April 23 (UPI) — After a career spanning more than 40 years, a Virginia soldier will retire this summer as one of the few — if not the only — recipient of a Vietnam Service Medal still on active U.S. military duty.
Navy Sgt. First Class Victor T. Wright enlisted at age 17 as a way to “see the world” and get an education. Now 61, he will retire Aug. 31 after a career that included five enlistments and six deployments. His final post, as a senior aviation maintenance instructor in the 128th Aviation Brigade, is at Fort Eustis, Va.
Wright served in every major conflict of his lifetime — Vietnam, Gulf Wars I and II and Kosovo — and tours in the Pacific theater, Indian Ocean, Kenya and Korea.
He may be the sole remaining active duty Vietnam veteran, according to military officials.
In June 2015, Marine Corps Times wrote a story about Michael Jarnevic, a Green Beret considered the last person in uniform whose service record includes a tour in Vietnam. He retired the following month.
After Wright read the story, he called editors of the magazine to let them know there’s at least one more.
“We’re not 100 percent sure, but it’s very likely he is the last one,” Capt. Jeremy Stoddard said. “We’ve been trying to figure this out for years. It’s very unlikely anyone would have been in the service that long, for 40-plus years.”
Stoddard said in most cases, those with four decades of service would’ve chosen to go into another level — or would have been forced into retirement.
“That’s like the time in service that a senior general would have,” he said, noting Wright for his enthusiasm and passion.
“When I became his commander a few years ago, even though he was on his way out it never seemed that way,” he added. “He has a drive to teach and develop younger soldiers, it’s definitely a passion.”
Wright has earned many military accolades — including the Vietnam Service Medal, two Navy/Marine Corps commendation medals, two Sea Service Deployment ribbons, a Navy/Marine Corps achievement medal, four Navy “E” ribbons, three Good Conduct medals, a National Defense Service medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Southwest Asia Service medal w/Bronze Star, Armed Forces Service medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, United National medal, NATO medal and Kuwait Liberation medal.
Life in the military
During recent interviews with UPI, Wright shared the memories that have stuck with him over a lifetime in the military, including his first deployment on the USS Enterprise, the maiden deployment for the F-14 Tomcat.
“That first enlistment, everything was new. Seeing aircraft operations, going to a country for the first time, it had a huge impact,” Wright said. “I witnessed the loss of an F-14, watched it crash into the ocean and watched the pilots get rescued. … A piece of radar hit me in the chest.”
After Wright’s first enlistment, which included a tour to Vietnam, he attended University of South Carolina. To earn extra money, he performed with rock bands, primarily as a drummer.
His next enlistment in the Navy was during Desert Storm/Shield and Kosovo. Afterward, he finished his MCSE certification and began working as a systems and network engineer for Bank of America. During his time in the National Guard, Wright worked for Telos Corp. and in various contracted positions.
Wright got to travel more in his second enlistment, and seeing more of the world also exposed him to despair in Third World countries.
“It’s heartbreaking, to see people so poor, almost everyone is begging. In Afghanistan, children are playing in horrible conditions — bare feet, the clothes they are wearing are the only clothes they have.”
“We don’t realize how good we have it,” he added. “I believe every high school student should be required to go into the military or Peace Corps and spend at least one year before college … it would give our society a new perspective.”
What may have been key to his long military career is that he took breaks from service.
“Whenever our nation was in conflict, I just couldn’t sit around and not be a part of defending it,” he said. “The military is a profession. But to me it has been more than a profession. It has become a vocation, a calling.”
Life as a soldier
Over the years, he’s seen a shift in how service members are treated by the public.
“When Vietnam was over, we weren’t treated well. Nobody cared if you came home, nobody thanked you for your service. We got called names, were spit on. It was a harsh homecoming,” he said. “Now it’s entirely different. There’s not a day that goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me and stop me and say, ‘Sir, thank you for your service.’”
Support from relatives also helped with unpredictable life in the military, he said. Wright is married with four children. He has six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He credits his wife, Michelle, with taking care of their family while he was away. So much of his communication with his family was over Skype that his then 2-year-old daughter Isabella thought he “lived” inside the computer while he was deployed to Korea in 2007.
“Whenever I deploy, I make it a mission to communicate with my family every day,” he said.
His time at Camp Eagle in Korea turned out to be the best assignment of his career, even though marriages can suffer with such distance.
Michelle Wright, 12 years his junior, was 21 years old when they married — and 22 by the time he made his third deployment.
“She owned it. She dug in and stuck with me,” he said of Michelle, who endured four deployments as a working mother who home-schooled their children.
Wright also said he’s seen stark change in the military over his four decades of service.
“Back in the day, there was only one leadership style — autocratic,” he said. “However, our nation’s culture, worldview and perspective have changed since then.”
Wright said today’s military leadership styles are much more flexible — and vary among strategic, team-oriented, cross-cultural and transformational. One of the most interesting changes, he said, came during Vietnam.
“We had the draft, and many tried to figure out how they could avoid it or get disqualified. Yet once they were in and committed, it seems for some, something happened. They changed,” Wright said.
“They manned-up. They fought like true American patriots.”
Today’ service members come from a similar, although much more turbulent culture as their Vietnam-era counterparts, but they aren’t trying to avoid service, Wright said.
“They volunteer! They come off the street with pride and patriotism and know that they may go into harm’s way.”
During Wright’s final deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, he encountered terrible experiences — the loss of friends.
The closest was Chief Warrant Officer Scott Reagan, a man he knew for many years — both from South Carolina, and both with similar proclivities.
“He looked out for me and had my back many times,” he said.
Pretty soon, the deployment got tough.
Wright was taking care of some paperwork one day when another soldier stormed into the office, out of breath.
“Did you hear what happened to Chief Reagan?” he asked.
He had collapsed and died, not long after the final time they’d talked.
“I’m told it was heart failure,” Wright said. “I was apparently the last person he spoke with.
“I still have his contact in my phone after five years. I can’t bring myself to delete it.”
As for what comes next, Wright said he intends to take some time to evaluate his life and recuperate.
“I plan to do a bit of traveling to see some of my brothers-in-arms; some young, some old, who have already made the transition,” he said. “I can’t yet wrap my head around the entire thing of not being in the military.
“The military has been a part of my life, on and off, since age 17. I have stood on the wall for a long time. This will be bittersweet indeed. But it is time for me to pass the baton and lay down my arms for the last time. I will soon stand relieved of my watch.”
By the numbers
Total active duty time: 24 years 8 months
Total National Guard and Navy Reserve time: 6 years
Total Military time: 30 years, 18 days.
Total deployed time: 58 months with 6 deployments plus 1 year un-accompanied tour in Korea
Total career span: 44.5 years