Thank you for joining us for lunch with veteran Bob Cabaniss, 2 time recipient of a Purple Heart, veteran of the Marine Corp, an enlisted Marine, and former member of the Army and Airforce. A very rare individual.
“When you walk into Graceland, you walk in the door and there’s a hallway with a balcony, and Elvis and Ann Margaret were standing on the balcony…
He had sent his guys to the base and said he was having a big party at his house, and if any Marine showed up in their dress uniform, they would be invited to the party…
“So, me and 3 other guys had dress blues and so we got a car to get out there…
We walked in and said hello, and walked on through the house to the back yard and there was a barbecue set up, hamburgers and stuff. So, we ate hamburgers and hung around…
“We stayed for about 2 hours, and were getting ready to leave and he sent his guys out to ask, who wants to play touch football?..
“So, we’ve got dress blues on right, that was the most expensive clothes a Marine had, and back then, the front lawn didn’t have any of these big oak trees on it, so we played touch football on the front lawn of Graceland with Elvis.”
GM: You were in Millington, Tennessee, the same place I was stationed for training for AT school?
“AE school was in Jacksonville, Florida. I went to AE school, myself and my buddy Dick Wells, then went to our next squadron which was New River NC, and we had our choice of squadrons. So, the base commander said, what squadron do you want? Well, we had no idea. He said, well, you could go to Spain, France and England, Dick and I looked at each other and said, that’s the one. So we got in it and found out about a year later when you’re in your first squadron you couldn’t get out. I don’t know if they had this planned then or not but we were going to Vietnam as a squadron. We took over from the group that was over there for about 8 months and took over their helicopters but we went as a group, so we all knew each other. But, when I got to the squadron the commander said that all crew chiefs were mechanics, but we need a crew chief who’s an electrical guy because of all the problems they were getting, so they chose me, and I was sent back to AT school, so I was AE and AT.”
GM: So, you’re a Vietnam vet as a Marine, but then you’ve been in multiple branches of the services, more than just the Marines.
“Right. Army National Guard and the Airforce National Guard.”
GM: How does that happen?
“I really intended to stay in the Marine Corp, but when the reenlistment lecture came around and I asked the commanding officer, because I had the Purple Hearts, I wound up in the Naval Hospital in Key West convalescing from my wounds, we got shot up a lot over there, so I asked, if I reenlist in the Marine Corp am I going back to Vietnam? And he said, oh yeah. So I was thinking, oh no. They tried to kill me the first time, so I thought about it and considered it, and got completely out of the military and went to work for RCA.”
GM: You were awarded two purple hearts?
“The first purple heart was what I call my John Wayne wound. I was in four helicopters in Vietnam, and this one was I think the second one. We got shot up and landed hard, and I thought I’d snagged my flight suite getting out of the helicopter, because it wouldn’t quit bleeding. I didn’t think much of it but I finally went to the doctor and said, why is this thing keep bleeding, what’s wrong, and he started digging around and pulled shrapnel out and he said, my god, you’ve been wounded. He was pulling these little fibers out that looked like stranded electrical wire where the strands have come out. He pulled out about 5 or 6 of them, and said I’ll put you in for a purple heart. Now it looks like a vaccination scar. My buddy Mitch Carpenter got wounded also. He got hit across the bridge of the nose.
So, a month later they had us line up and had Marines give us purple hearts. So, the airwing of the Marine Corp, the infantry Marines consider us to be almost air-force. This Colonel is giving out the purple hearts and he stopped in front of these guys who really got hurt. This guy had his arm all bandaged up and the Colonel said, so son, how are you wounded? And he said, I stepped on a land mine, he really got hurt. So, he went down the line and got to Mitch. Now in the Airwing, we were working on these old piston engine helicopters and they were nasty, and our uniforms were all oily, we just looked bad, hair down to here. In early Vietnam, you couldn’t get food or anything, our uniforms were rotting off us literally, because of the damp, they never got dry. So, we’re looking like someone’s rear end, and he walks in front of Mitch and said, son where were you wounded, and Mitch said, right across the bridge of my nose sir, and the Colonel said, where? Mitch went, right here sir, and the Colonel said, oh yeah. Then he looked up and down and said, you’re in the airwing aren’t you? Yes sir, and he pinned the purple heart on him. Then he walked up to me and he said, son, how are you wounded, and I said, shrapnel in the back of my arm sir, and he said, you’re in the airwing too aren’t you? I said, yes, sir, and he pinned it on me. Some on these guys were really hurt, and some of them got sent back to the states. It was funny and it was embarrassing for Mitch and I, we wanted to crawl under the nearest rock.”
The second time they sent me home. Anyway, it was 52 years ago. A Long time.”
GM: So, how did you end up back in the service?
“I was out for about 5 or 6 years, and I missed the military. I also wanted to buy an airplane, but I didn’t want to spend family money, so I checked out the air guard because they had airplanes but they didn’t have any openings, they were completely full. Back in the 50’s my dad was commanding officer of the Army National Guard Unit in Shelby so, I checked out the army guard.
I walked in the door and there behind the desk was a man named Gus Gregory, wonderful guy. I walked in and I remembered Gus from my dad, and I said, Sergeant Gregory, and he said yeah, who are you? Bob Cabaniss. He said, Bobby Cabaniss, cause when I was a little boy they called me Bobby, and he’d known me since I was a little boy. He asked me what I was doing down there? I told him I was down to see about enrolling in the army guard, but I said, you guys don’t have any airplanes out there. What would I be doing? He said, just come down and look around, if you see something you like, just let me know. I said, where do I sign up?
I was in the army guard for 12 or 13 years in Shelby. Then I went to the air guard in Charlotte and they had an opening in avionics. So, they said I had to be discharged from the army, and take the ASVAB test, so that’s what I did. I loved the army but the air-guard is a whole other world. They’re very professional and I literally went all over the world. The first Gulf War, Bosnia, Panama, we did a lot of stuff the army guys just didn’t get to do.
I wound up as first sergeant. First Sergeant is like Master Chief, in charge of all the enlisted guys. The commanding officer called me up to the office one day and he said, I’d like you to be my first sergeant. I said, you know my reputation, and he said, oh I know your reputation. I asked, what do you know about it? He said, you despise officers, and I said, I do. He said, well, you’re not going to be with the officers, you’ll be over with the enlisted guys. I asked him, why did you choose me to be first Sergeant? He said, because you were in the army, we need someone to straighten this place out.
In the Airforce, and Air-guard, everyone had different colored ballcaps, to differentiate the shop you were in. The engine shop wore blue ballcaps, the electronic guys wore green ballcaps. I became first sergeant when we switched over from green uniforms to the camouflage stuff, so we had to get rid of all that and wear the camouflaged BDU cap which I hated. That was one of my deals, to make sure you were wearing proper uniform. You had to blouse your boots, you had to wear the proper uniform. I was really tough of them. I was going around snatching hats off them, you can’t do this, can’t do that.
I knew we were getting a new commanding officer, and I was standing in formation one Sunday, and all these people out there. First Sergeant goes out and brings everybody to attention, and the XO comes out and gives the squadron to him, and then you go stand behind the squadron with the Chief. So, I’m standing behind the squadron and I look, and there’s some guy with a mesh black ballcap on, right in the middle of my squadron. The base commander is up there talking, and so I slipped down there and ease behind him and said, you get your butt in my office. So, I looked down, and the guy was a Major. I said, sir, what are you doing standing in formation with my enlisted men? And he said, I thought that’s where I should stand with a new commanding officer. I said, sir, you don’t stand in formation with the enlisted men, come stand with me. Come to find out he’d never done anything but be an Airforce flyer, he had no clue. He came back and stood next to me, and said, I think I need to come to your office and you can teach me how to do my job. I said, sir, where going to get along just fine.”
GM: I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to that. I’m sure that officers are dependent on the enlisted.
“I told my new commanding officer, when you get a new butter bar, that’s a guy right out of school, an ensign to you, how about sending him through my office before you send him out to his job? And he said, why? And I said, I just need to talk to him.
These guys would come in and they would always get put over at the shop, the engine shop, avionics or something. They’d bring them in to me, and I’d say, sir, you’re a brand new officer, congratulations. You’re going to be the OIC down at the engine shop. Now Chief Jones has been the Chief down at the engine shop for 15 years, he pretty much knows what’s going on. Do yourself a favor, go down there, introduce yourself to Chief Jones and say, I’m here for you to teach me how to do my job. If you do that, you’ll do fine. If you go and start throwing your weight around, next thing you know, Chief Jones is going to be on the phone to a buddy in the Pentagon and you’re going to wind up in Alaska. Just you remember, these Chiefs, they know everybody. They all owe each other favors, and all they’ve got to do is pick up the phone book and they can make your life miserable.
My dad died when I was 13, my mom died when I was 16. So, I’ve been on my own since I was 16, and had it not been for the Marine Corp, there’s no telling what might have been. The Marine Corp set my future you might say. I just went to Parris Island a few weeks ago with my grandson who graduated from there, and driving on base was almost emotional for me, and it still is to this day.”
GM: I feel the same way about the Navy. I got to see the world in the Navy. I spent a lot of time in the Middle East, Asia, and I was stationed in San Diego.
“When I first got in the Marine Corp, when I first got situated, some old salt had written on the sea bag everywhere he went. I thought that was pretty cool, I need to do that, so I got the guys in paraloft to make me a clothing bag, and I wrote on there all the places that I’d been. When I go through an airport with that clothing bag on my shoulder, everybody stops and stares and say, look at that guy. Cause all these years I’ve been in the military, it’s 33 years, I’ve been gone all the time. My grandson, before he joined the Marine Corp, I pulled that bag out and said, I just want you to see this. This is what you can do.”
GM: The Navy allowed me to become independent and grow up a little bit, and get out on my own. My dad was in the Navy at San Diego too, and he was in Vietnam, he worked on subs as a sub-lieutenant. One of the things he always said, which I realized to be true was, I was enlisted, I went in enlisted, and he always said, the only difference between myself and the officer was a piece of paper. So, that inspired him to come straight out and get his engineering degree, which made a great life for us.
“My grandson lived with us his senior year in high school. My wife who I love dearly, said to him, let’s go upstairs, I want to show you your papa’s armoire. She opened it up and all my t-shirts were folded as so, and my socks and everything, that’s what the Marine Corp does for you. She said to him, when we first got married, he had to show me how to fold his underwear, because if it wasn’t folded just so, he would just refold it.”
GM: I used to iron my underwear. My wife just freaked out, boxer shorts with creases on them.
“I was telling my grandson, they do things differently when you’re in boot camp, they issue everything to you. All his field gear, all issued to you, so they’ve got to haul that mess around with you every time they go somewhere. And I said, did they show you how to pack a sea bag? He said, well, no. They didn’t show you how to pack a sea bag? Well I’ll show you how to pack a sea bag so you can get all your stuff in it. So, let me just show you, and I started rolling everything up and putting it in there, and I said, you wouldn’t believe what you can get in a sea bag if you do it right. You can get so much in here you can’t pick the thing up.
Then I said, did they not show you how to fold your dress uniform? He said, no. So, I said, let me show you, because you tuck one sleeve into the other sleeve and then you roll the thing inside out so it’s not all wrinkly. Somebody is going to teach you how to do this sooner or later. And when you have ‘junk on a bunk’, a clothing inspection, you just unroll it and it’s not wrinkled, it’s looks good, whereas if you just stuff it in a bag, it’s going to look horrible. And you can’t fold it, because folding it leaves creases.”
GM: I think our society is lot more casual now also.
“I wound up being a high school teacher, I taught electronics and physics at Burns. The kids in my classroom, when I first started teaching, at the end of your senior year, you have your final exam, and the last question on all my final exams was, ‘What do you like, and what do you not like?’ I can’t tell you how many times they answered, we enjoy the discipline in your classroom. And I thought, of all the things, and so I asked the kids, why is that? And they said, because when we come in your classroom, we know how far we can go. We know we can go up to the line. In other classrooms, we don’t know, and it creates stress because we don’t know where to go, we don’t know how far we can go.”
GM: Society as a whole and the school systems need to back that up, because it doesn’t do kids any good if you can’t give them some discipline.
“My discipline was, I will never send you to the office, I don’t care what you do, I’m going to take care of it right here, right now. I never sent a kid to the office in 30 years, because the kids knew. I think they respected me enough, no.1 not to pull any crazy stuff. I would say, if you want to play a practical joke on me, I’m all for it as long as you don’t hurt anybody and you don’t damage any equipment. Make it a good one, because I’ve seen all of them, and I’ll laugh as hard as you. My thing was, if you’re late coming to classroom, and late means your butt is not on the seat, don’t say a word to me, just go to the back of the room, drop down, and give me 25 push-ups. That’s the first time, second time it’s 50, and third time it’s a 100.”
GM: That’s a lot of Push-ups.
“Young kids especially would say, I can’t do 25 push-ups, I’d say, I tell you what partner, I’ll do a one arm push up for every two arm push up you do. So, I’d say, show me what you can do. They’d do 25 push-ups even if it killed them, even if it broke their back so they could see me do 25 one arm push-ups.”
I’m Greg McIntyre and this is ‘Lunch with a Veteran.’
Thanks for sitting down with me.
I am an Elder Law attorney and also handle Veteran’s Benefits for veterans and their families. I am proud to be a certified attorney through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. If you have any questions you would like to ask me any questions about the above article please call me at McIntyre Elder Law, 704 259–7040, or you can find us on Facebook and twitter @LawyerGreg. So leave a question or a comment, I do answer any questions and comments throughout the week so get writing.
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