Recollections of service

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Tillery
  • 17th Training Wing
On April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford announced the end of the Vietnam era. Little did I imagine that 44 years later I would be the last active duty, Vietnam-era veteran in the United States Air Force.

I dropped out of school at the end of junior high and worked odd jobs until January 11, 1972, when I joined the Army at the age of 17. At that time, Richard Nixon was finishing his first term as president, the Dallas Cowboys would win the Super Bowl, no one had ever heard of the Watergate Hotel, the Air Force was five months away from launching Operation Linebacker, and another 890 service members would give their lives for freedom in Vietnam.

Of the 9,087,000 military personnel who were on Active Duty during the Vietnam era, 2,709,918 served and fought in Vietnam. Like 6,377,082 other Vietnam-era veterans, I was asked to serve my country at other places around the world. My Army assignments included the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif.; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; and Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Through the early to mid-1970s, I served on a U.S. Army Field Artillery Forward Observer team and rose to the rank of sergeant.

Like most who served in the military at that time, I witnessed the pain of a fiercely divided nation. While I was in uniform, my fellow Americans were just as likely to heckle and spit on me as they were to invite me to dinner. However, the greater pain was witnessing family members and friends who had suffered both visible and invisible war injuries in Vietnam treated in the same love – hate manner, and sadly it was mainly the latter.

In 1976, I separated from the Army. Over the next twenty years I married my sweetheart Barbara Moeller and raised three beautiful daughters, Michelle, Marie and Melinda. I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alaska and a masters from Dallas Theological Seminary. I also served as a pastor in Fairbanks, Alaska and as a teacher in the Middle East.

However, my lifelong love of my country and of those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, led me to join the Air Force as a Chaplain in 1996. This began another twenty-year journey that would take me through Operations Southern Watch, Desert Fox, Joint Forge, Unified Protector and Inherent Resolve. I was also handpicked to serve on short term tours in support of operations Northern Watch and Enduring Freedom.

When I first put on the uniform as an Air Force chaplain, I was not eager to wear it off base because of my past Army experiences. Not that it wasn’t a symbol of pride, it was simply a painful reminder. Yet today, instead of looks of hatred, most people, even young children, look at me with dignity and respect and will even often offer words of thanks and encouragement. My time in uniform has left me with gratitude for a thankful nation and many treasured and profound memories.

Even as a chaplain I’ve had some unforgettable experiences. One occurred while I was visiting a wounded soldier who had sustained catastrophic injuries to his face; mercifully, the ballistic sunglasses he was wearing at the time of the attack, which killed three of his buddies, saved his eyes. His injuries were so severe that he was unable to speak so he motioned for me to get him something to write with. He wrote, ‘Help me get back to my troops.’ I rotated from the hospital before he was discharged, but I’m confident that his spirit has not waned from that day to this. That is a microcosm of the heroism of the American military, finer men and women I will never know.

Yet, my greatest honor was to serve as the special escort officer for my nephew after he was killed in action while flying a combat mission near Kirkuk, Iraq in January, 2009. Making the sad journey in the back of a small jet with Josh’s flag-draped coffin from Dover to Portland to take him back to the dirt bike trails in Oregon he knew and loved so well was profoundly impactful. Joshua was my brother Steve’s only son. He also left behind his wife, three boys, and an unborn son. While some think it trite to say, “Freedom is not free”; for thousands of others, those who lost loved ones, and especially Josh’s family, it is not.

As an Air Force chaplain, I specialized in providing freedom, faith and ministry for the men and women of all the uniformed services. My assignments have included Little Rock Air Force Base, Yokota Air Base, Wilford Hall, the Air Force Academy, Boston University, Maxwell Air force Base, Fort Jackson, Aviano Air Base and Goodfellow Air force Base. Alongside my Master of Theology, I have been awarded two other master’s degrees as well as an earned doctorate, despite dropping out after junior high school as a kid.

Now in closing this chapter of my life, my retirement, some 44 years after my initial enlistment, will take place on Goodfellow, the parent unit of both the Presidio of Monterey and Fort Huachuca, my first and last Army assignments.

I will never grow weary of sharing the importance of showing respect and appreciation for our military men and women in uniform. May our nation never forget the central role they have played in our history. Whether serving at local bases, overseas installations, deployed locations, military schools or hospitals, I have appreciated the opportunities I have been given to provide comfort for the greatest military men and women of the world.