A Soldier's Life: Richard Aydelotte Experienced It All
Richard Aydelotte, of Cameron, helped the U.S. Army keep its motors running in several countries -- including Iraq -- while serving 23 years, 10 months and 20 days as a mechanically-inclined "support soldier."
Aydelotte, 42, a 6-ft. 4-in., 220-pound former athlete, recently retired as a sergeant first class during a Ft. Bragg ceremony. His wife Elena, 28, and the Aydelotte's daughters, MaryJayne, 5, and Delilah, 6 months, were there to celebrate.
A recipient of numerous army achievement and commendation medals, Aydelotte traces the trail that brought him to the Sandhills.
Knew No Soldiers
Born and raised in Riverside, N.J., Aydelotte has a sister 16 years his senior and two older brothers. Their late father, an inactive Protestant, worked in a plumbing supply store. Their "Italian Catholic" mother worked as a nurse's aide; she died in 2007.
"Dad was home from work at 5:30," Aydelotte says. "He became a manager in 1973, and we moved to a newer house. I was seven or eight. My sister took us kids to (Catholic) church. Mom stayed home and cooked Sunday dinner."
Aydelotte played Riverside High School football, starting at tackle from his sophomore through senior seasons and serving as team captain during his last year.
"I played offense and defense," he says. "Coach Kowl always talked about leadership and teamwork. I played basketball and did track-and-field, shot-put, mainly."
Aydelotte didn't know any soldiers.
"I guess my uncles fought in Korea," he says. "I'd seen men in uniforms in parades."
He landed a partial Kutztown University football scholarship, but an Army recruiter visited Riverside High and stirred his interest.
Finding His Place
"I really wanted to be a police officer," Aydelotte says. "I called the police chief, and he said all the policemen under him were 'prior-military.' He suggested I join the Army as a military policeman (MP)."
Aydelotte contacted the recruiter he'd met, took a major evaluation test at Cherry Street Station in Philadelphia in August 1984 and scored high in mechanical aptitude.
The Cherry Street enlistment sergeant told Aydelotte he'd have to wait eight months to enter MP training but could enlist immediately as a mechanic.
Aydelotte refused, but the sergeant bargained, offering (one-at-a-time) these options: "station of choice," "a college plan," "enter the Army as E-2 rather than E-1," and "a $2,500 bonus."
"I thought I'd trump him," Aydelotte says. "I said, 'If you give me all of that, I'll join."
"Okay," the sergeant told him.
The surprised Aydelotte enlisted for four years and headed to basic and mechanic training at Ft. Jackson, S.C., on Dec. 5, 1984.
Anti-Americanism in Germany
In Mannheim, Germany, Aydelotte worked on jeeps for the 512th Maintenance Company (1985-1988).
Anti-Americanism often surfaced. In 1985, The Red Army Faction set off a bomb at the Frankfurt Airport.
"Just after I'd gone through the passenger terminal," Aydelotte says. "Later they blew up the Frankfurt PX. Near the barracks, we had a little building with food-vending machines. Someone put a big block of highly explosive C-4 in a large microwave oven. Luckily, somebody found it before they turned it on. People forget that time in Europe, before the Berlin Wall came down."
For a while, Aydelotte rented a one-room apartment in the middle of a Turkish area in downtown Mannheim.
"The day after we (the U.S.) bombed Libya, someone dumped a can of garbage on my junker car," he says. "After that I kept four tires in my apartment, in case they sliced my tires."
Aydelotte next spent a year at Ft. Stewart, Ga., and reenlisted, requesting Germany. He arrived in Garlstedt, Germany in Nov. 1989 and worked for the 1/41 Infantry Battalion, 2nd Armored Division.
"That was one of the more exciting assignments," he says. "We trained with the British, the Dutch and Canadians. We'd go on three-day drives and sleep on the trucks."
He left for Saudi Arabia on Jan. 8, 1991. Desert Storm began on Feb. 24, 1991.
"The Iraqis were looking for us to come from their coast, and we rolled over them from the west," he says.
On May 10, 1991, Aydelotte returned to Germany. He then served with the 57th Signal Brigade in Ft. Hood, Texas (1992-1994), and spent a year at Camp Hovey in South Korea (1994-95).
"Worst experience of my life," he says about Korea. "There was nothing to do, unless you liked the bars. I didn't like the decadence. We'd go to the field a lot. I've never experienced cold like that."
He recalls two experiences:
"Once we set up 65 tents that had floors and heaters," Aydelotte says. "It was 20-below (Fahrenheit). We sawed metal posts to make tent stakes and heated water. The technique was this: pour water on the ground and beat a stake into it before the ground froze."
Another time during cool, springtime weather, he returned from training at 5:30 a.m. wearing a "chemical suit" and was told to pick up some MREs (meals ready to eat). Thinking the job wouldn't take long, he wore his chemical suit.
He and about 150 men traveled six hours (60 miles) to the pickup spot and watched a plane eject eight large platforms holding MREs. Wind sent the parachuting platforms into the side of a mountain.
"The charcoal in the chemical suit began to irritate," Aydelotte says.
The men trudged through rice paddies and up the mountain to retrieve MREs by hand.
"When that task was done, it was about 2 a.m.," Aydelotte says. "Then the lieutenant says, 'Now we have to go get the chutes.'"
The parachutes hung in trees, so the soldiers took the dull axes attached to their 10 trucks. Aydelotte and a buddy organized the assignment.
"We drug the parachutes down the mountain and through rice paddies," he says. "The chutes began to sink and became heavy."
They finished at 4 a.m.
"By then it was freezing," Aydelotte says. "We had no heaters in our trucks."
Wearing a mud-caked, sweaty chemical suit, Aydelotte opened some MREs (each had a heating unit attached). Before driving for six hours, he activated the heating units and stuffed them into any pockets he found on his chemical suit.
"It was pretty smelly," he says.
In September 1995, Aydelotte returned to Ft. Hood, Texas.
"I met Elena at El Chico's, a Mexican restaurant," he says. "She was a waitress."
Elena Jaksic, then a high school junior, was born in Arizona. Her mother is Mexican-American. Her father escaped from Yugoslavia when it was under communist rule.
"We started dating," he says. "She took me to Jubilee Church, which we attended for years. I liked the upbeat music. The sermons were gripping. It was small -- about 40 or 50 people. They had a young pastor, just getting the church started."
Aydelotte and Elena married in July 1997 and moved to Germany in February 2002. Elena became pregnant, and the baby was expected in mid-March 2003. On March 1, Aydelotte received orders to leave for Kuwait on Sunday, March 8, 2003.
Elena told him, "I can do this. The baby and I will be fine."
Aydelotte was ready to board the plane for Kuwait, but cargo luggage had to be repacked to distribute weight.
During that delay, Aydelotte's commanding officer told him, "You've got to go back. Your wife's in the hospital."
"Is she having the baby?" Aydelotte asked.
"I don't know."
Elena had fainted at the Sunday morning service of the Free Gospel Church in Bamberg. A U.S. colonel and his wife were attending that service, and the wife told her husband to get Aydelotte off that plane.
"They never figured out why Elena fainted," Aydelotte says. "But I was there for MaryJayne's birth on March 12."
Operation Enduring Freedom (which led to Operation Iraqi Freedom) began on March 21, 2003.
"I got to Kuwait on March 24," Aydelotte says. "I had to catch up with my unit in Iraq. My bags had gone with them. All I had was a 'day bag.'"
Tension in Basara
In Kuwait, Aydelotte hooked a ride to find his unit, the 317th Maintenance Company, 71st Support battalion, 3rd COSCOM from Bamberg, Germany.
"They'd pushed deep into Iraq," he says.
He received orders to take a convoy of 20 vehicles to join his unit within 24 hours. He was equipped with only a GPS device -- no functioning radios and no maps.
"We got lost in the city of Basara," he says. "We were probably 30 miles off-course on a busy four-lane highway during mid-afternoon."
The convoy's five-ton truck, which pulled a 10-ton forklift on a trailer, broke down after striking a 40-foot streetlight pole. The pole lodged between the truck's cab and the trailer. (The forward convoy vehicles proceeded, unaware that five vehicles remained behind.)
"We couldn't leave it," Aydelotte says. "Without that forklift, our unit couldn't perform its mission of unloading. In the middle of everything -- it was like New York City traffic -- a car went by me, and a guy gave me a look that would scare the devil. I knew we were in a bad spot."
Aydelotte "boxed-in" the stalled truck and trailer with the four functioning vehicles.
"Don't let anybody inside that box," he told about 14 personnel (two women among them).
They sat for about 15-20 minutes as traffic moved around them.
"Then a British tank pulled up and told us to get off the highway because we were blocking traffic," he says. "I prayed about how to fix that truck. And a voice in my mind said, 'Everything you need to fix that truck is behind that door (a door covering a side compartment on the truck)."
He says he then saw a "blueprint" in his mind.
"It was like looking at a maze in front of my face," he says, "and I thought, 'Bypass the service-drive airline to the emergency connector on the back of the truck. Take the tire-filling air hose; take off the inflator; put on a."
He "ran the air hose to reconnect the truck's air-brake system," repairing the truck. His group rejoined its convoy and found its unit at Camp Dogwood.
Aydelotte spent the next year in Iraq, with one visit home for Christmas.
To the Sandhills
Aydelotte returned to Germany but again deployed for a year (2005) in Iraq.
He next regrouped his family in Germany, and he and Elena purchased a home in Cameron. They didn't visit the property -- they only viewed it on the Internet before buying. They moved into that house in March of last year, while he served at Ft. Bragg. Their daughter, Delilah, was born on Dec. 27, 2007, at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital.
Aydelotte recently retired from the U.S. Army's 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade at Ft. Bragg.
"The Army was a great opportunity," he says. "I felt there was some kind of worth to it. I feel it was a very honorable experience. There's a certain level of security you have in the Army. It gets very comfortable. And if you love what you're doing, it's not work.
"For the last 23 years, I loved what I was doing -- the teaching, training, maintenance, finding ways to improve systems. When you coach and mentor people, it's very rewarding."
Aydelotte now works at Ingersoll Rand in Southern Pines, and he and his family attend Grace Church of Southern Pines.
Freelance writer Steve Crain lives in Southern Pines.
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