The subjects of this week's column tare truly unique. They served as husband and wife in the US Army at the same time. Mary Roberts served her country from 1973 to 1995, retiring as a sergeant major, while Chuck Roberts served from 1975 to 1995 and retired as a first sergeant.
Mary grew up in Milford, Connecticut, and was sent to basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama after enlisting at age 19. Chuck grew up in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He enlisted at age 18 and did his basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After boot camp Mary was sent to Fort Meyers in Washington, DC, where she worked in logistics. She was then sent to Berlin at US Army Berlin, and worked there from 1974 to 1978.
Mary’s first experience overseas came with trepidation. “We landed at Tempelhof Airfield and there were guards all around the airport. I said, ‘What did I do?’" I asked her what it was like being away for the holidays and she replied, “It was hard at first…we stayed busy…you’re family with everyone you’re stationed with, so that made it easier.”
Added Chuck, “We had a 24-hour operation…our command climate was close…had holiday parties…put up Christmas trees…had Kris Kringle Markets with food, crafts and wine.
After basic training Chuck was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia, where he studied signal training. The couple met in Berlin, where they were assigned to the same unit. Mary arrived in 1974 and Chuck in 1975.
They recalled a distinct memory from their years of service, one that still hits a an emotional chord in their hearts. They were both stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Mary would be deployed to Desert Storm when their daughter Niki was only 6 years old. The memory is still too painful for Mary to talk about. Chuck recalled, “They had put up yellow ribbons as they do when soldiers are deployed. They said they would take them down after everyone had come home safely. Somebody complained and they took the ribbons down without any communication. Our daughter Niki began to withdraw…didn’t do well in school…started having emotional problems. We had no technology back then…not like today…families were worried sick…television was the only way for info. I was watching it one night when Niki looked at me and said, ‘Is Mommy dead?’ I reassured her that Mommy wasn’t,” he said.
The emotional trauma their daughter had to bear still shakes them both. “I took her first thing the next morning into my office on post and made the overseas call so Niki could talk to her mother,” Chuck remembered. He shared another haunting memory that will forever be etched in his mind: “We had a young woman in our unit…a [private first class] that had been deployed. The grandmother was taking care of her daughter’s little 3-year-old while she was away. The grandmother was backing out of her driveway one day and accidentally ran over her granddaughter and killed her. I was a rear detachment, first sergeant…ran family supportive issues…one of the toughest situations I’ve ever had to deal with.”
Other highlights of the Roberts’s storied career of service: They were the first military couple inducted into the 7th Infantry Division Organization of the Professional Bayonet (a division-wide leadership organization) at Fort Ord, California; and the first military couple assigned to the same units as drill sergeants at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
I asked Mary about a mentor and she didn’t hesitate one second. “Willie Morris…I got promoted to first sergeant while in Berlin…didn’t want it initially…had to discipline my friends…couldn’t go out with them anymore…really bothered me…he talked me through it…another time, I was picked to be a drill sergeant…didn’t want to do that…Willie told me to get my ass out there, your career will be set…never will forget that man,” she remembered fondly.
Chuck’s mentor was First Sergeant Dan Kelly. “The way that he carried himself…he was stract (possessed standards, carried himself well)…the epitome of what a soldier should be,” he recalled.
The longest, most-intense separation the couple dealt with began with both being sent back to Fort Bliss for Sergeant Major Academy training. After that, Mary was sent to Panama while Chuck was sent back to Fort Gordon for more training. “That was the longest time being away from our daughter Niki…it was tough…had great support from our families…Niki stayed with my sister,” Chuck said.
And like any good mother, Mary wouldn’t be deterred in coming home to see her little girl after duty in Panama. “I had called ahead and they said that the East Coast was getting ready for a terrible snowstorm…didn’t bother me…I drove right through it to get home,” she said.
Both gave their thoughts on service to their country. “I loved it…the friendships, the bonding…parts were tough…but it built who I am today…keeps you grounded and gives you a sense of purpose,” Mary said.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat…taught me standards, ethics…the bonds are so special…when you need ’em, they’re there…I had four great friends in the service…three of four came back for my daughter’s wedding…the fourth couldn’t make it because of a family emergency…that’s special,” Chuck said.
Mary and Chuck Roberts, thank you for your service to our great country.