Heroes among us: Retired chief dedicates himself to troops

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cortney Paxton
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is part five of a series highlighting the experiences of past military service members.

In the 1960s, men could be drafted into the military to help serve in support of the Vietnam War, so it could be argued that many men served without a choice. But even with the draft lingering over them, some men still joined the military voluntarily, maybe even just to avoid the draft.

"It was the end of July, first part of August 1966, and I had applied to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.," said Chief Master Sgt. (ret.) Curt Shannon, 341st Missile Wing Heritage Center director. "The school gave me a temporary deferment because the draft was going on for Vietnam, which I took to my draft board. On a Monday morning I showed up and gave them my temporary deferment. The lady went over to a file cabinet, opened one drawer and shut it and opened another drawer and shut it; then she went to a desk. On the desk were three, grey in/out baskets - the top one was marked 'alternates.' I was number five on the list of alternates for the month of August 1966. The way the system worked is that if you were selected as an alternate, and you made it through that month without being selected as an alternate - or being used as an alternate - then they could accept that deferment. I asked the lady, 'Well, how many do you go through a month?' and she said anywhere from 25 to 35. So I left the draft board with my right hand up asking 'where is that Air Force guy?'"

Shannon joined the Air Force as an aircraft armament specialist. As a " bomb loader " he was responsible for the checkout and repair of aircraft weapons release, critical circuit control and gunnery systems as well as the loading of various conventional and nuclear munitions. During his career, he worked on several different aircraft including A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, B-52 Stratofortresses, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-84 Thunderjets, F-100 Super Sabres, F-111F Aardvarks, and F-4C-, D- and E-model Phantoms.

His diverse career also took him to various places across the nation and the world. Some of his state-side PCS assignments included Lowry Air Force Base, Colo., George AFB, Calif., Homestead AFB, Fla., K.I. Sawyer AFB, Mich., Shaw AFB, S.C., and Malmstrom. He was also stationed in Iceland and Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.

"K.I. Sawyer was my favorite assignment," Shannon said. "The camaraderie and the way people worked together were great, primarily because of the location and the severity of the winters.

If you want to see winter, you need to go to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It starts in September and ends in June and they get nearly 300 inches of snow a year."

Shannon served during the Vietnam War and, although he came close, he never had a chance to support it in country. While at George AFB, he and 70 other weapons people received orders to Phu Kat Air Base, Vietnam. However, their first stop was a temporary duty en-route to Homestead to prepare two F-4D squadrons for deployment. In June 1969, the North Koreans shot down an EC-121 Warning Star off of their coast and the 70 Airmen were diverted to Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, instead.

"Probably 70 of us weapons guys ... were initially listed as AWOL at Phu Kat because we didn't show up there on time," Shannon said.

Although Shannon admits that he loved what he did in the military, he didn't enjoy every moment of his service. He actually separated from the service in 1970 because of a vindictive master sergeant.

"I had planned to re-enlist," he admits. "Three or four weeks before I separated, my squadron commander tried to get me to re-enlist, and I said 'you know, as long as you have people like that you don't need me.' I turned down the $10,000 re-enlistment bonus and a year's time in grade as a staff sergeant and went to work for Volkswagen of American in Fort Wayne, Ind., for $2.25 an hour changing oil. That was November 1970. July of the next year I was the dealership's service manager. A flight of four F-100s from the Air National Guard at Baer Field banked over the dealership and, being a weapons guy, I had to look to see what they were carrying. It was at that point that I realized I let this one person chase me out of something I truly enjoyed. So I joined the Indiana ANG at Fort Wayne and when a civilian position opened up I took it. In 1972 the opportunity opened up for me to return to active duty and I never looked back."

After returning to active duty, Shannon deployed to Andravida, Greece; Mogadishu, Somalia; and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where he served as the area of responsibility senior enlisted advisor for Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

"I spent Christmas of 1992 in a mine field 35 miles southwest of Kuwait City," the chief said. "I was visiting the Special Operations Command, Central folks stationed at Kuwait International Airport on Christmas Eve. Their commander was a young Col. Norton Schwartz. The colonel informed me that some of our people from Dhahran had been injured in an explosive incident and had been taken to a hospital in Kuwait City. When I contacted General Short at Dhahran he told me to find them. I spent Christmas Eve driving around Kuwait City looking for the hospital they had been taken to. I eventually found them after visiting four hospitals with limited communication success--not many spoke English. I met the Kuwait police investigators at the sight the next day. They had clearly been in an area they didn't belong."

As Shannon progressed in the enlisted ranks, he became devoted to his people. He was often willing to step up for people to improve their quality of life, even if it meant pushing his limits every once in a while.

"A lot of times you just have to stand up for what you think is right," he explained. "In Iceland, we moved the aircraft maintenance unit out to the west end of the base, and it takes a minimum of 60 days to change any contract. There was no way for the people to get to work because there was no bus route going out that far so my senior NCOs and I were trained to drive buses. I drove the bus in the morning to get people to work, and the same thing at lunch to get them to chow."

His dedication to troops is what made him a good pick for the senior enlisted advisor program, now known as the command chief position. Although he served eight wing commanders as their SEA, it wasn't always his choice.

"I had no intentions of becoming a senior enlisted advisor," Shannon said. "I liked my flightline, my airplanes and the people that made things happen."

As much as he liked his people, he saw tragedy among them several times. One time in particular he recalls as his darkest day during his service. He was the senior enlisted advisor at K.I. Sawyer when a KC-135 Stratotanker crashed on takeoff out of Dyess AFB, Texas.

"There were 18 people on that aircraft from K. I. who were looking forward to two weeks in Hawaii," Shannon said. "I was flying that day and found out about it when I landed. The aircraft crashed on take-off killing everyone on board. It was on CNN in downtown Marquette, Mich., before [Strategic Air Command] was even notified. If I had to pick the darkest day of my military career, it was that day."

The day the aircraft crashed, Shannon went with a chaplain to deliver notifications to the family of one of the Airmen who had passed. He also lost a very close friend in that crash and tried to help loved ones who were "inconsolable," he said. He worked diligently to get the flying mission of the base back in operation as he believed it would help keep people's minds off of the incident. Once the mission was able to continue, Shannon was on the very first plane that took off. Although they had some major setbacks with the weather - which caused them to land overnight at Grand Forks AFB, N.D., in negative-55-degree weather - he was able to make it to every memorial service the next day.

Probably one of the most memorable things done during his career happened here at Malmstrom. In 1996, the people at Camp Mak-A-Dream contacted the base for help constructing a ropes course at their facility in Goldcreek, Mont. Camp Mak-A-Dream provides a medically supervised, cost-free Montana experience in an intimate community setting for children, young adults and families affected by cancer. The team consisted mostly of young Airmen from the civil engineer and communication squadrons. The project was expected to take two to three weeks and was done in eight days.

The chief's service earned him many awards and decorations including the Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, Air Force Overseas Short and Long Tour ribbons, Air Force Longevity Service Award, the Kuwait Liberation Medal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others.

"The Air Force has been good to me and I was able to do some things that were truly phenomenal," Shannon said. "I thoroughly enjoyed every job I was given, but the best part of my entire career was the people I had the honor of serving with."