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Aircraft mechanic recounts journey with Air Force

Retired Air Force aircraft mechanic Michael Whiteside was bound for Iwakuni, Japan this week, returning as an instructor for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.  His arrival on the island nation holds irony; the 20-year Air Force veteran had originally resisted being sent overseas.  “I liked hunting and fishing,” said Whiteside, who began arriving in the north woods from Illinois as a child, his grandparents resort owners.  “I had never volunteered to go overseas,” said the husband and father of three.  But the oceanic journey to a foreign land, he would come to realize, benefited his family’s view of their possibilities - on a global scale.  “It was the best move I’ve ever made in my life. The kids loved it,” he said of his two daughters and son.  “I don’t regret a day of it.”

 ‘Black sheep’  Whiteside joined the Air Force in 1980, at 19. “I was working for Kmart and wanted to get married,” he said candidly. “I knew I needed to find a good steady job.”  The decision was bolstered by his dad, ex-Marine Fred Whiteside, who was “disappointed” in his son’s lack of academic progress during his senior year of high school. “He wasn’t sure I’d graduate. In a family of 10, I was the troublemaker.”  Mike was soon bound for boot camp, recalling the rigors well.  “I wanted to get on a bus and go home. ‘What did I get myself into? This is what I have to look forward to in the next four years?’” he mused.  But within six weeks, he entered tech school and a “more lenient” atmosphere.  He had originally planned to re-enter the civilian world in four years. But in 1983, with a baby on the way and the nation facing a recession, his father counseled against the move.  “There are not many jobs out there,” he told his son.  The “black sheep of the family” was about to make his father proud.  “Mary was a big factor,” he said of his wife. Military wives must “move at a moment’s notice” when a serviceman is deployed, he said of the “unsung heroes’” roles. “She was the backbone of the family.”

Broadened kids’ horizons   At 10 years of service, Whiteside, having assessed the benefits and traveling opportunities, decided he might as well “finish it out.”  He was first stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. From there, he went to Ellsworth, S.D. and Blytheville AFB in Arkansas.  He had been deployed to North Africa in 1987, England for the launch of Desert Storm and Thailand, for training.  His last base assignment before retirement in 2000 was Okinawa, Japan. It was met with resistance.   “I didn’t want to go. But I had to go. I was not happy…” initially.  But the family of five would soon acclimate to a culture of “sharp, clean people,” who strive to “do it 100 percent. Garbagemen are in uniform. They are happy to have a job and are hard workers.”  Japanese, they would learn, are very regulated, taxed at a high rate “and gun laws are super strict.”  Wife Mary, a kindergarten teacher, gained employment with the Department of Defense.  “In the military, everyone is from somewhere else. They take care of each other. That’s what I liked about the military,” he said of the camaraderie.  The experience of being far from extended family “made us a stronger couple,” he said. “We didn’t have mom and dad to watch the kids. We were more independent.”  The Whitesides would experience a climb of Mt. Fuji, travel to Korea and other foreign ports, kids in tow.  “The downfall is, you get lost,” he said of the language barrier. “And the Japanese are terrible drivers.”  Son Robert would be introduced to videography, competing in Korea and Tokyo, subsequently establishing a career path.  Daughter Diane, fluent in Japanese, is now living in Hawaii, preferring Okinawa.   “It opened their minds, broadened their horizon. They are not afraid to travel – or look for a job,” Whiteside said of his children.

Instills work ethics  Whiteside retired from the Air Force in 2000, but remained in Japan five more years working for a private contractor, Dyn Corp.  “In 20 years (of military service), I was only late for work three times,” he said. “It’s not like a civilian job. There are consequences. The military made me punctual, instilled work ethics. And I was dressed sharp and clean – even as a mechanic.”  And the once recalcitrant student who “hated high school - I was a troublemaker” - would go on to earn an associate degree in aerospace technology, graduating with a 3.8 GPA.  “I started (sitting) at the back of the class,” Whiteside said. “I ended up moving to the front,” his intellect engaged.  The couple has a home near Nevis, but return often to Japan. “We missed it when we got home.”  “I wished I had volunteered to go sooner,” he said of being stationed on the international bases.