Veteran Rice never did make it to Vietnam

OKEECHOBEE — Bill Rice was born in Red Oak, Iowa which is about 90 miles from Des Moines, but he grew up in Glenwood. His grandparents lived in Emerson, and that is where his father is buried. In 1966, his father moved him and his mother to Fort Wayne Ind., and they “stayed there for the duration,” he said.

Veteran Bill Rice and his wife Mary hold up the Quilt of Valor that was presented to him a few years ago. He was completely surprised and overwhelmed, said Mrs. Rice. Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble.

When he was a young teenager, around 12 or 13, he had the opportunity to go to Howe Military School for summer camp. He said he wasn’t sent there because he was in trouble like you hear of some kids being sent away to military school. It was actually a fun camp, and he loved it. They taught marching, rifle arms, canoeing, sailing, scuba diving and all sorts of fun things.

His dad worked for Holland Furnace out of Holland, Mich. They made the big octopus furnaces, he said. Mr. Rice put his first furnace in by himself when he was only 16 years old, and he worked in the furnace and air conditioning business until he went into the military two years later in 1968 when he was 18.

He enlisted, and they sent him to Fort Jackson in South Carolina where they had a serious epidemic of what they called U.R.I. Upper Respiratory Infection, and the whole base was quarantined, he said.

“You weren’t allowed on or off. It was pretty bad. They made you stand out there for hours in the rain, typical military stuff.”

Next, he went to AIT or Advanced Infantry Training in Fort Bliss, Texas. That took six-to-eight months, he said. His Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) was 25J20.

“We were hooked to radar, our van had two scopes in it, and we worked with missiles. We had two missiles, a Hawk which was highly mobile on a trailer and then we had the Hercules which was an in-ground silo missile, one of those great big ones.”

He graduated top five from that training and was what they call a “speedy five.” He went from a PFC straight to an E5. He had signed up for Vietnam, he was gungho to go, but they didn’t take him. He was never really sure why. Maybe because he was an only child or maybe because he had a critical MOS, he thought.

They sent him to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany instead where he worked on D Battery. It was a Hercules missile in the ground. If his memory serves him right, they were monitoring the Bolivian border. There were four men on his team, and they worked on the maintenance van which was hooked to the radar van. It was backed up to the building. Their job was to keep the van working, and the radar crew kept the radar running. It was kind of a two-part team, he said. They never saw any action while they were there though. It was kind of peaceful, he said.

In the end, he was kind of glad he didn’t make it to Vietnam because “they are all dying of Agent Orange and turning green and pink with their hair falling out. I was really fortunate. I just didn’t know it then,” he said.

He served there for about a year and then returned to Fort Bliss where he decided he wanted to change his MOS. He signed up for hospital machinery repair. He thought that would be a good future.

“Although, I probably should have stayed in electronics. If I had stayed in electronics, who knows where I would be now.” So, they sent him to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Colorado, and he got all the way there and was ready to start the course when they realized he had never taken algebra. They said, “Whoa, you didn’t have any algebra, did you?” Mr. Rice replied, “No, how do you spell it?” Needless to say, you have to have algebra so that didn’t work out.

Then he thought maybe he’d like to do helicopter repair. That would be a ticket straight to Vietnam, he thought, but that didn’t work out either for some reason, although he can’t remember why. Finally, he decided to just remain in the MOS he was in originally and ended up back at Fort Bliss until he completed his service two years later.

After he got out, he got married and moved to Des Moines. They traveled in an old Volkswagen bus and got about 400 miles before it blew up. It turned out it blew a hole in a piston, he said. They took a beer can and put it over top of that piston, and it got them all the way to Des Moines where he got back into the furnace business for a few years.

Many years later, he met and married his second wife, Mary, and they moved back to Indiana. In 1980, he became self-employed and did general contracting, plumbing, heating and AC. He finally closed down his construction business in 1999, and he moved to Okeechobee in 2013.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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