Military News

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Taking a breath after more than 50 years of service

by Airman 1st Class Tammie Ramsouer
JBER Public Affairs


5/7/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHRADSON, Alaska -- An alarm buzzes early in the morning, and a retired Air Force noncommissioned officer reaches over and turns it off; it is the beginning of one of his last days as an instructor for AFJROTC.

After retiring from the Air Force in early 1990, retired Chief Master Sgt. Morris Pickel accepted a job to become the Aerospace Science instructor at the oldest Junior ROTC program in the state of Alaska in July of that same year, but he would not have gotten the job without his military background and education.

"After 30 years' experience in the military and with my extensive military career background, the program organizers decided I was the best candidate to hire," Pickel said.

Alaska was a state Pickel had never lived in before he accepted the job. After telling his wife 'Let's have one last big adventure,' he traveled with his family to the Last Frontier on a 5 year plan that has turned into 25 years and a permanent home.

"Being an instructor and the opportunity to mold teenagers' minds as well as passing on some of my experiences is rewarding," Pickel said.

In his late teens, Chief Pickel made the decision to voluntarily join the military in 1960.

"I joined because I wanted to travel around the world," Pickel said. "When I decided I wanted to join the military, I looked at the Army, [but] they do too much camping out for me, the Marines were too gung-ho and the Navy were around too much water for me to handle. The Air Force looked like it would be a decent job, so I joined."

At the beginning of his career, Pickel was a Morse-intercept operator.

"At the time I had that job, it was all code," Pickel said. "My unit and I would sit and listen to airwaves for any information, just as the National Security Agency does today. We would transcribe it onto a typewriter, but I wasn't fast enough to fully become a human computer, so to say."

Pickel took an opportunity to retrain and become an airborne weapons mechanic.

"I happened to be a weapons specialist, at the time President [John] Kennedy was in office, and started the Air Force Commandos," he said.

In 1961, Kennedy ordered the military to start training airborne warfare specialists, a career field Pickel decided to be a part of.

"I raised my hand and said it sounded like fun," Chief Pickel said. "I was young and dumb, and willing to do anything at that time. It provided me with the opportunity to go through Air Force survival schools and special trainings to prepare for what I would be doing later in my career."

A weapons mechanic checks and tests weapons release and gun systems on various military aircraft.

Pickel spent the next 10 years as an aerial weapons mechanic and helicopter gunner with the 1st, 605th, 24th, 20th and 415th Special Operations Squadrons.

His career led him to multiple deployments throughout the world during times of peace and war. His most memorable time was in Southeast Asia.

"I had missions to Vietnam, which lasted about three years," Pickel said. "I had 350 combat missions there as a crew member on UH-1P helicopters, in which I was extremely lucky."

During Pickel's time as a helicopter crew member, his team was shot down three times but only a few survived.

"At that time, we lost about 75 percent of our crews and helicopters within our organization," Pickel said. "We had 20 helicopters and lost 15. Someone was riding on my shoulder at that time."

After his time in Vietnam, he became a part of the 405th Air Expeditionary Wing at what is known today as Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, Ohio, as a crew member on C-130 Hercules and C-118K gunship aircraft.

"I came back from a routine evaluation mission one day, and I decided it wasn't for me anymore," he said. "I was on my 12th time of trying to get my annual certification on a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar; we landed but it was horrendous. We didn't know if we were going to land or crash. As soon as we landed, I kissed the ground and I cross-trained as soon as I possibly could."

His next 20 years were spent as a professional military education instructor and boom operator on KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender aircraft. After his retirement, he joined the AFJROTC program in Alaska, hoping to change his students' outlook on life.

"As an instructor for JROTC, I teach discipline, leadership and followership to the students," Pickel said. "I see a big change; from these kids disrespecting others to making their beds at home and becoming good citizens when they graduate. Once these kids move on from school, I see them from time to time and I get to see as an instructor what I did to help them in the real world."

A previous student of Chief Pickel's, Marine Sgt. Jacobus Blignaut, U.S. Marine Corps Military Entrance Processing Station liaison, had the idea of going to college just like any other high school student.

"I was born and raised in South Africa," Blignaut said. "When I moved here I didn't know much about the U.S. military. I joined AFJROTC because a friend of mine wanted me to do it with him."

Blignaut said he didn't know what to expect going through the course.

"My mentality going into AFJROTC, it was just another class to go through in high school," he said. "After meeting Chief Pickel for the first time, I wanted to be just like him."

Once Blignaut was opened to a world of opportunity, he intended to make a life-changing decision.

"Chief opened my eyes to a whole other world," Blignaut said. "I joined the Marine Corps because it fit my personality better. I believe going through the AFJROTC course with chief as my instructor, it prepared me and helped me become the Marine I am today. The life lessons and leadership skills he gave me have helped me become very successful in my current military career."

Blignaut is one of the many graduating AFJROTC students who have joined the military after graduating from the course.

"These kids are looking for a family, something to join and be a part of," Pickel said. "I tell the parents of my cadets, if you are not engaging your student, someone or something else will and you may not like what it may result into being."

This is Chief Pickel's last school year as an instructor for the West High School JROTC program.

"It was supposed to be a five-year plan, but now it's been 25 years, and I wouldn't change it for anything," Pickel said.

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