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Brothers see 65 years of service

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Brothers in Arms

Terry and Mike Birnbaum in their dress greens.

Veterans Day, celebrated on Thursday, Nov. 11, is a time to recognize those living among us who have served in the military, putting their lives on hold and on the line to ensure people can enjoy the freedoms they have.

Born in Rapid City, Terry and Mike Birnbaum — two amongst six brothers — were both in the U.S. Army, followed by time with the National Guard.

“I kind of chased him through the military,” Terry said. Mike, who is 14 years older, has 38 years of military experience and Terry has nearly 28 years.

Terry said he joined the Army in October of 1976, though he went in on what was called the “delayed entry program.” He graduated on May 24, 1977, married his wife Jenny May 27 the same year, and 13 days later, June 9, he was in the Army at 17 years old.

Basic Training for Terry was at Fort Dix, New Jersey, followed by schooling at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland for schooling as a diesel mechanic. “I worked on tanks and trucks,” he said, “and basically just about everything other than the stuff that floated.”

His wife met him there, and the couple lived off-post. He then received orders to go to Fort Ord, California, where they lived for the next 19 months.

The base is in Monterey Bay, and they lived in Pacific Grove. “Just two kids on the beach. It was unbelievable,” he said.

From there, Terry got orders to go to Germany, where they were stationed for 22 months. While there Terry’s brother Mike, their father Lawrence, and Mike’s wife Sarah came over to visit and they toured Switzerland together.

Following his return from Germany, Terry’s time with the Army was up and the couple moved to Chadron. He wasn’t done with the military, however, as he joined the National Guard in August of 1982. As to why he chose to join, he said he had a 1966 GTO to start restoring, and needed the extra money for it. He was also following his brother, who had joined the Guard in South Dakota.

Terry started out with the 168th field artillery, which later became the 1057th transport company, as a mechanic in the motor pool. He went on to become a motor sergeant and then first sergeant before everything was said and done. He noted he was the youngest first sergeant in Nebraska in 1995, at 35 years old.

The unit was activated to go to Iraq in January of 2003, and Terry travelled to Fort Carson, Colorado to prepare. While training for the desert in -25-degree weather, he slipped and fell on a canteen, blowing his back out on Feb. 13, 2003. “That was pretty much a career ender,” he said. He remained at Fort Carson for the next 14 months, undergoing two back surgeries in that time.

He came back to Nebraska in February of 2004, and worked with unit, getting ready for units to come home from Iraq. He noted his unit was one of the “guinea pig” for the de-mobilization efforts in Nebraska.

Birnbaum added the unit had a lot of firsts, including being the first to do an Operation Night Owl mission. He explained this involved the ground works of setting up whatever was necessary to sustain Air Force One, moving from place to place depending on where the aircraft would land. At the time it was classified, he said, but it is no longer.

The unit was also one of the first to switch from artillery to transportation.

Terry was with the Guard until he retired in June of 2014 as a first sergeant. While with the unit, he also worked for the City of Chadron, starting as a street laborer and working his way up to street superintendent. He retired in 2020, and emphasized the City was very supportive in allowing his time to serve.

Speaking of his brother, Terry said, “Mike and I used to train together at different trainings.” He shared a story about when he was on an exercise and was trying to find out where the showers were. A two-star general told him where to find them, but while Terry was getting ready to leave that same general joked he didn’t want to speak to the sergeant major, whom Terry found was his brother Mike.

Mike also attended Terry’s 2001 graduation from the Sergeant Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, and was Terry’s sponsor when he received his promotion to First Sergeant. Terry recalled when he would show up to a base and get a double look from guards when he handed over his ID for entry, having to explain Mike is his brother.

Mike’s story with the Army is quite different, as his service began with a draft into Vietnam. He had a premonition as a high school senior that he would get drafted, but was aware of the deferment if he were married or a college student. He looked to the latter, attending at South Dakota School of Mines.

His first touch of the military was in the college’s ROTC program, and he also took general courses for two years. He got to a point where all of his core classes were out of the way without his declaring a major. He told his advisor he didn’t think he wanted to be an engineer and planned to drop out. It just so happened the advisor was also on the draft board.

Mike still chose to drop out, and while working his uncle’s ranch south of Rapid City, every day he expected his letter to come. His brother Jim called him one day, while Mike was out at the ranch, and told him he had a letter from Selective Service. Though Mike asked him to open it, Jim wouldn’t because it wasn’t addressed to him and was official government mail; of course, it was the letter they knew was coming.

Within two to three weeks, Mike reported to the draft board and was deemed physically fit. He went through Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and Advanced Individual Training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, training on everything infantry and mortars.

From the time he was drafted in June of 1967, Mike knew he was Vietnam-bound, and he arrived there on Thanksgiving Day that year. Looking back, there were no phones like there are now. He never called from in-country, but in his 14 months he still was able to call home twice while on “R&R” — once in Bangkok, once in Singapore.

On Jan 23, 1969, Mike came home and was out of the Army. “You’re in the war zone one minute,” he said. “Twenty-four hours later, you’re home in Rapid City, South Dakota.”

There was a policy then that if a soldier had less than 150 days to serve when he returned, the Army would not go through the expense of re-issuing years. Mike had a choice to make. Come home when he was supposed to, or extend for 59 days to get the 150 days early out.

“What made the decision was if I got killed now I could be mad at the government. If I get killed after I extended, that’s my own damn fault.” He later opted for the extension, though it angered his older brother who was scared something might happen to him.

Terry noted Mike sent money while in Vietnam, for him and his brother to buy bicycles. Mike added he planned to buy them when he came home, but didn’t think he’d make it so he sent the money to make sure the boys got their bikes.

Another story Terry shared is how his older brother got him out of school detention, as the principal let him go to celebrate his brother’s return from Vietnam.

After Mike returned from Vietnam, he went back to college, this time at Black Hills State, as it was one of the goals he set for himself; the other was to buy a new car.

He recalled the country certainly changed when he was overseas. When he returned to the states, he was processed in California and asked to slip out the back due to protestors. He didn’t expect to see the same in his home state, but they were there.

He knew Sarah, the woman who would become his wife, while in the Army and the two married when he came home.

Because he was drafted, Mike had the option to join the National Guard for six years. A few of the guys he ran with convinced him to join. There was a “Try One” program, which allowed him to sign up for a year to decide if he like it. Mike signed up and joined the 235th General Supply Company, a year at a time, until about the 10th year when he was told to sign up for a longer stint.

He got frustrated from time to time while with the Guards, often wanting to give up, though Sarah convinced him to stay in. On the civilian side he sold office supplies and furniture for more than 30 years.

The colonel he worked for once asked him what his goals were, and Mike said he wanted to be the Staff Sergeant Major. Though he initially thought this wouldn’t happen, since Mike wasn’t full-time, a new adjutant general brought him into the position; this was the same position he had when he and Terry had their run in during a training in South Dakota.

As there were soldiers “everywhere” after 9/11, Mike found himself in several combat zones overseas, sometimes under the guise of a soldier rather than an officer.

In March of 2006, Mike retired from the Guards. While he really appreciates all of the soldiers, some of his favorite times were when he and Terry served together.

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