General speaks about his time in military, leaving behind a good reputation

by Kristen Tomins | Reporter Published:

After 38 years of serving in the United States Army, Lieutenant General Robert W. Wagner knows the true meaning of the word service: "contribution without the credit," he said to the Rotary Club of Hudson Clocktower, who met June 4 at the Hudson Country Club to hear Wagner speak.

The Rotary Club of Hudson Clocktower is dedicated to "Service Above Self" and tries to invite speakers who fit that description and are able to share experience on their service and leadership, said Rotary Club President Pat Myers.

Throughout his speech, Wagner told stories of his operations and tours in Vietnam, Panama, Bosnia and Iraq, including how he was parachuted into more than 15 different countries and underwent a variety of trainings in more than 50.

There are specific moments from his tours that remain vivid in his mind, he said.

"[In Vietnam] we literally lived in the jungle," Wagner said. "If you slept, you slept on the ground… you had to sneak to whereever it was you needed to go."

To protect himself from mosquitoes in Vietnam, Wagner said he used his one extra shirt to lay over him and he breathed through the arm hole.

Vietnam was his first assignment upon his graduation from the military academy at West Point and he said he has no hard feelings toward Vietnam. Later on, he would go on to continue his education at Purdue University where he would receive his master's degree in industrial relations.

"It wasn't heroics, we were just doing the job; I don't want to be put on a pedestal," he said.

Comparing the military from 40 years ago to how it is now, Wagner said there are many changes to note, the biggest one being the transition to an all-volunteer army from a draft army, as well as the technology.

"You used to rely on a map and a compass, but now it's a GPS," he said. "It's the same with emissions: now they're precision guided, which cuts down on the overall collateral damage."

He noted with the vast changes in military equipment and procedures, the threats have also changed.

"The terrorist threat is very invasive; [terrorists] now blend in with women and children, there's suicide bombers. It's not as contained as it was on the battlefield," Wagner said.

Although Wagner encountered many challenges in each operation, he said the hardest part of the job was attending the funerals for the 40-60 deaths of soldiers each of the three years he did special operations for Afghanistan and Iraq.

He said at each funeral he struggled to find just the right words to say to each soldier's family, but was amazed at some of the positivity and humbleness the families had after everything they'd been through.

He recalled one particular funeral when the wife of a fallen officer said to him, "This is so beautiful, he'd be so proud," in regards to the beautiful day and ceremony that was held for her husband.

It was those moments when Wagner said he would reflect on serving all those years and how leadership and values shaped how well the forces worked together.

"People live and die in the defense of values," said Wagner. "I had the privilege of serving with some amazing people who had amazing values, which made it easier to go out and get the job done."

After his 38 years of service, Wagner said some of the biggest things he took away from his experience in the military were the importance of caring about others and caring about the reputation you leave behind.

He said in terms of caring about people in the military, people not only need to be willing to help them, but also need to be willing to listen to them and learn about them.

When it comes to leaving behind a good reputation for others to remember, he said not to worry too much about the materialistic things. He remembered a memorial service he attended for an officer and said when people spoke about him, they spoke about what a good person he was.

"You didn't hear about all the cars he drove or what things he had," said Wagner. "All you heard was how good of a person he was, how honorable he was; that's what people will remember."

Wagner's last assignment was to serve in Fort Bragg in North Carolina as commanding general of United States Army Special Operations Command.

Having lived in 20 houses in his lifetime, Wagner said he and his wife, Pamela Jayne, learned to enjoy many of the different locations but ultimately returned to the city of Independence where they retired in 2009.

"All of my assignments, no matter where they were, gave me the opportunity to serve with great people with strong values," he said. "But there's only one place to live and that's the USA."

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