the 1st was ordered to charge a Confederate position where they would be outnumbered by at least five to one to keep a faltering Union line together. They suffered 82 percent casualty rate but still helped hold off Pickett’s Charge the next day.
The Regiment has their own monument at the Gettysburg Battlefield today.
And Minnesota has a war trophy.
For a century, Virginia has tried to get it back, through any means necessary. They tried asking nicely. The answer was no. They tried an act of Congress. Minnesota said no. Even after a Presidential order, Minnesota declined. In 1998, 2000, 2003, and in 2015, the answer remained the same. When Virginia demanded the piece of their heritage back, then-Governor Jesse Ventura replied that it was now Minnesota’s heritage.
Check out the story from Minnesota’s Historical Society.
On a muggy summer day in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a Marine Corps instructor stood on a ledge overlooking a swamp. He looked out at his students, and his eyes found Master Sgt. Aretha Boston — the only airman in the platoon.
He called her forward, and Boston walked up to the ledge.
“Just as soon as I extended my hand, he grabbed it,” Boston recalled. “And before I knew it, he was pulling me into the swamp.”
For Boston, 11th Medical Group command staff superintendent, it was another of many surprises at the Marine Corps Staff NCO Academy Advanced Course. The opportunity to attend the course was a surprise in itself.
Most surprising, though, was how well she performed. At graduation time, Boston took home three of the most prestigious awards at the school: the class Gunnery Sergeant Award (voted on by instructors), the Honor Graduate Award (voted on by her classmates), and the Distinguished Graduate Award (for measured academic excellence).
In some ways, though, it was a fitting chapter in a storied career that almost never was.
Coming from a small town in Florida, Boston’s life plan didn’t involve joining the military. Her mother, though, had different ideas. She insisted that her daughter enlist.
Master Sgt. Aretha Boston, 11th Medical Group command staff superintendent, poses for a portrait Oct. 24, 2018, at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Boston.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Noah Sudolcan)
“To be completely honest, in the beginning I was angry,” Boston said. Despite her misgivings, at the age of 17 and straight out of high school, she begrudgingly agreed and enlisted in the Air Force to become a dental technician. Years later, she said she views it as “by far the best decision my parents could have made for me.”
Boston’s first base was 7,479 miles from home: Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. She was away from her family, the only airman basic in the dental clinic and learning a whole new lifestyle. Over those first few months, she learned the technical portion of her job, but she said she struggled with the challenge of conforming to military discipline.
“I acted out a lot,” Boston said. “I didn’t want people to tell me to do something. I was very stubborn.”
After serving a year in Korea, she moved to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Dealing with the culture shock coming from Korea, she said she found it hard to connect with people.
Her first Christmas break in Florida started with a call from her first sergeant asking why she wasn’t at bay orderly — an extra duty to help clean the dorm common areas. Thinking she had the week off, she said it all seemed unfair.
“The first shirt sat me down and told me, ‘Listen, I’ve been told you’re a stellar airman, but you have a terrible attitude,'” she said. When he told her that an unchecked bad attitude could end up getting her kicked out of the military, she said she decided to make some changes.
“That was my turning point,” she said. “From then on, I did the best I could to be the best airman.”
The new attitude paid off. Several years — and promotions — later, everything was going well. But Boston said she craved something different. A new challenge. Something to separate herself from her peers. She was comfortable, standing on the solid ground of a well-constructed military career, but she was contemplating a big jump.
Air Force Master Sgt. Aretha Boston, middle left, poses with her Marine Corps classmates during the Marine Corps Staff NCO Academy Advanced Course in the summer of 2018.
She found out the Air Force offers the chance for master sergeants to attend a sister service academy. She applied. Then she got accepted. The class started in the summer of 2018, and when she arrived, there were only six airmen in a sea of 120 Marines.
“(Marines) operate completely different from (airmen),” Boston explained. “Everything ties into fitness. Leadership, strategy planning — it always goes back to fitness.”
Physical training was every day, which she said was taxing on both her body and mind.
Those challenges culminated when, after a long morning run, the instructor pulled her into the swamp. With Marines cheering from the side, Boston remembers the feeling of being engulfed by the freezing water. After she and the rest of her class swam to the other side, a long obstacle course lay ahead of them.
Like all the other obstacles in Marine Corps senior NCO training, along with the hurdles of her early career, Boston faced them head on.
“It was pretty motivating to think she was an airman coming over to the course, doing something unprecedented,” said Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Walker, Boston’s classmate and Marine Corps Aviation Logistics Squadron 14 warehouse managements division warehouse chief.
Walker said it would be natural to see a decrease in academic productivity in the individual taking on the busy role of class gunnery sergeant. But he said Boston had no such trouble. In fact, she still managed to excel beyond her peers – even the ones wearing Marine Corps insignia.
“She literally did everything you would expect from a Marine, pushing forward, even outside of class.” Walker said. “She carried herself as a professional the entire time and represented the Air Force well.”