A Growth Experience

On November 11, Americans celebrated Veterans Day, but in the helter-skelter of 2020 life, they moved quickly, or so it seemed, to other pressing issues of the day.
That’s a shame, first because there’re so many daunting challenges facing society at one time, and, second, because every day should be a day the nation celebrates its veterans.
No one understands better than those who are serving or have served.
Count Carl Napier among those who “get it.”
A member of Collegiate’s housekeeping staff since 2004, Napier enlisted in the U.S. Army in March of 1978, just a few months after graduating from E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg where he was born and raised. He was four months shy of his 18th birthday when he reported for basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
“I was a young man on my own and had to learn how to take care of myself and respect other people and their values,” Napier said. “It was quite the experience.”
The eldest of six children, Napier grew up in a household that placed a high premium on appropriate behavior, a fact which perhaps eased his transition into the rigors of life as a raw recruit.
“When I got into the service,” he continued, “I had drill sergeants shorter than me yelling up at me. It didn’t faze me. I was used to discipline.”
After he completed Basic, Napier remained at Ft. Gordon for AIT (advanced individual training), then spent two-and-a-half years of his three-year hitch assigned to the 302nd Army Security Agency Battalion, a military intelligence unit, in Frankfurt, Germany. There, he served as a “72 Echo,” Army terminology for a telecommunications specialist who sent and received coded messages through the medium of tickertape.
“That was the old days,” Napier said. “We didn’t have computers yet. We were still doing key punches on single key typewriters. I learned to type when I was in AIT. Learned to read perforated tape. We would decode our messages, and only a person on the other end would be able to tell what we were saying.”
Napier, who had a Top Secret security clearance, handled correspondence among the upper echelon brass from locations around the world.
“It was an old type email,” he said. “Some of the messages were classified. A lot was chit-chat. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that came across the wire.”
Napier and his fellow 72 Echoes spent their duty hours ensconced in a bunker buried a dozen or so feet below ground.
“Nothing exciting about that,” he said with a chuckle. “There were no windows. When you went in, you were locked in for eight-hour shifts. You were cut off from the outside world. We wouldn’t find out what was going on outside unless somebody sent us a message.”
Military service was hardly all work and no play. Napier and his friends spent off-duty hours getting to know Frankfurt and the surrounding area. They traveled to Munich, site of the 1972 Olympics and the Black September massacre, a sobering and tragic moment in history.
“It was surreal,” he said of the memory.
They took in the beauty of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a resort town in Bavaria.
“Didn’t learn to ski,” he said. “Wish I had.”
In 1981, his obligation satisfied, Napier left the service with the rank of E-4. After working as a civilian employee of the Army in the Frankfurt area, he eventually returned to Virginia, joined a painting contractor in Newport News for a while, and moved to Richmond in the early 1990’s.
He’d learned to cook in a cooperative training program in high school, and from 1998 until 2002, he served as assistant manager in charge of Collegiate’s Memorial (now McFall) Hall cafeteria for Marquis Food Services.
Two years later, he returned to Collegiate as a floor technician with the physical plant staff and in the 16 years since has worked in pretty much every area of housekeeping.
Now, he’s assigned to a 4 p.m. – 12:30 a.m. shift, cleaning Jacobs Gym, picking up trash on campus, delivering supplies to other custodians, and dutifully pitching in wherever he’s needed.
“My time at Collegiate has been great,” he said. “I never thought I’d stay in one place for so long. I’m glad I did. It’s grounded me.”
As did his three years in the military.
“Most definitely,” he said. “The Army taught me a lot. You’re young. You’re full of life. You have your challenges. You make your mistakes. You have to have the right mindset. You meet people from all walks of life. There’s nothing like the camaraderie of the enlisted people you share the experience with. You build a bond. You have that bond forever.”
And the November 11 remembrance?
“Being a veteran,” he said, “is significant because so many have given their lives so everyone else can have freedom. I’ve never taken that lightly.”