Face of Defense: Dad Returns ‘Home’ to Military
By Army Maj. Nicoline Jaramillo
Special to American Forces Press Service
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq, Dec. 11, 2009 Imagine being a father who served in the military for 10 years, preparing to send your son to basic training, and wishing you could go in his place.
After a 17-year break in service, Sgt. Billy Willingham enlisted in the Army as a motor transport operator. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A soldier in the 1st Armored Division’s 4th Brigade doesn’t have to imagine it. He has lived it first-hand.
Army Sgt. Billy Willingham, 121st Brigade Support Battalion, joined the Air Force in April 1982. His first duty assignment was Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., where he dreamed of flying, he said. His retention counselor told him that wasn’t an option for him in the Air Force, but the Army had a program called “High School to Flight School.”
Willingham received an early release from the Air Force to pursue his dream of flying. After 18 months, he started flight school as an Army warrant officer in April 1987. His first assignment as a pilot of AH-64 Apaches was with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fulda, Germany, where he was stationed for four years.
He separated from the Army in the early 1990s, he said, and started a quest to find his “home.”
Willingham said he wanted to find purpose in his work and camaraderie with his peers. For 17 years, he worked in retail management, never quite finding his home. When his son approached him about joining the Army, Willingham was excited to share his lessons and experiences, and he encouraged his son to seek out the opportunities offered by a military career.
Though basic training was going to be a “pain in the butt,” he told his son, as long he was a hard-working team player who accomplished his job, the rest would be “a piece of cake.”
He also explained how no one offers the medical benefits or retirement the military can, but his son did not choose to join. Instead, he provided his father with his recruiter’s information and a way to pursue his own desire to return to the service, even at age 44.
The elder Willingham met with a recruiter who explained how his 10 years of prior service actually provided him a little leeway not afforded to others, and worked with him on his options for enlistment. The recruiter asked if he would like to go back in as a warrant officer, but Willingham said he told the recruiter to just “let me get in before they change their minds.”
Willingham enlisted in the Army as a motor transport operator, at the rank of specialist. But since completing advanced individual training, he has conducted only eight missions as an operator. He has found that his background and leadership experience place him in positions of responsibility that challenge him to excel on a personal and professional level.
Willingham is working at the Combined Division Operations Center with the 10th Iraqi Army Division. He recounted his incoming interview with Command Sgt. Maj. Saeed Mustafa, his battalion’s command sergeant major, and how he committed to doing whatever he was tasked to do to the best of his ability.
“The original team sat on one side of the room with Iraqis on the other,” he said. “There was very little to no interaction.” He realized this was not the intent of the concept, he said, nor was it within his nature to work with a group of men he knew nothing about.
“I spent a good portion of time one afternoon, early on in my new assignment, with the interpreter, to introduce myself and learn a little bit about my counterparts,” he said.
As he concluded the last introduction and offered assistance whenever needed, the Iraqi army major told him about a roadside bomb on a route frequently traveled by U.S. forces.
Willingham asked the Iraqi major to obtain an exact grid coordinate and called higher headquarters to alert them of the roadside bomb. A patrol was dispatched, diffused the explosive and safely maneuvered the scheduled convoy through the area without mishap.
“It feels as though I’m doing something worthwhile for self, family, and America,” Willingham said. He plans to retire from the Army, he added, and it may not be another 20 or 25 years. Only time will tell. He’s found his home.
(Army Maj. Nicoline Jaramillo serves with the 1st Armored Division’s 4th Brigade.)