GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Tillery, 17th Training Wing, is retiring June 10. This will mark the last day of service of one of the last active duty Vietnam Era veterans.
To get to where he is today, Tillery had to go through some rough patches that started before he even enlisted.
"I've been tied up, I've been beaten, I've been burned with cigarettes," Tillery recalled with pain and difficulty. "One [of my mom's boyfriend's] was particularly violent. He would use a cattle prod just to watch us jerk around."*
His mom's boyfriend used the cattle prod to shock Tillery and his brother's feet while they slept.
"To this day, I can't sleep with my feet uncovered."*
The abuse continued through Tillery’s adolescence, until one day it came to a breaking point.
"My stepfather got a branch, not a switch, a branch, and he beat my younger brother and I," he said. "We were literally bloodied on the floor. My older brother went to get the gun and threatened to kill [my stepfather] if he was there when he got back."*
After this event, Tillery left home and soon was homeless. At this time in his life, the Vietnam War was happening and he decided to enlist in the Army at the age of seventeen.
“I wanted to get away and the Army was an opportunity to serve my country too,” he said. “As a 17-year-old I was deeply patriotic.”
Tillery’s older brother, who was already in the Army, helped him pick out a job.
“My brother who had been in Vietnam did not want me in combat. When I was joining, he said, ‘here give them these letters.’ I didn’t know any better so I did. One of them was to be a linguist.”
The Army then sent him to Monterey, California, where he learned Russian. Due to too much partying Tillery was only there for half a year, before he met a specialist who would reassign him.
“He said, ‘you have three choices; infantry, armorer,’ then said, ‘hell you don’t have a choice at all, you’re going into the artillery,’ because he saw my last name.”
When he first came into the artillery career he was an atheist, but that is where he found God. His friend Myron helped him along that path.
"He was a person of faith, but he didn't push it on me ever. On Sundays, he would leave for church and he would say in the morning 'I'm leavin' and I ain't coming back to pick you up. If you wanna go, you go with me now.' Sometimes I would resist, but the fun was always worth the pain of going to church."*
During his time at church, Tillery said he started to listen to what was being said, and that led to him becoming a chaplain.
“I got out of the Army to become a chaplain. Little did I know that I had to go to college and seminary, and it took about 10 years. At the end of that 10 years, I thought it was too late. So what I did was I went to a church in Alaska and then I was a missionary in the Middle East.”
One day, 20 years after he left the Army, the Air Force released a letter calling for chaplains Tillery said.
“I wanted to be a chaplain since I was 20 years old, so let’s see if we can do it. At that time I was already 40 and they took me.”
When he reentered service, Tillery remembered how civilians had treated him as a service member during the Vietnam War Era.
“For those who served in Vietnam and those who served during Vietnam – the Vietnam Era veterans, such as myself – those were tumultuous days, those were difficult days. Men and women who served the country, and gave everything they had, while doing a good, honorable job, I don’t think they got the respect they deserve.
“Back in the day, they made us wear our uniforms when we were off base. Within one block I’ve been spit on and begged to come to their home for dinner.”
Due to the mistreatment of some people during his Army days, Tillery said it made wearing his Air Force uniform tough.
“It made me not want to wear the uniform, that is something that carried over with me into the Air Force. Where when I first joined the Air Force, I didn’t want to wear the uniform off base. It wasn’t because I wasn’t proud of it … I was deeply proud of both [his Army and Air Force uniform].”
One event that helped him to wearing his uniform off base was meeting a young boy.
“I'm with my wife and we go to this restaurant where there is this little boy. He points to me, and I'm thinking, okay, here we go. He wanted his mom to go over there to where I was, so they could take a picture.”
As he became more comfortable in uniform and as a chaplain he made it his goal to help people with their stress.
“I've always had a deep compassion for warriors. My doctoral work and my whole heart is in helping people who've seen the unseeable stuff that they see with their waking eyes. I'm all about resiliency and helping people deal with trauma.”
His outlook on resiliency came from a combination of events, including one that happened while he was a chaplain.
“My nephew was shot down and killed in Iraq. He left a spouse, three boys and one in the womb. I used to keep this photo on my desk. It was a pregnant woman laying on a mattress in front of a flag draped coffin that was being guarded by a Marine and that was to remind me that we were at war. After Josh died, I didn't need any reminders.”
Tillery said he will continue his work of helping people after he retires.
“Whatever I do, wherever I go, I will reach out to men and women who have been harmed by war. I am dedicated to helping those individuals and their families.”
With his retirement approaching, he wanted to make one thing clear about his service.
“Back in the day, when you said Vietnam Era vet, everyone knew that you weren't in country. A Vietnam vet was ‘in-country,’ while a Vietnam Era vet was ‘in’ during that time. That honor belongs to them, not to me. Mine is an accident of chronology, which I do appreciate and recognize.”
A final piece of advice Tillery wanted to provide service members:
“Do not look into the distant future, but do with all your heart what is in front of you right now. Don't worry about your career. Don't worry about your promotion. Just do what is right and do what is good and those things will follow. Those things will come from a life worth living.”
*Quotes pulled from “Chaplain overcomes adversity, delivers hope” a story by Staff Sgt. Katherine Tereyama from Aviano Air base, Italy, on May 22, 2013. Full story