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“I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise of ordinary people, living ordinary lives.”TRACEY CHAPMAN
You don’t have to look far to find heroes living among us; every day men and women who share a secret of service. It’s usually not something they talk about openly. They wear it with quiet dignity and pride.
With MacDill AFB right in our background, chances are we all know a veteran, a woman or man who has served our country. They’re just like us– paying their bills, fishing on the weekends, drinking a beer or having a backyard cookout with friends. You would probably never know that you’re working alongside a hero. But if you look a little closer, there is a difference.
When asking around, I didn’t have to look far to find three veterans. Not that they’d volunteer willingly to share their story. That’s the thing with heroes among us, they don’t want to talk about it. When prodded by friends, the layers begin to peel away.
I had the honor to be introduced to three heroes in our Suncoast area: Milo Talokonnikoff, U.S. Army; Dan Curran, Navy ROTC; and Rodney Keiser, Air Force.
Who are these heroes?
Milo, like so many others, felt that after 9/11 it was his duty to serve and that, “There was no better time.” Milo goes on to explain, “I started college in August 2001 then September 11 transpired. As the eldest son of two European immigrants, it was my duty to serve and there was no better time. My friends and family were not thrilled with my choice to forgo a full paid academic scholarship to enlist during two active wars, but they respected my choice and supported me.” Milo enlisted on November 13, 2003, was stationed out of Fort Bragg, NC, and did tours to Iraq and Afghanistan along with various training stateside.
When Milo enlisted, he felt the, “… excitement to move forward with a new chapter in my life and service to my nation. I wanted the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself while investing in my future. Being a Human Intelligence Collector in the U.S. Army gave me those opportunities.”
Dan joined the Naval ROTC in 1981 while in college. “I wanted to get into Deep Sea Diving and Salvage (Hard Hat mixed gas diving, like commercial diving) and none of the other services offered that specialty.” Dan’s parents were skeptical, but in the end supported his decision to serve.
More movies and television shows have been made about basic training than almost any other subject. Nothing mystifies and intrigues non-service people like the concept of the proverbial Sergeant Carter barking orders at poor Gomer Pyle. The more I ask about basic training, the more I learned that it is not what it seems, Private Benjamin notwithstanding.
“I was always an athlete and mentally tough so I found the ‘game’ fairly easy once I learned how to play,” explained Milo who found funny moments like, “Ruck marching through a blizzard and breaking icicles off my eyebrows during the winter in Missouri. It was actually awful at the time, but funny in hindsight.”
Milo found the military more egalitarian and appreciated, “The fact that we were all green (uniform color). It didn’t matter your race, religion, financial status, etc., we were all equally worthless but given an opportunity to succeed against our peers.”
Dan found basic training somewhat, “Fun, except for all the bookwork.” Even when pressed, funny moments didn’t stand out for Dan. Adapting to military life was a challenge, especially, “… standing watch in the middle of the night and sometimes working for a couple days straight with no sleep.”
Rod Keiser, who served during the Vietnam conflict, looked forward to boot camp back in 1969 and served from August 1969 to July 1973.
“I was very athletic when I entered the USAF and was really looking forward to the obstacle course. Then, when we ran it, they had ‘helpers’ stationed at each obstacle to help us over!” Rod does admit that adapting wasn’t a cup of tea, and found the most challenge with, “Following orders, which I’ve never been very good at.”
In the midst of duty, what Milo remembers most is the camaraderie. “We all served for the man to our right and left, above all else. The camaraderie and sense of accomplishment are unrivaled.
“I slept through a couple rocket and mortar attacks at night in Iraq,” remembers Dan. “A couple of times I was deployed on a ship and then on land. Some safe places and some combat zones.
“I have had the pleasure to serve with some great American heroes over the years and some of them are my closest friends now and will be to the day we pass,” Dan reflects. “There is something about having served and with having to change duty stations every couple of years or being deployed together, that we may not see each other for years. However, when we do get together it is like it was just last week when we saw each other last.” The things Dan misses most are, “Team work, camaraderie and the mission.”
Rod cringes as he reflects, “I spent one week in Goose Bay, Labrador. The average temperature was -60 degrees.” He did enjoy intramural sports and fishing, and of course, the camaraderie.
Pulling pranks was one way to stay sane. “We had a ‘germaphobe’ at my first duty station who would not touch doorknobs. When he went into the bathroom, we’d hang out a sign that he was in there waiting for someone to open the door for him and surprise, nobody would,” laughed Rod.
Milo agrees that pranks were a necessary evil and were played, “Constantly, you have to in order to stay sane. Pranks varied from simple jesting to completely destroying someone’s barracks room if they left it open while showering or working. Having thick skin was a requirement.”
Dan politely demurred when asked about antics, “ Not without offending you or other readers.”
One simply cannot go through years of service and not be changed. Milo says the military, “Made me more focused and less tolerant of excuses. I learned that even if you get knocked down, never stay down. There is another fight coming and others depending on you.”
Dan believes the military taught him, “Self-confidence, and I was capable of a hell of a lot more then my civilian peers. Unless you have served, they will not understand.”
Rod, a musician with the Air Force field band, says his time, “Taught me the value of discipline, loyalty to a cause and jazz! That I can be part of something larger than me.”
Some things are never the same after a return from service. According to Rod, the word “Attention!” is fraught with meaning and the knowledge that, “You have what you’ve got because of what others sacrificed for you.”
“You really do write a blank check for your life for your country,” explains Dan.
There isn’t a code of silence amongst the military once they’ve returned home, but many find it difficult to communicate to loved ones.
“I generally don’t mention it. I’m proud of my service but it doesn’t define me as a man, nor does my experience belong to my friends or family,” admits Milo. He says the phrase that best defines his time is, “selfless service,” and the desire that his children know that, “their father volunteered to serve his nation when she called.”
And as Milo so eloquently explains, “Freedoms often taken for granted have been paid for by the blood of those who came before.”