Having grown up with a father who was a rear admiral and quite the disciplinarian, you would think it only natural for a young Citadel graduate to head straight for the military. But there was some hesitation for Mount Pleasant resident Dick Whitfield.
He lived the typical military brat lifestyle, traveling from base to base. Their last stop before returning to Charleston was San Juan where his father was the base commander. They stayed there one year until he and his wife Ellie packed up their family and headed back home. Whitfield attended Porter Military Academy and Moultrie High School and is a 1969 graduate of The Citadel.
He did eventually join because, "I'd rather go in as an officer and not a ground pounder because my odds of coming back home were better," Whitfield said. He chose the Air Force because the Navy put his dad at sea and he rarely saw him during those early formative years. He lost out even more when they returned to Charleston only to have his father die of leukemia. "I didn't want to leave a young wife and be off at sea for those lengths of time."
And as it turned out. He just so happened to have a young wife when it came time to get called up. And due to the fact that his bride Michele was more than 90 days pregnant he was not sent into combat.
He was sent to training school and commissioned to active duty at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. He trained to become a weapons control officer for air defense command. After three months he received his first regular assignment in the 21 NORAD Region in New York to protect the country from inbound attacks and protect all borders. It was then on to the Tiger Team which was a first line of defense that was the elite arm of the assignment. They were faced with Air Defense Emergency alerts but never got beyond Defcon 3.
After 18 months in Syracuse, New York the "snow belt," as Whitfield describes it, he was off to a one year tour in Okinawa. He left behind his wife and one-year-old daughter to serve as a 1st. Lt. operations officer protecting the area during the reversion (or returning control back over to the Japanese).
"The job was to keep the Soviets at bay. They were flying in on their bombers and we would scramble F4's and shoot them down. But they never got too frisky" Whitfield said.
They ran drills and held inspections and organized socials for the troops and the towns people. "It was similar to M.A.S.H. 4077," he said. "But we got the job done."
When there wasn't work to be done, there was somewhat of a social aspect to the island that usually included a stop at the officer's club. But to get there most everyone drove a motorcycle because the one and only jeep on the island was usually occupied.
And more often than once, after a night of one too many, a man was liable to drive that motorcycle right off the cliff - even the higher ranking officers. Everyone survived it but the stories are the stuff of legend.
And when not cliff diving with their motorcycles, Whitfield and his men ordered up 250 pound hogs for a community BBQ. About 150 locals attended along with the 100 troops stationed on the island. People would arrive with sides and casseroles and sea veggies and booze for an evening of fun.
His new orders sent him to Duluth, Minn. to the 23 NORAD Region headquarters. By then he was a captain and still in the weapons control division. "It had been a pretty good life. I had done three tours in four years and just didn't want to do it anymore. I got my marching orders and that was it," he said.
While his time served was short, the lasting impact that the commitment and experience had on him proved to be enormous. His service has helped shape his work ethic, his political beliefs and his patriotism.
"If I called the shots at the federal level I'd sell the idea that all young men would be required to serve at least two years. The military teaches discipline and learning and self respect and it is a way to serve your nation. Everyone owes something to those who've gone before us and shed blood."
His time at The Citadel is where he "cut his teeth" but his service in the military was something "fulfilling."
"To have given a small part to something really big was rewarding. I'd like to see more people do it and feel a true connection to this country."