Appleton, Wisconsin is a paper mill town in Northeast section of the state. It is full of hard working people and achieved national recognition years ago when Sports Illustrated named it as the town with the most citizens per capita participating in athletics in the country.
It has three notable former residents. Harry Houdini, the master illusionist, was from Appleton. Willem Dafoe, who was in memorable films such as Platoon and Spider Man, also is a native son. Last but certainly not least was Rocky Bleier. A graduate of Xavier High School and Notre Dame, Bleier seved his country in Viet Nam and was injured in combat. Through sheer will he overcame those injuries and went on to win Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Appleton is the hometown of another individual of note. You have never heard of him and if you never chance upon this blog post you probably never will. His name is Greg Wilson. He is husband to Linda, father to Amy, Amanda, and Ashley, and he is an American hero.
Greg recently retired from the Air Force after 25 years of service. His full title was Colonel Greg Wilson Director Joint Test Location at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. But titles don’t tell the full story.
Greg’s modesty inhibits me to some degree to elaborate on his upbringing but to say he came from humble means would be fair and accurate. He was self sufficient at an age when most are still tied to their parents in a profound way. He worked hard and took responsibility for himself. His academics were such that he was able to gain admission and earn a degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
I learned the rest of his story from Colonel William Reese, who flew in from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to preside over Greg’s retirement ceremony. The accomplishments in the various officer training schools and flight and navigation training Greg received were listed in detail. I heard how he excelled, always finishing at or near the top in his class, and how he earned the respect of his peers. I don’t have enough gray matter to describe what Greg’s contribution to our national defense were, but as I listened to all the accolades it was hard not to be overwhelmed. During a recent mission in Libya Greg detailed a plan on the back of napkin and it was implemented!
By his own admission Greg had thirteen near death experiences while in service to his country. Those events don’t include ejecting from an aircraft over a desert. Probably harder on him was the time away from his family. Military families are resilient and Greg’s is no different. Linda was a bedrock and her sacrifice was significant in its own way as she too put the welfare of our nation above her own.
As I met all of Greg’s Air Force friends, all of whom served with him, a reoccurring theme was evident. These men were humble but had swagger. They were serious and focused yet able to laugh easily. They smoked big cigars and drank single malt scotch. And they love our country. More importantly they love us. All of them treated me with dignity and respect that I didn’t deserve. They keep us safe despite budget cuts and politics that hardly ever make sense. They don’t look or sound larger than life but make no mistake they represent the best we have to offer.
How many of us would readily die for a cause? How many of us would endure the mental and physical rigors a military life requires? How many of us would separate from our families for months on end knowing that each day could be our last?
Greg Wilson made decisions every day that helped keep our country safe and secure. Of his 25 years of service almost all of them were at a time when we were in conflict. Serbia, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, there was never any peace time to speak of. And now he is retired.
Greg deserves this time off. He has given more than most. He should be allowed to go to Florida State football games with Amy, watch Amanda play basketball at Niceville High, and be at Ashley’s 8th Grade graduation next year. Most importantly he should be able to wake up everyday next to his wife, who is herself heroic in her own way. But selfishly as a country we have lost something precious. A brilliant man with ramrod values. A combination of intellect, compassion, and humility is no longer looking out for us. As such the USA is little less safe today. I wish there was a way to let others know that it is people like Greg that should be put on pedestals, not athletes, actors, musicians, and certainly not politicians. But guys like Greg would not hear of that. As such all I can say is thank you.