[Featured Image – Military memory box of the author’s son, David Lipps]

By Don Lipps

I’d like to be able to tell you that I joined the Air Force out of high school because of deep patriotism or a strong sense of duty. The reality was more prosaic.

My dad said he’d be glad to send me to college if I was highly focused on a particular career goal. He made it abundantly clear that he was not going to pay for college just to have me major in “girls and under-water basket weaving.” If there was anything I wasn’t at 18, it was highly focused. So, my options were to enter the work force or join the military.

The work force did not sound like something I wanted to be part of, so the military it was.

Dad had been in the Air Force Reserve as a younger man and always spoke with enthusiasm about his experience. Being of stronger mind than back, I thought that would be the right path for me.

A suburban rube

The Air Force recruiter at my high school’s job fair saw me coming a mile off. After just a few questions, he determined that I was pretty much directionless and started painting a picture of the glamorous life of an Air Force Security Specialist. Rube that I was, I had little idea that being a “cop” in the Air Force was the very least intellectually challenging role they had to offer. I bought the rhetoric wholesale, signed up, and headed off to basic training.

To this day, I still like canned meat like that found in the Vietnam era C-rations that the military still had so many of in 1978.

Granted, even back then Air Force basic training was mild compared to the Army or the Marines, but it was still a shock to the system of the suburban boy who’d never really known any challenges. I made it through successfully, however, and then on to tech school. After that, Air Base Ground Defense outside of San Antonio, Texas, where I spent a couple of months crawling around in the dirt with every kind of creepy crawler you can image.

The most surprising thing? I had come to enjoy it! To this day, I still like canned meat like that found in the Vietnam era C-rations that the military still had so many of in 1978. Thanks, Hormel!

MankatoLIFE Publisher Don Lipps still wet behind the ears at approximately 19 as an Air Force Security Specialist. Minuteman III ICBM silo in the background
MankatoLIFE Publisher Don Lipps still wet behind the ears at approximately age 19 as an Air Force Security Specialist. Minuteman III ICBM silo in the background

Reality sinks in

Of course, it only took me a couple of hours to realize the recruiter had been full of hooey.

It really hit home when they were handing out assignments. My first orders were to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Having grown up in New Jersey, I didn’t think I’d like Arizona very much because I was used to trees, not cactus. A kind and caring fellow recruit told me there were lots and lots of trees where he was being assigned and, out of the kindness of his heart, offered to swap his assignment for mine. That’s how I ended up in Minot, North Dakota, where I never did find a tree.

My first clue of what was in store in Minot was when my flight arrived at the Minot “International” Airport (they had a weekly flight to Winnipeg) right ahead of a blizzard. The air base 10 miles away was shut down, the highway was shut down, and I spent my first two North Dakota days stranded in the airport.

I had my ups and downs in my four years in the Air Force. I never did get sent anywhere besides Minot. There was an underlying sense that once they got you there, they weren’t going to easily let you go.

Another surprising thing? I came to love the quiet, subtle beauty and simplicity of North Dakota.

I had my ups and downs in my four years in the Air Force. I never did get sent anywhere besides Minot. There was an underlying sense that once they got you there, they weren’t going to easily let you go.

To this day, I count it one of my proudest achievements to have reached the rank of E-5 (Staff Sergeant) in under four years. I don’t know if it’s still true, but in 1982 that was considered an accomplishment.

Life after the Air Force

Surprise again, I’ve come to highly value the military way of life.

I made it out of high school by the skin of my teeth. I was undisciplined and easily distracted. When I left the Air Force, I went to college and found the whole experience easy, graduating with honors. Of course, my 18-year-old classmates found me a little stiff at first. I didn’t have a lot of patience for milk-sopped napkins being thrown around the cafeteria. I applied to be a Resident Assistant my first year, but the administration wisely sensed I needed a year to mellow.

Through all those experiences, I always looked back fondly to my time in the Air Force, and I realized it fit my personality very well. To this day, I carry the bearing and discipline the Air Force taught me.

My career since then has consisted of two major chapters – and just now beginning entrepreneurship as a third. After school, I was a pastor of small churches. Then I ventured into the corporate world. I found the corporate world to be far kinder and more loving than the Church, but I also found the corporate world to be silly.

Through all those experiences, I always looked back fondly to my time in the Air Force, and I realized it fit my personality very well. I have always regretted not making a career of it.

To this day, I carry the bearing and discipline the Air Force taught me.

Above all things, my time there informs my leadership style. I’ve studied a lot of leadership theory through my life, but I’ve never found anything as simple and elegant as the chain of command, the system of influencing by recommendation, and the perpetual need to always be both a leader and a follower.

Good for anyone

I still believe that a time in the military could be good for anyone. Of course, there’s risk. You’re writing your country a blank check that includes your last drop of blood. There is no life worth living without great risk.

My son David followed the path of his dad and his grandfather. He spent six successful years in the Air Force, including a tour posted with the Army in Afghanistan.

Thank You

I’m glad that serving our country in the military has become an honorable thing again. I say to all veterans this Veterans Day: Thank you for your service. But having lived through the way Vietnam veterans were treated, I want to say a special thank you to them.

~~~

Our Place is where the staff of MankatoLIFE share their hearts and minds about the things that matter to them.

Author

  • Don Lipps

    is a long-time resident of Mankato and North Mankato. He's been doing web development almost as long as there has been a web.

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