By Staff Sgt. Gaelen LowersJanuary 14, 2014
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii - His life has been a roller coaster, an experience he equates to the ups and downs of ocean waves. During his four decades as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, the tide was sometimes so high it washed over the embankments, but other times it was so shallow the fish clamored for their lives. Chaplain (Col.) Dave Neetz's story started out, like many great ones do, because of a girl ... the problem was she smoked.
"I hate cigarette smoke," Neetz said sitting in his office at the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, "but once I figured out that she hated the smell of cigars, I went out and bought a big box of stogies. Every time she lit up a cigarette, I lit up a stogie. After about three days, she said, 'Ok, I'm quitting!' but, to this day, I've had the hardest time quitting those cigars."
Just a few years out of high school, he found himself in Florida, working as an assistant manager at a grocery store with her, and wanting a change in his life, wanting to get away from that same girl, the one who used to smoke.
He walked into the Army recruiter's office the next day.
Neetz grew up in the small coal mining town of Philippi, W.Va. He was the middle child of three. His younger brother was born with Down's syndrome.
"When he was born, they said he wouldn't live past 40, but he's 56 now and he's still kicking," Neetz said with a smile.
His parents were both stateside missionaries, so they moved around quite a bit. By the time Neetz was in 9th grade, he had attended 11 different schools.
Neetz's mother died when he was six years old, but before she passed, she instilled in him something that would define his life.
"When I was five years old, my mother explained the story of Jesus and that he died on the cross for me. That was so moving, that someone could love me that much, that I asked him into my heart and that's how it all started."
He said it was all a simple child-like faith, one that adults seem to muddle with too many caveats.
A faith he'd carry with him for decades to come.
"I ended up getting the highest score on the FAST test (equivalent to today's ASVAB test) that anyone had ever gotten in the state of Florida at that time," he said.
On Nov. 23, 1973, 20-year-old Dave Neetz became Pvt. Neetz, Army infantryman.
On his first full day, Neetz and his fellow recruits reached Fort Knox, Ky. at 4 a.m. They filed into an old World War II barracks, and were told to find a bunk, stretch out, and get some sleep. Neetz thought to himself, "This Army gig isn't too bad."
"Well about 5:30 in the morning, an hour and a half later, this Smoky the Bear hat comes in banging on a trash can, screaming, 'Get up!' I rolled over and looked at my watch, did some quick calculations in my head and thought, 'A thousand days and a wake up, and I'm out of here!'"
Earning honor graduate in basic training and again at Fort Polk, La. during Advanced Individual Training, Neetz was quickly promoted to private first class. The next stop for Neetz was Fort Benning, Ga., and jump school.
"Here I am, brand new to the Army, never seen a parachute before, and I drive into post on a very rainy, muggy Friday afternoon. I saw these 250-foot jump towers. Everyone was gathered around to watch one of the jumpers, but there was a total malfunction of the parachute and ..."
Recalling the day, Neetz, wide-eyed, whistled and smacked his hands together, imitating two forces hitting each other.
"That was my first introduction into jump school. Needless to say, I was a little shaken up. Later on I found out it was a demonstration and it was a dummy falling, but that whole weekend I spent reevaluating my life decision," he said jokingly.
Neetz bounced from one unit to another, eventually serving as National Guard recruiter while simultaneously attending seminary school and receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees.
In 1987, after 13 years as an enlisted Soldier, he received his direct commission.
"I walked out onto that field as a sergeant first class and walked off the field as a first lieutenant."
Neetz said his many years as a chaplain to some of the greatest men and women to ever walk this Earth have been a tremendous privilege. To him, it's holy ground. He's had amazing honors like serving with a Medal of Honor recipient from the 82nd Airborne, who was one of Neetz's earliest mentors.
He has watched people hit rock bottom and bounce back to become great men and women. He has seen his share of wonderful, joyous moments, but for every peak there is a valley.
He's seen friends die, people he's tried to help "crash and burn," and parents lose children.
"I had to do a memorial for a little girl whose father put her in a bathtub of hot water," Neetz said, pausing to remember. "That will take the winds out of your sails."
He often saw people through their worst and best days. A couple nine months along in their pregnancy went to the hospital and lost the heartbeat. He was asked to go into the delivery room with the couple.
"Afterward we took the perfectly formed little baby, fingernails and all, and they had a room set aside. We held a memorial service right there."
Three years later, while in Afghanistan, he received a call from that same couple announcing the birth of a healthy baby. A definite peak, he said.
During his 40 years of service, Neetz has seen the emergence of the World Wide Web, cell phones, homeland security, DVDs, iPods, a computer at every desk, space shuttles, HIV, "American Idol," ATMs, the Soviet Union's collapse, international terrorism, designer water, and the electric car.
He lived through highs and lows for himself, the Army, and the country he serves. The 6-foot-5 genuine warrior has watched protesters spit on returning soldiers during the Vietnam War and a nation weep as they watched the twin towers fall. He has seen the military surge to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.
His uniform proudly displays the accomplishments of man who has lived his life to serve others. In his own words, he used his position to build his people, never his people to build his position.
"I'm not the greatest leader in the world, but I truly do care about my people and their success."
As Neetz transitions out of the Army, moving from the sands of Hawaii to the snowy hills of Fairbanks, Alaska, he reflects on his life and is proud of the way things have panned out.
"If I were to die today, I would die happy," he said. "I've had a lot of fun, I've done a lot of crazy stuff, I have met some wonderful people, and I'm blessed to have shared in the lives of people that I love and to have shared my life with them."