United States Army (Retired)
and his wife, Mary C. Adair
“You belong to something in support of the country.” That is how Bob Adair summed up his nearly 31 year Army career. But as he readily admits during that career, he was supported greatly by his wife, Mary, and their four children.
A military family is a unique unit. It faces many of the trials and tribulations experienced by civilian families, but it also endures circumstances not readily understood or appreciated by non-military families. Military families struggle with periods of separation, being uprooted, sometimes multiple times during a single year, tense periods when a parent is in a combat zone, and not always being readily accepted where they live.
Robert Benjamin Adair was the only child of Benjamin and Anna Adair. Mary Cecilia was the second of four children born to John and Catherine Novak. Bob and Mary have known each other since they were about five years old when they lived around the corner from one another in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were friends, “buddies” as Bob remembers. They went to different high schools. Bob went to Northeast Catholic High School for Boys and Mary attended St. Hubert’s for Girls. When they graduated in 1956 Bob had already enlisted in the army. He had been introduced to the idea of entering the military by a high school teacher, Father John Tye who was also an army chaplain.
Bob enlisted in the reserves as a combat engineer. When given the opportunity to become an officer by attending college, Bob jumped at the chance. He called his father and asked if he could come home. Ben told his son he was more than welcome as long as he could live by the rules of the house. Bob agreed and was soon enrolled at LaSalle College which later became LaSalle University. By this time Mary was attending Holy Family College.
Not long after he arrived home, Bob visited Mary who recalls how Bob had changed. “He grew up a lot when he came back. He knew what he wanted to do,” she remembers. They started dating and by the time they were in their senior year they were engaged. They married shortly after they graduated and Bob was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Immediately, the military guided their lives as it would for the next nearly 30 years. They had only five days to spend on their honeymoon because Bob had to report for duty at Fort Meade in Maryland.
The newlyweds moved into an apartment in Catonsville, Maryland. Soon Mary was expecting their first child. It was Mary’s first time away from home and she readily admits that as a child she would get homesick just going to Girl Scout camp on the weekends. Within a very short period of time, she graduated college, got married, moved away from home, and was soon to become a mother for the first time. There was no time to dwell on the pace of events. Within three months of moving to Catonsville, the couple headed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, which Mary jokingly says is “miles and miles from miles and miles.” That first move was an education for Mary. Army movers arrived one morning to pack up their belongings to ship to Oklahoma. “I was so green the cows wouldn’t eat me,” Mary recalls as she relates how, before she realized it, the movers had packed up everything, including her clothes (she was able to snag a couple of dresses) and the checkbook.
Bob and Mary arrived at Fort Sill but unfortunately the movers did not, at least not right away. So for about a week, with hardly any money (their savings account book and spare change packed in the shipment), Bob, Mary and Mary’s brother John, survived on Dinty Moore Beef Stew. In an effort to pass on to her children that they would never starve, she gave each of her children a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew as a wedding present.
It was not long before the Adairs were on the road again, this time traveling through blizzard conditions to Philadelphia so Mary could stay with family while Bob went to Fort Benning, Georgia. As Mary neared her due date, Bob was able to secure a few days leave to be with Mary when the baby was born. Bob was there but the baby did not arrive, and so he had to return to Fort Benning. “I probably looked like an unwed mother,” Mary jokes as she remembers crying as she saw Bob off at the airport. Finally their first child, Anna Catherine (Nancy) was born in March. Just before making his first parachute jump, Bob was handed a telegram sent by his father: “You are father of a little girl. Wife and baby doing fine.” On the climb to jump altitude, Bob kept thinking that if the chute failed he might never see his daughter. The chute worked that day and several more days that week.
Not long after Nancy was born, Bob got orders to Europe. It was a couple of months before Mary was able to get orders for her and Nancy to join Bob. The orders came on the couple’s first wedding anniversary. The flight aboard the Super Constellation took 17 hours for the young mother and her baby. Bob had rented an apartment in Wertheim, Germany. It was not long after Mary’s arrival in Germany that tension between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated when the Berlin Wall went up. It was a difficult period for soldiers and dependents alike. Bob pulled considerable field duty during this time; he was in the field 262 days during the next year. Mary and the baby moved on post.
Mary recalls the NEO Run (Non-combatant Evacuation Orders) which was the evacuation plan for dependents. “We were given maps and shown where to go in case the balloon went up (war started). You knew you wouldn’t be able to get out.” Dependents were also required to prepare a NEO kit which had to include at least seven days of supplies including clothes, water, blankets and other items. It was a challenging time but, as Mary is quick to point out, they learned to take it in stride.
Time passed for Mary as she was involved in the Wives Club and took turns hosting coffees that were common for officer’s wives. It was a time to socialize and lighten the load while the husbands did their duty.
During the Berlin Wall crisis, Bob got word that his father had passed away. Although he was able to return to the U.S. for the funeral, it was questionable whether Mary, if she accompanied Bob, would be able to return with him to Germany. It was a difficult decision but Mary stayed behind in Germany. “I felt his mother needed him more than I did at that time.” Bob spent only seven days at home before returning to Europe. He was given top priority on his travel arrangements because he was a nuclear weapons officer in his unit.
Bob may have missed the birth of his first child, but circumstances ensured that he would be front and center for the birth of his second child in May 1962. Mary was experiencing labor pains but did not think too much about it and continued about her routine. Suddenly the pains came every two minutes. It was quickly determined that she could not make the trip to the hospital that was 39 miles away. Bob took her to the battalion aide station where arrangements were hastily made for a helicopter to fly them to the hospital. These plans were cancelled when the doctor told them there was no time. The baby was coming. Bob headed for the waiting room, but the doctor called him back and told him to scrub up and assist. Mary gave birth to a son, Robert Benjamin, Jr. Bob says the experience more than made up for missing the first birth.
A third child, Susan Elizabeth, was born on Veterans Day, 1963. This time Mary made it to the hospital and Bob made it to the waiting room.
Contact with family in the United States was limited with the exception of writing. However, Bob’s mother and Aunt Elizabeth did visit them in Germany. At Christmas, Bob’s aunt would gather the family including Mary’s parents and siblings and would place a call to Mary and Bob in Germany. Mary and Bob remember it as a wonderful time. The call was hardly inexpensive but that was Aunt Elizabeth’s gift.
In March 1964, Bob, Mary and their three children headed back to Fort Sill, Oklahoma so that Bob could attend the artillery advanced course. From there they headed to Niagara University where Bob taught military history. In 1967 Bob volunteered to go to Vietnam. Before leaving, he settled Mary and the kids in a rental house in Philadelphia so that they would be close to family. During this period, strong and heated debate over the war was raging. Students at campuses across the country were beginning to protest the Johnson Administration’s handling of the war. An unfortunate fact during this period was that the rage being expressed was not just directed to politicians. Soldiers returning home and families of those who were fighting were caught up in the hatred. Mary was not spared this invective. She obtained an unlisted telephone number because of hate calls other military families were receiving because the husbands were fighting in Vietnam.
The children knew their father was in Vietnam but as Mary recalls “kids are very adaptable. If they don’t see you worry, they won’t worry.” Despite her efforts to go about her routine as normally possible, she admits that she would “sigh a sigh of relief at 7 p.m. because I knew I wouldn’t be notified. I was good for another day.”
Bob was sent to Vietnam as an historian, but shortly after entering the country, he was assigned as an operations officer of a field artillery battalion. “It was a good tour with good men and good commanders,” Bob remembers. Bob was promoted to major in January 1968. He wrote home almost every day and even sent reel to reel audio tapes. He called home from the jungle a couple of times, much to Mary’s surprise. The holidays were a difficult time. While Mary had family around her, Bob recalls holidays as being very lonely.
Bob came home from Vietnam in July 1968. Within a short time, he and Mary packed up the kids in the station wagon and headed for the Air Force Academy in Colorado where Bob was assigned as an assistant professor of history. The Adair family spent a lot of time traveling by car from one assignment to another. Bob and Mary recall that their children traveled well. Typically they got on the road early in the morning while the kids were still in their pajamas. The kids would sleep several more hours during the drive. When they woke up, they would change and the family would stop for breakfast. There were occasional times when the kids would fight in the backseat. In one instance, after several warnings, Bob pulled over and put Susan out on the side of the road, much to the shock of not just Susan but her brother and sister. Bob had moved the car a just few feet when he stopped. Mary stuck her head out the window and asked Susan if she was ready to behave and get back in the car. The answer was a resounding “yes.” There were no more problems for the rest of the trip.
The family was in Colorado for just under two years. During that time a fourth child, James Martin was born. In 1970, Bob was selected for the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. Again the family moved. This was an interesting experience for Bob as he was able to interact with officers from the other services. As he expected, Bob got orders for Vietnam. Although Mary wanted to return to Philadelphia while Bob was away, he convinced her to move to the Washington, D.C. area because it was likely that he would be sent to the Pentagon upon his return. Just before leaving for Vietnam, Bob and Mary purchased their first home in Alexandria, Virginia. Shortly after they moved in, in January 1971, Bob was back in Vietnam as executive officer to the assistant deputy chief of staff for operations at MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam). Although by this time the Nixon policy of Vietnamization was underway and most U.S. combat troops had been pulled out, it was still a hectic tour for Bob. He did a considerable amount of traveling throughout Vietnam and neighboring countries. He readily admits that he “wasn’t sure when he was in one country and out of another.”
When his tour was over, as expected, Bob was assigned to duty in the Pentagon. His first assignment was as part of the Political Military Division of DCSOPS (Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations) in International Directorate. Bob’s responsibility was overseeing nine countries including Eastern Europe and Russia. Eventually he was named assistant executive to the DCSOPS. Bob stayed at the Pentagon for 49 months. By law, no one can be assigned to the Pentagon for longer than 48 months without permission of the Secretary of the Army. Bob was granted this permission for his last month of service in the Pentagon.
Life for the Adairs continued to hum along at a quick pace. Bob came out on the command list and was given command of a battalion that was soon to be permanently stationed in Germany. It was difficult for the family to leave Alexandria. It was their longest tour and had become home. They rented their home believing they would again be assigned to the Washington area.
The Adairs went back to Fort Sill in spring 1976. Recognizing the impact a move to Europe would have on his troops and their families, Bob conducted several briefings so that the families, as well as the troops, would be familiar with their new environment. The briefing included slides that Bob had taken of Augsburg when he visited there the month before. When it was time to go, an unexpected problem arose because there were no quarters assigned in Germany for Mary and the kids. It was a catch-22 situation in that Mary could not stay in quarters at Fort Sill, and she could not travel to Germany unless the military provided quarters. It was an uncertain time, but it was decided that Mary would return to Philadelphia with the kids until this was straightened out. This meant that she would have to drive cross-country by herself with the kids. She did it, getting to Philadelphia just before Bob left Fort Sill to fly to Germany. Shortly thereafter, quarters were assigned and Mary and the kids flew to Germany.
Bob was assigned to duty in Augsburg for two and half years. During the first two years, he commanded a battalion, and during the last six months he was an operations officer for the 7th Corps Artillery. The family loved the area, and traveled to Italy and Austria while they were there. The kids learned to ski. Mary became involved in the ACS (Army Community Services) where she assisted with the food bank, the lending closet and financial counseling. Again, Bob’s mother and aunt visited them during the Christmas holidays.
In June 1978, Bob was selected for the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. By this time, the three older children were in high school. Bob and Mary purchased a home in Carlisle. Bob graduated in 1979 and was assigned as an advisor to the Pennsylvania National Guard. So that the kids would not have to be pulled out of school, Bob commuted each day to Hershey, Pennsylvania. Historically, an advisor assignment to a National Guard unit was not considered a track for advancement. But in 1981, Bob’s career took an upward trajectory when he was promoted to colonel, and was assigned to TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Bob was to develop future strategy and tactics for the army and assisted in the Air/Land Battle doctrine and Air/Land 2000 strategy. Shortly thereafter, he was selected for brigade command.
This would be the Adairs third tour in Europe, but it would be different in some significant ways as three of the children were now on their own and would not be moving with the family. Nancy was married and had a daughter. Rob and Susan were in college. Only Jim would make the move. Asked if she had separation anxiety, Mary says that it was difficult to leave, especially leaving a young granddaughter. They had raised the children to be independent and also, it was an exciting opportunity for both her and Bob.
They arrived in Germany in 1982. Commanding a brigade with 2,400 soldiers and family members was a unique and enjoyable experience for Bob. Mary also enjoyed her role as the commander’s wife. She made it a point to entertain as much as possible believing that it was important to get to know the families. Bob and Mary preferred a more relaxed atmosphere when they entertain, and it was a rule at gatherings that there be no talk of business. Bob altered the traditional social on New Year’s morning at the commander’s house recognizing that many families had children, and it was more important for them to spend time together as a family than visiting the commander. Bob and Mary smile as they recall the wonderful people they met during this tour and the camaraderie that existed among the soldiers and their families. During Christmas 1983, Mary paid the airfare to have the entire family, which now included another grandchild, at home for the holidays. To this day, Mary has not told Bob how much that Christmas cost. Whatever it was, Bob said it was worth it.
During this tour, Mary and Bob did some traveling, including a trip to Normandy, France, just a week before President Ronald Reagan arrived for the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the invasion.
In 1985, Bob was assigned once again to Fort Sill. This tour he ran the field artillery school as deputy assistant commandant. It was an enjoyable tour for both Mary and Bob, but before long they were on the road again. This time they were sent back to the Washington area as Bob was assigned to head up the Army Long Range Stationing Study.
Bob retired December 31, 1987, ending a career that started in the enlisted ranks, saw two tours in Vietnam, three tours in Europe and several command billets. As he readily admits, there were good times and not so good times.
When asked what he missed about the military, he corrected the interviewer to put the question in the present tense, “What do I miss.” The answer was simple and straightforward, “everything”. He went on, “I miss belonging to something in support of the country. Everyone has a job from a private to a general.” Mary too misses the people and the lifestyle.
Bob and Mary enjoyed their time in the military. It was a period of some dramatic events including the Berlin Wall, Vietnam, and the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Looking back on it, it is easy to think what an extraordinary time. But for Bob and Mary, it was a time of just living one day at a time, taking things in stride, raising a family and not worrying about the past, but planning for the future that now includes ten grandchildren.
(Reprinted with permission of Chip Bertino)