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Former SEAL Reminisces About Military Career; Loves Retirement Home

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

GULFPORT, Miss., Oct. 3, 2003 – A former Navy SEAL said he likes the Armed Forces Retirement Home here so much, "They would have to drag me kicking and screaming to get me out of here. They treat people so well here it's amazing. They treat you so well, it makes me feel guilty sometimes."

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Former Navy SEAL John B. Childress III, 68, poses in front of the 9th floor window at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, formerly the Naval Home, in Gulfport, Miss. The window overlooks the historic Gulf Coast. Photo by Douglas LeMere
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

John B. Childress III, 68, said one of his primary concerns when he was contemplating applying for residency at the home was the quality of long-term care it provided.

"One of the first things I did on a visit here (was) to tell the person who was escorting me, 'I want to see the long-term care area,'" said the retired Navy chief petty officer, who became a resident in January 2002.

"He said, 'OK,' and we went back there, walking around, and he asked, 'What are you doing?'

"I said, 'I'm smelling.'

"He said, 'What are you smelling?'

"I said, 'I'm not smelling anything, and I like that. My grandfather was in a home in Georgia, and the stink of urine when you (went into) that place was just almost overpowering," Childress said.

The care at the Armed Forces Retirement Home is excellent, he said, and residents who need specialized care receive it either from the Veterans Affairs hospital or from a private physician in the civilian community.

Born on July 3, 1934, in Marietta, Ga., Childress joined the Navy in July 1951, "because I wasn't doing well in school and wasn't very happy. I wanted to do something different and see the world."

After boot camp in San Diego, Calif., he was assigned aboard the destroyer tender USS Dixie as a boatswain's mate. His job was maintaining motor launches, ferrying sailors to and from shore for liberty and picking up stores for the ship.

When the Dixie sailed to waters off Korea, Childress was the first loader on the 5-inch gun mount.

"I'd put the bullet in, and another man put the powder container in," he said. On Jan. 31, 1951,the Dixie fired 208 rounds of 5-inch shells on railway installations at Kosong, Korea.

After the war was over in 1953, Childress said he "got adventurous and applied for underwater demolition team training."

He said he was lucky in that he never had to use his UDT training during wartime. But he noted that team members were always training -- running on the beach, swimming and doing "a lot of interesting things."

Childress, who has two sisters, said his mother was dying in 1955 and the Navy allowed him to go home on humanitarian shore duty. His enlistment expired while he was caring for his mother, and he got out for about 17 months and worked as a construction electrician. When he returned to active duty, he took the General Educational Development test and earned his high school graduate credentials. The high scores the son of an electrician attained on the test qualified him for electronics technician school at Treasure Island, Calif.

But, after graduating, he returned to his first love, underwater demolition. The adventurer became adventurous again in 1962 and opted for airborne training with the Army Special Forces while working with UDT on Okinawa. Then in 1968, he joined the SEALs, the Navy's elite special operations outfit.

Childress retired from the Navy in July 1972 at an unusual place for a sailor - - Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

"I was in the Naval Advisor's Office at Fort Bragg," he explained. "We provided advisors to the commanding general of the Special Forces there."

The retired chief petty officer said even with all of his specialized training and expertise, he never made it past E-7 because he had difficulty with the Navy's promotion system.

"Being an electronics technician, that's what I was tested on," he pointed out. "But I wasn't working in electronics. I was either in UDT, EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) or on a SEAL team. A lot of people were successful at beating that system by doing a lot of home study, but I didn't."

But, Childress said, "I enjoyed almost all my time in the service. And was lucky enough that 90 percent of the time I was where I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to do."

After retiring, he worked as an electronics technician for a company in China Lake, Calif., in the middle of the Mojave Desert, building mini-submarines for naval special warfare. He also was able to use the diving skills he learned in the Navy.

"Can you believe that one day I was diving for a submarine in a lake in the Mojave Desert in a snowstorm?" Childress asked with a loud laugh. "The safety boat was following the bubbles coming up from the submarine, but it was snowing so hard I had to give the coxswain my sunglasses, because he couldn't see the bubbles."

After eight years on that job, Childress retired again in January 1995. His wife was still working, but was diagnosed with cancer and had to quit.

"I wasn't working, so I was able to stay home and take care of her," he said. "That worked out very well until she died in May 1998."

Left alone and lonely, Childress started traveling to help maintain his sanity, he said. He visited his son in Germany, another son in Phoenix, his daughter in San Francisco and his sisters and his wife's sisters and other family members in Virginia and up and down the East Coast.

His wife's death left him alone in a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-story home in Ridgecrest, Calif., near China Lake Naval Weapons Center, where he used to work.

"I was becoming something of a recluse," he said. "It just wasn't a good way for me to live. So I checked out the Naval Home on the Internet 1999."

To end his reclusive living, Childress spent three years using his motor home to pick up his three granddaughters in Phoenix and haul them to the East Coast and Gulfport to visit friends and relatives.

"Each time we would come through Gulfport and I'd come up here and look at the Naval Home," said the father of three sons and a daughter, who have given him three granddaughters and four grandsons. "And I got a tour, and one time, I just went out to the gazebo and talked to people. I ended up visiting here four times before I made the application to come in."

Childress still has his motor home, which he pays $30 per month to park in a Gulfport recreational vehicle park.

"When I get ready to go on a trip, I just gas it up, check the tires and take off," he said. "There's lots of places around here to go. But I like to just park alongside the river. But sometimes it seems a little strange if you have a motor home parked just anywhere. People tend to visit you when you don't want business."

When he isn't traveling or sitting by the river in his motor home, Childress keeps busy on his computer reading newspapers on the Internet, checking the weather report and e-mailing friends and family all over the world.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFormer Navy SEAL John B. Childress III, 68, admires his favorite painting, "Ole Salts of the Square Rigger Navy," on display in the reception room at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, formerly the Naval Home, in Gulfport, Miss. Photo by Douglas LeMere  
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