Kenneth L. Hardin: My military memories — part 6

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 5, 2024

By Kenneth L. Hardin

After spending two weeks recovering from five consecutive months of intense military training, I left home on Sept. 30, 1984, nervously excited heading down I-85 to the airport. Behind me was a life I no longer recognized. In front of me was a future I had no idea how it would unfold. This time at the airport I didn’t have my partners, Perk and Spoon, to sit in the airport lounge and have one last beer with. My brothers were on their own military journeys, so I didn’t get the same West End of Salisbury sendoff born from the tight bond and brotherhood we’d enjoyed since elementary school. This time, as I walked to the gate, I was alone with my thoughts wrapped safely in my dreams and tied with a nice bow decorated with my excited expectations of what awaited me.

My plane landed at the Epley Airfield, the airport located in northeast Omaha, Sunday evening around 6 p.m. I was excited to meet the sponsor from my squadron who was assigned to greet me at the airport, escort me back to the base and get me settled in. After grabbing the duffel bag that contained my entire life, I patiently waited at the airport entrance for Senior Airman Cekis, who would never show. Since cell phones weren’t available then, I went to the nearest pay phone and called the number on my arrival orders, but there was no answer. My training had taught me that whenever you’re faced with a difficult challenge, you don’t complain, beg for assistance, rely on others, give in or quit. You simply “adapt and overcome.” I would use that philosophy when opening the Veterans Social Center, in other aspects of my personal and professional lives and I taught it to my three sons as a life guide. I had never been in a taxi before, but I flagged one down and took the 18.3-mile tour to the base. On the 20-minute ride, the driver was very gracious and welcoming as he  acted like a de facto tour guide. He was a veteran, and what I’ve learned and become myself, is that veterans from all eras will look out for each other in whatever role they work or serve in.

As I pulled up to the main entrance gate, I admired the crisp, unique and professional-looking uniform the entry control airman was wearing and how he was so precise in his words and movements. Little did I know that two weeks later, I would be wearing that same uniform, doing that exact role and sharing a barracks with this same gentleman. He explained to the retired veteran driver how to get to temporary transitional housing, where I would be staying for the night since everything was closed on weekends. I was like a child going to Disney World for the first time  as we drove deeper into the base. I had never been on a military installation and it was exciting to see fighter jets and bombers so close up that I had only seen previously in movies. I arrived at my temporary housing around 7 p.m. and the check-in process was fairly easy. After dropping my belongings off, I ventured out of the barracks and started walking in no particular direction. I sauntered down a tree-lined street with immaculately manicured lawns containing a neat row of four-story duplexes. I would learn that this was referred to as “General’s Row” and I would have the occasion during my time there to interact with many of these leaders in my role.

As I was walking north on the Row, a car pulled up next to me and asked if I was new to the base. He told me to hop in and said he would take me to the Airman and NCO clubs. In 1984, human trafficking wasn’t a thought or concern, so I readily hopped in and we drove off to locations that would become the cornerstone of my military social edification, both good and bad. Wearing what I would be known for in the clubs after shift duty, my UNC Tarheel hoodie and I enjoyed the atmosphere inside. At that time in my life, rhythm had not yet abandoned me and I took to the dance floor where I dazzled my new friends with my Salisbury-developed, Southern roots boogie style. Hours later, I wanted to make a good first impression on my first day, so back at my barracks room, I ironed my uniform, put a spit shine on my boots and turned in fairly early. That next day, at 0-dark-30 in the early morning, I was at the chow hall. I had completed the three S’s learned in training (s***, shower, shave) and walked out to squadron headquarters to begin my new normal. I was in the real military now.

Kenneth L. (Kenny) Hardin is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.