GM: I’m Greg McIntyre, welcome to lunch with a veteran, I wanted to bring to you a weekly series that showcases our veterans in the Shelby area. Their stories are amazing and I don’t want them to be forgotten.
Today I’m talking with Evan Thompson, he is a veteran of the US Army, but not only that, he is the Post Commander of Post 82 of the American Legion in Shelby, North Carolina, and District Commander of the Western District of North Carolina.
The western district really covers 2 counties. I’m also a veteran of the Marine Corp, spent active time in the Marine Corp, spent time in the National Guard, the Marine Corp Reserves, the Army Reserves, and active Army, that about covers it.
GM: So, I missed a couple of things there. Active duty Marine, Army, Air National Guard, and the Army Reserves and Marine Reserves. That’s impressive, that’s a lot of military activity.
GM: That’s a career in the military. And you’re retired?
I’m retired active from the army as Command Sergeant Major.
GM: And you have a beautiful daughter by the way, Evan is my father-in-law.
Yes I do.
GM: So, what made you want to join the military?
Well, I didn’t actually join. I was in college from 65 to 69, and they were still drafting individuals at that time, and they came up with a lottery system, where they drew out dates of the year, and depending when your particular birthday was drawn out, that was where you were in line to be drafted into the military. Well I was the 4th recipient of having my number drawn, number twelve. I won the lottery big time.
I was so close to being drafted, I volunteered for the draft. I was still in college at the time but I went down and had a preliminary physical, and went back to college. Well, I had 3 months of college left and I got this letterthat said,greetings, we want you now. So, I sent a letter back to my local draft board and said, I’m not doing this, I’ve got 3 months left, I’m going to graduate from college, then I’ll be glad to come. So, I graduated on May 9th 1969 and I was drafted on June 9th 1969.
GM: So they let you finish college?
They let me finish college.
GM: I’ve made hard stands with the military and not come out so great, and I’ll tell you a story about that later.
Well, at least I wasn’t in the military yet. I got down to Charlotte to the entrance of examinations stage, and sometime during the day they said they were going to take two marines today, or they wanted volunteers for the Marine Corp, and nobody volunteered. So the day went on and on, and about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, all of a sudden my name is called, along with this other young man, his name was Goins. He was from up around Blowing Rock or Boone. And we went up front and there was this lieutenant, I still remember his name too, Lieutenant Strange, and he said to us, well guys, you’ve been chosen to go in the Marine Corp, I’m sure you’ll make good soldiers, go over there and get processed in. I looked at him and thought, you’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy, so I went back and sat down for a minute.
GM: You had to think about it.
I had to think about it, and I thought, no, this can’t be happening to me. So anyhow, I finally walked over to this lady, and she said, oh, you’re going to be in the best branch of service anyway. I was being drafted into the Marine’s, and I wanted to say to her, how do you know, you’ve never been there, but I didn’t because I was shocked, I was absolutely shocked.
Anyhow, they swore us all in that day, and they took all the army guys, and put them on a bus and sent them to Fort Jackson South Carolina, but they didn’t have enough marines yet to send us out to Parris Island. So, we got to spend the night in Charlotte at an old hotel called ‘The White House Inn’. I still remember that night, I called my mother, and she said, where are you, and I said, I’m in Charlotte, and she said, why are you there, and I said, well, I’ve been drafted into the Marine Corp. I remember her words, and I laugh about them today, she said, oh they’ll kill you. I thought that was really funny at the time, I thought, no, they’re not going to kill me. Later the next day they put us on a bus and we got into Parris Island during the night.
It was pretty rough. They came on the bus and they were hollering at you, calling you all kinds of names, and telling you, you better get off that bus and get on those yellow footprints, and then it all started. They shaved our heads, and that’s why I swore if I ever lost my hair I would get a toupee, because I never want to look like that again. But half way through basic when we had about a quarter inch of hair, they shaved it again.
But I had an interesting experience during basic training. I was given a set of orders about midway through basic training, that said I was going to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to become an FO. Well, I didn’t know what an FO was at the time, but I learned that was a Forward Observer.
GM: They go ahead of everybody.
Exactly, they had a short life span. So, I thought, oh my gosh, but when I had gotten to Parris Island, that very first or second day, they asked some of us if we wanted to take a typing test. I volunteered to take the typing test because I’d just gotten out of college and I had had typing in college. I typed all my term papers and all those kinds of things. Anyway, the day I was graduating from Parris Island basic training, my drill sergeant called me up to the front of the room and he said, Private Thompson, where are you going when you leave Camp Geiger, and I said, I’m going to Fort Sill, Oklahoma sir and then on to Westpac, because that’s what it was called, western pacific.
GM: Same thing now, I wasn’t going to Vietnam but anytime you go on a west coast cruise, you’re going to Westpac, east coast cruise, you’re going to Eastpac.
Anyhow, he said, no, you’re not going there, and I said, yes I am, he said, no you’re not private, you’re coming back to Parris Island. Well that really deflated me because I thought, I have spent enough time at this place. I did not want to go back to Parris Island. But what happened was, after I had finished infantry training, they got a set of orders back to Parris Island where I went to admin school. So, I spent my whole time in the Marine Corp sitting in an office every day, down at Buford, South Carolina, which was a Marine Corp Air Station. So, that was my first 2 years in the military. I was very fortunate I didn’t go to Vietnam. I had the opportunity, right near the end of my 2 years. I did get a set of orders to Vietnam, but I didn’t have enough time left to execute the orders without extending. I didn’t want to extend, everybody talked about lifers like they were really bad people. If you decided to stay in, you were given the term lifer, and I didn’t want to be a lifer, which was a big mistake at the time, I wish I had.
GM: If I had been a lifer I could have already retired. I could be drawing a pension. I could still have done my law degree and practiced while I was in. There were a lot of options I had, but I couldn’t see it at that time. I had to get out after 4 years and go and do my law degree.
Well, I got out and the very day I got out, I went back to graduate school and got my masters. My brother talked me into joining the Air National Guard. Big mistake, I had been a Marine, I had not been what I called sissy fly boys. Me and the Air National Guard didn’t get along because they weren’t disciplined enough, your uniform wasn’t striking, in the Marine Corp you always had good looking uniforms, keep it nice, clean, pressed. The Air National Guard wasn’t that way, so after a year I told them goodbye, and I went to the Marine Corp Reserve. All the while I was still in graduate school too.
GM: I’m going to have to bring someone on from the Airforce, to represent.
So, I spent about a year in the Marine Corp Reserves, and pulled at least one annual training with them. I still recall that annual training, I went down to Camp Lejeune, and if you think about it I was a civilian at the time because I was in graduate school. I went to check into my barracks down there for the 2 weeks I was going to be there, and this First Sergeant saw me, and he said, if you’re going to live in my barracks boy you’re going to get a hair cut, and I said, well, I’m just not going to live in your barracks. So, I went out and got me a place to live in town, and just came in to work for the 2 weeks at the office at Camp Lejeune, and then went back home. After about a year, I had a friend here in Shelby who said, why don’t you join the Army Reserves? So, I joined the Army Reserves. The nice thing about joining the Army Reserves is they got rank so much faster. When I joined the Marine Corp Reserves I became Sergeant E5, and I got to the Army Reserves and about 6 months later I became a Staff Sergeant. After about a year I became Sergeant First Class, and then after another year or two I was put into a First Sergeants position. I couldn’t be promoted from First Sergeant because I didn’t have enough time in service yet. So, I followed that through and finally I was promoted to First Sergeant, and then I thought, I’d like to become a Sergeant Major. The Army had just started a program out in Fort Bliss Texas, it’s called the Sergeant’s Major Academy, and they were putting a requirement that if you wanted to make Sergeant Major you had to go to that academy, so, I went to Fort Bliss, Texas to Sergeant’s Major Academy.
I became a Sergeant Major, and during the time I was in the Army Reserves, I went on active duty on two different occasions. I went on active duty at Fort Jackson, and I was First Sergeant of a basic training company in the 2nd battalion down there. That was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. We worked on average, one hundred to one hundred and five hours a week, every week. That was something I didn’t enjoy that much. It was great to see those young kids become soldiers but it was tough duty, because you didn’t get any sleep. You were always watching over those guys and gals, because I had a platoon of females also. That was a tough job.
Later on I went on active duty with the Army, and I went to Anniston, Alabama. I was either First Sergeant or Sergeant Major of the NBC school. That was a very interesting experience because that was the home of the Nuclear, Bacterial and Chemical Warfare school. That was really interesting. Finally I became a Brigade Sergeant Major down at Fort Jackson, and that’s where I retired from.
I had a very diverse career, a lot of interesting events in my life, and I still have friends that I keep in contact with.
GM: In the mean-time though, you got your education.
Right, I have an Associate’s, a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, an EDS and about half way through a Doctorate. I’ve been a professor, I’ve been a college dean, I’ve done all kinds of things.
GM: And the military helped pay for that education?
That’s right. And while we are talking about that, the military did pay for the education, and the reason that came about is the American Legion is the organization responsible for bringing about, the Soldiers of Jusmenak?? which ultimately became the GI bill. The American Legion were responsible for presenting that before congress, and ultimately getting it passed. Many military people have had the advantage of having the GI bill, and getting their education.
GM: Not just the GI bill, but when you’re active duty, at the time, the Navy will pay for two thirds of the classes I took while enlisted, and the CLEP Test, which was a test for almost any college class out there.
CLEP means, College Level Examination Program’s.
GM: And if you test well on that, you can receive credit for the class. Now, you can challenge, this comes from somewhere back in ancient Greece where you could challenge your professor. And you can still do that at any college, or true university. You should be able to walk into class and challenge your professor, and test out of that class and demonstrate core competence out of that class. A CLEP test is in that vein. If you take that test and demonstrate core competency in that class, you get a grade for that class.
I think I got 23 or 26 credits undergrad with the CLEP test. Anybody looking at how to put together your college career together or undergrad together, I would buy the text book, read them, take the tests at the end of the book and commit to memory, and then take the test and that would be my college credit. I would do a lot of this while I was on an aircraft carrier. I probably studied more for those tests than most undergrads do the first few years at college. That’s what I would do in my spare time. In the Navy, there was an education department on the base and on the ship. They were happy to help, and I had an idea how I wanted to put it all together at the end in a degree package. Any college that is affiliated with the military accepts transfer credits, and there’s a ton of colleges out there affiliated with the military.
Before I ever went to the military, I graduated from high school in 1965 and didn’t know what I was going to do. About 3 months before I graduated, a neighbor of mine said, what are you going to do, and I said, I think I’m going to join the Airforce and do whatever I can do in the Airforce, and he said, why don’t you go to college. Well, I came from a very poor family, I had no money to go to college. He said, why don’t you apply to these two college’s, Warren Wilson College and Berea College, they’re two college’s that will allow you to work and pay your way as you go. I applied to both and I got accepted to both. Fortunately, I was able to get my bachelor’s degree and when Igraduated, I owed $400 dollars. Most students would be very happy if they graduated and owed $400 dollars. I was fortunate as when I got out of the Marine Corp, I went right back to get my graduate degree, and used the GI bill. That’s why I praise the American Legion so much because they are such a great organization, and have helped veterans to a large degree. Our veteran’s healthcare system that we have, and I know there is a lot of complaints about it, but at least we have it. A lot of elements about it are very good. I’ve never had any tremendous problems with it.
GM: I have complained about it but I’m lucky to have it. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t work to improve it, I want to improve it.
The American Legion was responsible for the getting the VA healthcare system started.
GM: The American Legion needs younger veterans to come in to.
That’s right, so many of the American Legion members are older veterans. Most of them right now are Vietnam era but we need Persian Gulf and Iraq veterans.
GM: And they need the American Legion too. You know, coming back and assimilating back into society, going to college with a bunch of kids who have not been in the Middle East getting shot at, or camping out in the dessert, that’s a big difference coming back. The American Legion can help with that, the camaraderie, feeling like you belong.
The American Legion knows that things are different between the culture of a Vietnam veteran and a Persian Gulf veteran. I know Persian Gulf vets don’t want to come into the American Legion and hear a bunch of war stories from a bunch of old fellows back from Vietnam.
GM: But I tell you what, just talking about it, to relate, to be with people who understand what you went through, that can literally be the difference between life and death for some veterans.
The suicide rate today for veterans is about 20 per day. That is absolutely horrendous but it’s happening. In 2014 there were 50,000 homeless veterans, so something has to be done, and the American Legion is working very hard to do what they can. Our commander goes before congress once a year to lobby for veterans and get the laws and policies changed to help veterans. That is another reason why all veterans should become a part of a veteran’s service organization, because they are out there to help veterans, that’s what they are all about. So, I preach it all the time. I love the American Legion, I love what it stands for and the things it’s trying to do, and I encourage any veteran to become a member of the American Legion.
GM: It’s that and you want to come back and get plugged in to the community too. How to prosper in your career in your community, you will automatically get a ton of people in your network. How many members are in the American Legion in Shelby?
Our local post has around 250 members.
GM: Not all of them come to every meeting but we do have 50 plus people there.
We have 50 or 60 every meeting. So, you have a lot of people to network with, and that is another thing about the Legion is the networking. We also have programs every month to give veterans information, not only about the American Legion but about the community itself. In January, we’ve got Craig McLinden?? coming to tells us about the employment opportunities for veterans and what he can do for them to be employed.
GM: Do you think you may have a little bit of wisdom to impart on a young man coming out of the military from the Middle East? Off the top of your head, you need to get an education right? If you’re interested in doing that, I don’t care if it’s university or trade, you can do it, and do it with benefits from the military. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to be a welder or apply something you learned in the military.
Well, I wish I could go back and change some of the things I did, and I wish I was younger and had the knowledge I have today, so I could use it back then to help.
GM: That is the benefit of me talking to you or an organization like the American Legion is, other people can have the benefit of your knowledge. You can’t go back and tell yourself. I wish I could do that too. I made mistakes, and just for example, before I married Stefanie, she had come out to visit me, and you said the military let you wait to be drafted until you graduated, I was getting ready to take the GMAT, which is a test to go to MBA school, at San Diego university which is where I was taking it. I wanted to get out of the military and directly into law school, and I also wanted to get my MBA. I did that, it just took a couple of years longer. The Chief, he wanted me to go to this fire-fighting school. I had been to this fire-fighting school about 50 times, and I had lots of sea time in at that point. I should have gone to the fire-fighting school but it conflicted with the GMAT, and I had paid for the GMAT and I was supposed to take it. So, I talked to the Chief ahead of time, he wouldn’t let me off, but I went and took the GMAT. He was not happy with me at all. He confined me to base, and I didn’t live on base, I lived out in San Diego. He confined me to base for 30 days. I ended up getting married to your daughter while I was confined to base in San Diego.
Well, I was determined. I was not going until I had graduated from college. I thought, why waste three and three quarter years and not get that last semester in.
GM: It was me being bone headed, and his stupid decision to do that. In hindsight, I’d like to go back and tell myself, go to the fire-fighting school, then come back and take that test. When I got out, we moved up to Raleigh for a couple of years for work programming computers, and then I went on to law school and getting my MBA, which worked out just fine. But at the time, I thought I had to take the GMAT test that day, and I disobeyed my superior, which is not a good idea. I got yelled at a lot, and he was a big guy. He ended up being a friend of mine, because after Stef and I were married, I was leaving on a six month cruise to the Middle East, and he came to our wedding, and I think he understood too, that I wasn’t a lifer, but I was serious about my job. I was not a fire-fighter, I worked on E2C Hawkeye electronic equipment which was electronics for avionics. We live and learn.
This has been lunch with a veteran, with Evan Thompson.
Elder Law Attorney
McIntyre Elder Law
123 W. Marion Street
Shelby, NC 28150