Many youth cling to lofty goals when searching for a career - firmly grasping a romantic view of what the future may hold for them. But for state Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, his career objectives encountered an alteration when he found himself in combat in the skies above Vietnam.
A native of Geneva, Ill., Wallingford attended the University of Nebraska (Omaha) following his high school graduation in 1964, during which his interest in the military was revealed.
"Students were required to take either a physical education class or ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps program)," Wallingford said. "Since I had listened to some of my relatives speak of their own military service, I chose ROTC."
For the next four years, he continued his academic studies while concurrently completing his Air Force ROTC requirements. In June 1968, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in business and was also pinned a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
While still in college, the ROTC cadet had taken pre-flight testing and, after passing, was informed that he would attend flight training immediately following his graduation, which moved forward the timeline of a major life event.
"Expecting my orders upon graduation," Wallingford said, "I married my fiancÃ©e Susan (in June 1968).
"However," he laughed, "my flight school orders didn't come until that November."
That fall he arrived at Mather Air Force Base (AFB) near Sacramento and for the next year trained as a navigator/bombardier aboard the B-52 Stratofortress - a long-range strategic bomber. The airman remained at the base for an additional nine months to complete training in electronic warfare.
After receiving his navigator wings in the summer of 1970, nearly two years after beginning active duty, Wallingford was transferred to his first assignment at Carswell AFB, Tex., intent on finishing out his six-year commitment and then leaving the military for a business career.
That December, he deployed to Vietnam for what would become the first of five deployments throughout the war during which the young officer would operate equipment designed to jam enemy radar signals.
"Most all of our missions flew out of U-Tapao, Thailand," Wallingford said. "They were mostly bombing missions ... over 300 of them," he added.
The most notable was in December 1972, Wallingford said, when he was with a group of B-52s participating in a mission called Operation Linebacker II - a heavy bombing campaign intended to prompt North Vietnamese participation in the Paris Peace Accords.
As the former aviator explained, they bombed Hanoi, Haiphong, supply depots, railroads - all heavily defended areas. Prior to this campaign, Wallingford notes, his group had never lost a B-52 in combat.
"The first night (of Operation Linebacker II) we lost three B-52s," he somberly described. "By the end of the operation, we had 24 planes hit by surface to air missiles, 15 planes that went down and nine that limped back to base. We were one of those that limped back."
Returning to Carswell AFB in 1973, Wallingford made the decision to continue in his military career serving in several worldwide assignments and, in 1983, went on to earn his master's degree in health care administration from Central Michigan University.
"I was appointed to serve as a professor of aerospace science at Southeast Missouri State University (in Cape Girardeau) in 1985," Wallingford said, "teaching ROTC students the theory of flying and aerodynamics."
Later stationed at Mildenhall, England, as the chief of intelligence for the RC-135 (aircraft) reconnaissance operations for the Middle East and European theaters, Wallingford completed six tours during the first Gulf War aboard an RC-135, providing ground commanders with information on enemy troop movements.
The airman made the decision to retire from the Air Force in the fall of 1993 at the rank of lieutenant colonel and with 25 years of active duty service. Remaining in the Cape Girardeau area, he now works full time as the chief people officer for McDonald's of Southeast Missouri.
His legislative career began in 2010 when he was elected to the state House of Representatives, and continued in 2012 when he was elected to represent the state's 27th District in the Senate.
Though his experiences in the General Assembly may vary slightly from those encountered during his time in the Air Force, Wallingford asserts that there are many lessons from his time in combat that he chooses to embrace as a legislator.
"When you are promoted to a second lieutenant, a lot of weight is placed on your shoulders and you don't know failure," he said.
"And then, after you experience combat - when you're in a plane that's been shot at and hit - you quickly learn to put things in proper perspective ... to realize what the important things in life truly are."
He added: "And here at the Capitol, these lessons can be applied when debating numerous issues; to not allow yourself to get overly excited about something, but rather calmly and reasonably discuss it for the benefit of your constituents."
Jeremy P. Ã„mick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.