Carlton S. Edwards Jr. is the unofficial ambassador of the Thomasena Stokes Marshall Senior Center. He has a royal air about him that draws people in. They gravitate toward his energetic but dignified demeanor. His fellow senior center members look to him for friendship and guidance.
And while he finds great joy from being at the senior center with his friends every day and volunteering there. His proudest moments come from serving in the United States military.
A resident of Mount Pleasant for more than 30 years, Edwards retired from the Air Force after 34 years active duty and reserves.
He's served in two wars - the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Shield/Storm.
Edwards' grandfather and father were veterans of WWI and WWII respectively. Serving his country was simply in his blood, he said.
He had a lot of buddies that were serving during the Vietnam War era. They would take him back to base with them where he would spend his weekends. He was still in high school so when he saw his friends re-enlist, that sold him on the idea of joining up too. And the bonus was they were making enough money to buy new cars. "That's also what got to me," he said. "I wanted to be like them."
So he went to the federal building and pre-enlisted. "The recruiters were hard at work because the war was going on. Me and my buddy wanted to enlist together, they scheduled us to take the Armed Forces Qualification Exam and I passed but my buddy didn't," Edwards said. "So he went off to the Army and I was sent to San Antonio for basic training."
But he didn't head there until November of that year, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to be put straight to work. This, though, would be by his father who brought him on as a bricklayer mixing mortar and handing him the cinder blocks above his head for $2.50 an hour. That was a little above minimum wage but still, he said to himself, "there has to be a better life than this."
While in San Antonio he received basic military training in Air Training Command (ATC) and was bused to Sheppard Air Force Base for Air Force Strategic Command Technical School. While there he had to fill out his "dream sheet" of the top three places he wanted to be stationed. Charleston was one of those. When he got the news of his Permanent Change of Station (PCS) he was told he was going home. However, it turned out to be Myrtle Beach which worked out just fine, he said. "I was close enough to home but far enough away."
He served 3 1/2 years in the Tactical Air Command(TAC)/ Air Combat Command (ACC).
He was discharged from active duty in November 1974 and worked various jobs before recruiters reached back out to him and convinced him to join the reserves. He would be allowed to keep his E4 Sgt. rank and he was back in by October of 1975 at the Charleston Air Force Base in the 81st Aerial Port Squadron as a Cargo Specialist (T2T) Air Transportation.
Master Sergeant Edwards trained all over the world in places such as Madrid Spain, Aviano Italy, Frankfort Germany, Paris France, London England, the Azores, Roosevelt road’s Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, Reykjavík Iceland and Panama City Panama.
"Without my military career I would have never been able to go to these places," he said.
Edwards was recalled to active duty during Desert Storm in January 1992. He was assigned as a Cargo Processing Supervisor. He worked mostly on the C141 called the Desert Express which went straight to the desert with cargo for the troops every day at noon. He worked 12-hour shifts from January to June and was a supervisor by the time he got off of active duty.
He went back to reserve status until he officially retired Sept. 13, 2004.
Edwards said the discipline and the camaraderie is what he loved the most about the military. "I loved hands-on work. I loved everything from the passengers, to the cargo, to the flight line and driving the equipment. You've got to enjoy what you're doing when you're young and strong. My military buddies and I worked hard and we played hard and I would do it all over again," he said.
His military career led him to a law enforcement career with the Port Authority Police then the Department of Veterans Affairs which gave him that same feeling of serving that he so enjoyed.
"I would encourage anyone to join the military because of the training and the benefits and the medical care and education you're entitled to," he said. "My G.I. Bill paid for my Higher education and I bought a house on the G.I. Bill. They feed and clothe and shelter you. I went in with nothing and not I am retired and living the American dream. I give the glory to God. I don't know why I am so blessed."
Senior Center veterans
When they opened the senior center Edwards was retired and looking for a place to volunteer. They had him in the exercise room - since he was a fitness buff - helping people operate the equipment. Through the years he met many veterans and they would often sit and talk over coffee and tell their stories. The oldest veteran in the group is 97 years old.
He came up with the idea to form a veterans club after others expressed interest in joining. The group meets the second Monday of every month at 10 a.m. in the arts and crafts room and the members talk over coffee.
The club's main goal is to bring together men and women who have served in the military, honor their service, and help them share their story. To honor them for their service, the center organizes several events, including an annual Veterans Day breakfast. This breakfast brings in a guest speaker and partners with businesses to provide a catered meal. The center also plans on organizing other events, such as a flag retirement ceremony.
To encourage them to share their story, the center partners with volunteers from the Veterans History Project (VHP). As a volunteer with VHP, Dana Holtvoigt of McAlister-Smith Funeral & Cremation, attends the club meetings every month in an effort to schedule veterans to record their military story. By recording their story, they are making history available to future generations. The interviews are scheduled based on the veterans availability and the center donates space for the interview to take place. A volunteer with the Red Cross, Sandra Maidment, records the interview and makes a copy for the veteran. The interview is then sent to the Library of Congress where it is archived for public access. The interviews are free and take approximately 1-hour to record.
"We are always looking for veterans who would like to record their story," Maidment said.
For more information visit loc.gov/vets.