Without a doubt, the greatest gift I received from having served in the military was meeting so many wonderful men and women from all parts of the country and all walks of life. I stay in touch with many of them, though it’s been years since we served together, and I’m happy that most of them who are no longer serving in the military have transitioned well into civilian life.
One of my former NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) who I’m proud to have served under, and gotten to know personally, is former U.S. Army sergeant Nick Voelker. Sgt. Voelker and I deployed together to Iraq in 2008 as part of the 81’st HBCT of the Washington Army National Guard. This was Sgt. Voelker’s second deployment.
Sgt. Voelker was in maintenance, and it was always pleasant venturing over to the mechanics shop and chatting with him when we both had down time. He has a much laid back personality and is always calm, no matter the situation. A times when I’d get a bit hot headed over something stupid, a few “Don’t turn it into a big deals” and “Let it goes” from Sgt. Voelker would let the waters of my frustrations pass under the bridge.
After our deployment, he and I would both end up at the warriors transition battalion, the home for broken soldiers, for many, many months, and as much as I hated that he had to be there, I’m glad he was because time spent with him while there made things easier on me. In spite of his own painful injuries that would lead to the end of his military career, he still kept his cool and had an amazing way about not sweating the small stuff. And he could always convince me to stop sweating it as well.
I decided to ask Sgt. Voelker, or simply Nick, now that we’re both out of the military and can lay the semantics of titles aside, a few questions about his service. An interview, if you will, to introduce him to you. Much of the information he gave me, I already knew. But man, what a story he had to tell about an incident at the airport in Dallas! It’s a story I’d never heard from him, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it to.
Here is the text of our interview:
KL- When and why did you join the Army?
NV- I signed my enlistment papers in October of 1998, and shipped to basic at Ft. Knox in January of 1999. My original MOS was 63E (M1A1 Main battle tank hull systems mechanic), and was not exactly my first choice. When I met with the recruiter I had intended to get into aviation; with the long term goal of becoming a pilot. When I went through MEPPs, some color vision problems were detected which eliminated me from any aviation related MOS and closed my path to ever flying.
I was pretty dejected, and actually wanted to give up. The recruiter was trying to push me into transportation (truck driver), and his sales pitch was how short the AIT was. I wasn’t interested in driving trucks so I looked over the other MOS’ that I could choose, and kind of settled on being a tank mechanic. I was interested in mechanics and the tank is a pretty badass piece of equipment, and there was a $10,000 enlistment bonus for that MOS, so I figured why not.
KL- What is one of your greatest accomplishments, as you see it, as a soldier?
NV- I wouldn’t hang my hat on any kind of personal accomplishment in my military career. When I look back, what actually makes me proud are the soldiers that I had and how each one of them grew and developed into better soldiers. From a leadership standpoint, when you get to see some of your subordinates achieve and excel in their careers or personal life, you can’t help but feel a little bit of pride and get the sense like you’ve succeeded as a mentor and a leader.
KL- What is your fondest and/or least fond military memory?
NV- It’s really hard to choose which memory to highlight above any other. In 2004 I flew into Dallas on my way home for R&R from Iraq. I was the first person to de-plane, and from there I headed to baggage claim. By some stroke of luck or fate my bag was the very first to come down the conveyor at the baggage claim. I grabbed my duffle and headed out to the concourse to go catch a bus to the terminal where my next flight was leaving.
I walked through the doors into the concourse and was greeted by thousands (that is not an exaggeration) of people who were there to welcome service members home. Since I was first off the plane and first out of baggage claim, I was all alone in front of this crowd of thousands. I was literally mobbed with handshakes, hugs, and kisses on the cheek. It was a very touching moment for me. I realize that each one of those people took time out of their lives to welcome a total stranger home, and to show their appreciation for what I was doing. It was pretty overwhelming, and even more so after I talked to one of the organizers.
The guy I talked to was a Vietnam Vet, and he had taken it as his personal mission that every service member returning home would receive a warm welcome and a thank you for everything they did. He referred back to when he’d returned from Vietnam and was greeted by protestors hurling insults, and spitting on him, and said he wasn’t going to let that happen to this generation of Veterans. I really couldn’t have asked for a better home coming, and the feeling of so much support and appreciation puts service into another context. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have tears in my eyes; it’s really hard to describe the emotions from that experience, but it was one of those moments in life that stick with you forever.
KL- When and why did you ETS?
NV- In January of 2012 I was medically retired for a host of reasons. Between injuries and other health problems I was no longer retainable.
KL- What would you have done differently, if anything, during your military service?
NV- I’m not sure I’d change anything. I had a lot of great experiences and I’m happy with how things turned out. Looking back, there are times when I should have taken some advice I was given, and I should have taken advantage of some opportunities that I was presented with, but hind sight is what it is. Generally though, I wouldn’t do anything differently because I’d miss out on everything that I did do, and those are memories I’d like keep.
KL- Would you do it all again?
NV- Of course. Whether serving made me who I am, or showed me who I was, I couldn’t image life without having been in the military. I got to serve at a very volatile time, and because of that, I got to witness history happen in real time. There’s also the greater lessons learned from my time in; the value of life, appreciation for what you have, and knowing exactly how much you’re capable of. I couldn’t see my life going in any other way, and I wouldn’t trade my past for anything.
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