Marne Faces, Marne Places: Hunter says goodbye to an old friend
July 7, 2011
HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga. - Don Wright, an 81-year-old Hunter Army Airfield employee, sits quietly at his computer checking e-mails in the Army Substance Abuse office before this interview to talk about leaving the Army after 59 years of service.
He stops only once to take a call from his wife, Robbie, who wants him home early to inspect their new “walk-in” tub and to pay the contractor.
“Give me about 35 minutes, Babe,” the retired sergeant major tells her tenderly before turning back to me.
“She’s taken care of me all these years,” he says with a small smile, explaining that Robbie needs him at home due to recent health problems. “Now it’s my turn to take care of her.
“I’ve been blessed; it’s been a good one [career],” Wright says about serving Soldiers, most recently at Hunter as the ASAP drug testing coordinator.
He started as a Soldier himself in 1951 after being drafted during the Korean War. In 1964, he was accepted into the prestigious Noncommissioned Officers Logistics Program; in 1977 he graduated from the Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, an accomplishment for which he expresses pride, especially on the heels of his first wife’s death the previous year and his single-parent status.
As a single parent with a 12-year-old son, he declined an appointment in 1977 as a command sergeant major. That decision proved to be a good one, promoting the bond between father and son.
“I took him everywhere,” he says, adding that they remained close until his son’s death in 1993. Despite the tragic loss, the retired Soldier lived out his positive-life philosophy and adjusted his course.
“Life gives both ups and downs,” he adds. “You have to adjust.”
One positive adjustment included a second life partner, Robbie, who he married in 1982.
“I’m still enjoying life,” Wright says. He and Robbie plan to spend time with his sister during retirement, relaxing at their time-share condominium. He also plans to do volunteer work at his church and at the Savannah City Mission.
Bill Kilmer, the Hunter ASAP prevention coordinator, with whom Wright shared an office for the last two years, admires the senior employee and his outlook on life.
“His joy is contagious,” Kilmer says. “I believe his positive attitude comes from doing what he loves. He has taken care of Soldiers and has done it well. As a mentor, he took every opportunity to talk to Soldiers about avoiding mistakes and the importance of doing things right the first time.”
“When they ask this old dude for advice, I listen first to what they have to say,” Wright says, adding that he learns a lot about Soldiers that way.
He’s told officers, non-commissioned officers and Civilian leaders some of his best advice " take care of your Soldiers or Civilian workers first and your payment will come later.
“Treat them fair and don’t have favorites,” he says. “Work them hard, but reward them when they deserve it. They’ll get the job done and you’ll get the promotion.”
By living that advice, Wright advanced through the ranks. His 30 years of active duty service includes a long list of awards. Before he retired in 1984, he received three Meritorious Service Medals, four Army Commendation Medals, 10 Good Conduct Medals and 20 Letters of Commendation, Achievement and/or Appreciation.
He also received accolades as a Civilian. He was one of the Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield Substance Abuse Program members who won the Secretary of the Army Best Army Substance Abuse Program in 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004.
In 2009, Wright was presented with a gold pin plaque from the Deputy Installation Management Command for 50 years of federal service as of 2003.
As the oldest child of five, Wright says his work ethic evolved from “going the extra mile” to prove himself, especially in his early years when Blacks were segregated.
“Those were some interesting times,” he says. “I was lucky though. I didn’t face much hard-nosed prejudice.”
After Basic Training, Wright served in the 1st Infantry Division in Kitzingen, Germany, as one of six Black Soldiers in a previously all-white battalion.
His straightforward approach to work and life has earned him the respect of his peers, including Tia Garrett, the drug testing coordinator at Fort Stewart, with whom Wright has worked the last few years.
“We’re all going to miss him,” she says. The Fort Stewart-Hunter ASAP Manager Katherine Haile agrees.
“With almost 60 years of federal service, he is very knowledgeable and he knows the regulations that govern our program,” Haile says.
That desire for knowledge and the determination to solve problems are hallmarks of the retired sergeant major’s approach to life.
“If you can correct a problem, do it,” he says. “If you can’t, accept it, move forward and don’t worry.”
Wright says he’s ready for retirement and he’s not worried about his future. When he leaves the active work force, he takes along 70 years of career memories, starting as a newspaper boy in St. Augustine in 1941.
“If I were to die tomorrow, I’d have no regrets.”