FORT BELVOIR — A homemade wind chime with the word “Whining” under a red slash is made from metal parts put in his leg after a parachute accident. Every Sunday he trims his crew cut. He didn’t join the Army willingly, but as Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger prepares to retire, he’s grateful he found his calling.
Sgt. Maj. Mellinger was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, and the Army believes he’s the last draftee to retire, after 39 years. Most did their two years and left. But Sgt. Maj. Mellinger had found home.
“I think I’m pretty good at it, but I like it. That’s the bottom line. I love being a soldier and I love being around soldiers,” he said.
His motto is simple: No whining - as the wind chime attests.
By the time the draft notice arrived in the mail in 1972 at his home in Eugene, Ore., the Vietnam War had been going on for years and tens of thousands of Americans had been killed. Anti-war protests were rampant. Draft cards were being burned and returning soldiers were treated as part of the problem. The military wasn’t a popular job.
“I opened it up and it said, ‘Greetings from the president of the United States.’ I said, ‘Wow, how’s he know me?’ ” Sgt. Maj. Mellinger said, laughing. “It was a form letter that said my friends and neighbors had selected me to represent them in the Armed Forces and I was hereby ordered to report for induction.”
He told the draft board there was a mistake.
“I … told them I don’t need to go into the Army, I’ve got a job” hanging drywall, he said. “They just kind of laughed.”
Once the path was set, the draftee didn’t consider trying to find a way out.
He heard so many war stories in training that he was fired up about going, and was disappointed he was instead assigned to be an office clerk in Germany.
In Germany, the young man immediately stood out with his positive attitude, short haircut and mastery of physical fitness skills, said Bob Myers, 64, of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, then his company commander who now runs a chain of convenience stores. He replaced a soldier in trouble for illegal drug use, Mr. Myers said.
“He wasn’t a part of that culture and everyone knew that,” said Mr. Myers, who was instrumental in getting the young standout to enlist when his draft term was over.
The future sergeant major wasn’t long for clerking. He earned a spot in the Army Rangers, and would go on to do more than 3,700 parachute jumps. And despite the 1991 parachute accident that gave him the material for the wind chime, breaking his leg in several places, he went on to run nine marathons. He was made a command sergeant major in 1992.
Nearly a decade later, he was sent to ground zero in New York right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as part of an advance party from the First Army.
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