FORT JACKSON, S.C. (Feb. 27, 2014) -- Col. Stephen Yackley's military career was supposed to last three years. It ended up lasting for more than four decades.

Fort Jackson's deputy commander retired last week after 41 years of military service that included time as both an enlisted Soldier and officer.

"My father lived through World War I, World War II and the Great Depression, so we had a very strong belief and love for the country," Yackley said. "And I had a lot of uncles who were World War II veterans. I had a desire to join the service, and actually thought I was going to join the Navy. I made the decision to go into the Army when I was a senior in high school."

With his mother's consent, he enlisted at age 17 and went on active duty immediately after graduating high school.

"I went from being a high school graduate who would have liked to go to college but could not afford it, to now having a bachelor's degree and two masters degrees," Yackley said. "I owe much of this to the Army. Once I got in, I realized it was something I liked. It was merit based: You work hard, you get promoted and you achieved. And I appreciated that."

Brig Gen. Bradley Becker, Fort Jackson's commanding general, said Yackley was a dedicated career Soldier.

"More that anyone I have served with, Steve just loves being a Soldier," Becker said during last week's retirement ceremony at the Officers' Club. "While I've only worked with Steve for a short time, something I've learned about him is that he's the guy behind the scenes making things happen, getting the job done ... but he never seeks the spotlight or asks the credit."

Yackley spent his first military tour as a mechanic, but switched to the infantry after his first re-enlistment and volunteered for the Rangers.

"That was probably the best experience I had in all of my 41 years," Yackley said. "There were four of my fellow platoon mates who came to the retirement dinner and ceremony last Friday. We still keep in touch after all these years, because it was such a highly professional organization."

He said his career hit a wall in 1980. Yackley had left the Rangers and was working in a mechanized unit in Germany, but wanted to either go to the 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Toelz, Germany, or back to the Rangers. Neither option was available to him.

"The Army at the time had changed its policies," he said. "Since I was considered a 'career Soldier,' I could only re-enlist for my present duty assignment. So I took that as an opportunity to transition out of the Army, go into the Reserves and go back to school to get a degree. I ended up joining ROTC and became an officer."

Yackley's two sons would later follow in his footsteps as Airborne Ranger infantrymen. The oldest, Steve, served as a platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan and with the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Afghanistan and Iraq. The youngest, Chris, is an infantry platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne and is currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Yackley first came to Fort Jackson in 2001 as a battalion commander for the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment with 28 years of experience in the Army.

"We were still doing the same Basic Combat Training that I went through in 1973 at Fort Polk, (La.), even though the world had changed," he said. "We looked at how we could change the program for Basic Combat Training and were able to do that. Of course, the events of 9/11 helped accelerate that."

His battalion was deployed in 2003 to Hungary, where it trained Iraqi exiles to assist forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We spent about four and a half months there, training free Iraqi forces to go in there with our folks," he said. "It was not a common experience for a Basic Combat Training unit to deploy outside its training base."

He returned to Fort Jackson in 2006 as commander for the 193rd Infantry Brigade.

"I knew the training environment, and I knew Fort Jackson," Yackley said. "As a brigade commander, I saw changes we'd started to implement take effect. We were really able to accelerate the training to where it was really compact focused."

His last assignment to Fort Jackson, which began two years ago, proved to be his last. Even though his Army career was longer than he ever could have imagined as a 17-year-old high school senior, Yackley told the audience at his retirement ceremony that the years still passed quickly.

"Now, as I look back forty-plus years later, I wonder where the time went," he said. "I never planned on serving this long, I just never got tired of being a Soldier. I can't say that I enjoyed all of it, but the good experiences heavily outweigh the bad, and I value every minute I have served."