In New Jersey, airmen are eager to serve

Attacks on U.S. confirm military commitment at McGuire Air Force Base

October 07, 2001|By Angela Valdez | Angela Valdez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

McGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. - Airman 1st Class David Bernard, 22, attended New York City Technical College in downtown Brooklyn for only a few months before coming to a crucial realization: Once he graduated with an associate's degree in mechanical engineering, he would earn no more than he was pulling down as a jewelry salesman at the Piercing Pagoda.

That's when he decided to enlist in the Air Force.

Now, two years later, the Canadian-born son of Trinidadian immigrants plans on a long-term career in the military.

His transition to patriotism parallels the experience of many young airmen at McGuire Air Force Base. Five airmen, ages 20 to 28, from the Burlington County, N.J., base spoke of how the recent attacks confirmed their commitment to the military.

When they joined, they didn't expect war. Now they do.

They enlisted because they needed money for school or couldn't decide on a career. Now they are eager to serve.

"When I first signed up it was for a lot of reasons that the average 18-year-old, 19-year-old" would have, said Senior Airman Mary Nelson, 21, a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "College, traveling, see the world, meet people, stuff like that. But since this has happened, I've never felt more patriotic. All those reasons that I came in the military for are sort of put on the back burner. Now it's like I get to wear this uniform every day, and I get to be one of the people out there that can say I'm first-hand serving the country."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, an undisclosed number of the 281,236 enlisted Air Force personnel have been reassigned in preparation for a military response. McGuire, the Air Force's eastern hub for moving troops and cargo overseas, has participated, chiefly by operating what is known as an airbridge and allowing fighters and other aircraft to refuel in midair.

All but one of the five McGuire airmen were born after 1977. They grew up without seeing their country entrenched in a prolonged war. What they learned of battles came from movies and cartoons.

"I didn't expect war," said Senior Airman Joseph Gettis, 28, of Levittown, Pa. "I wouldn't want to lose my life, but we need people to defend our country."

Senior Airman Jacob Sterling, 22, of Fremont, Ohio, completed a year of classes at the University of Toledo before enlisting. Nelson finished just one semester at the Pennsylvania State University campus in her hometown. Neither wanted to go into debt for a degree. Starting salaries in the military are about $1,000 a month.

About 90 percent of enlisted airmen complete some college before joining. Fewer than 15 percent have an associate's degrees.

College was never an option for Gettis, a hygienist in the Dental Squadron. Gettis, 28, went from high school to a job at a pipe mill where he worked 12-hour shifts to support his wife and child. He is in the third year of his second four-year hitch.

All four American-born airmen say they voted for President Bush. They supported Desert Storm, but they see a questionable morality in Vietnam.

They use the same phrases to describe their commitment. "One-thousand percent." "Whatever it takes."

Bernard compares the United States to the Roman Empire, saying he would fight for either "great nation."

The airmen define America's enemies in broad terms.

Bernard thinks the terrorists are jealous of American democracy. "They know nothing but fighting," he said. "That's their whole mentality."

After the attacks, McGuire airmen were angry and eager for retribution.

"At first, everyone wanted something like that," Nelson said. "But bombing Afghanistan won't solve the problem."

Nelson wears a flak jacket with the insignia of the Security Forces, a police unit responsible for guarding Air Force bases at home and abroad. She served in Kuwait at age 19 and in Saudi Arabia at 20.

"I just pray for her every day," Georgetta Potoski, Nelson's mother, said from her home in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Nelson - just named airman of the quarter for her rank - called her mother two and a half years ago to tell her she'd dropped out of college and enlisted. Her father, who died three years ago, served in the Navy for 20 years.

Potoski supports the decision of her daughter, the youngest of six girls and two boys, but says she would worry less if she worked behind a desk. Nelson called home a few weeks ago to announce excitedly that she had been approved to operate two new machine guns and a hand grenade.

Carolyn and Michael Gwozdziewycz say they are not concerned or fearful for their 20-year-old daughter, Airman Rebecca Gwozdziewycz, a native of Honesdale, Pa.

When Gwozdziewycz was accepted at Kutztown University, she told her parents she wasn't sure she was ready for college.

It was easy for Michael Gwozdziewycz to support his daughter's decision to join the Air Force. "She lived out what I wanted to do," he said.

His soft-spoken daughter says death does not scare her. "We have to do whatever it takes," she said.

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