Mary Roberts celebrating the holidays overseas during Desert Storm.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The featured veterans of my column this week are truly unique. They both served, while husband and wife, in the Army at the same time.
Mary Angelo-Roberts served her country from 1973 to 1995, retiring as a sergeant major while Charles "Chuck" Roberts served from 1975 to 1995 and retired as a first sergeant.
You will never meet two of the most genuine, classy people as you will the Roberts.
Mary grew up in Milford, Conn., and was sent to basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama after enlisting at age 19. Chuck grew up in Williamstown and enlisted at 18 and did basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. It was serendipitous that they would both meet while on assignment in Berlin several years later. After boot camp, Mary was sent to Fort Myers in Washington, D.C., where she worked in logistics. She was then sent to U.S. Army Berlin (a command headquarters) and worked there for four years until 1978. Mary's first experience overseas provided her with some trepidation.
"We landed at Tempelhof Airfield (in Berlin) and there were guards all around the airport. I said, 'what did I do?'" she said.
I asked her what it was like being away for the holidays. She said it was hard at first but it helped to keep busy: "You're family with everyone you're stationed with so that made it easier."
"We had a 24-hour operation," added Chuck. "Our command climate was close."
They had holiday parties and put up Christmas trees and bought food, crafts and wine from the seasonal markets, sometimes called Christkindlmarkt or Kris Kringle markets.
After basic training, Chuck was sent to Fort Gordon, Ga., where he studied signal training. He went on what was then called the "Buddy Program" and went with his pal from Williamstown, Paul Sefcik. "We had a great time," he remembered.
The Roberts met in Berlin where they were assigned to the same unit. Mary arrived in 1974 and Chuck in 1975. Mary was a supply clerk and recalled, "everybody in their unit knew each other. You really bonded because you're all in the same boat."
The Roberts recalled a distinctive memory from their years of service -- one that still hits a terribly, emotional chord in their hearts. They were both stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Mary would be deployed to Desert Storm when their daughter Niki was only 6 years old. The recollection of the memory is still too painful for Mary to talk about.
"They had put up yellow ribbons as they do when soldiers are deployed. They said they would take them down after everyone had come home safely. Somebody complained and they took the ribbons down without any communication," she said. "Our daughter, Niki, began to withdraw."
There was not the technology back then for soldiers to easily keep in touch with family back home.
"Television was the only way for info," Chuck said. "I was watching it one night when Niki looked at me and said, 'Is mommy dead?' I reassured her that mommy wasn't."
The emotional trauma their daughter had to bear still shakes them both. "I took her first thing the next morning into my office on post and made the overseas call so Niki could talk to her mother," Chuck remembered.
He also shared another haunting memory that will forever be etched in his mind.
"We had a young woman in our unit ... a PFC that had been deployed. The grandmother was taking care of her daughter's little 3-year old while she was away," Chuck said. "The grandmother was backing out of her driveway one day and accidentally ran over her granddaughter and killed her. I was rear detachment, first sergeant, ran family supportive issues ... It was one of the toughest situations I've ever had to deal with."
A few other highlights of the Roberts' storied career of service include: they were the first military couple inducted into the 7th Infantry Division Organization of the Professional Bayonet at Fort Ord, Calif. (a divisionwide leadership organization), the first military couple assigned to the same units as drill sergeants at Fort Jackson, S.C., and, while at Fort Hood, were the first military couple inducted into what was then III Corps' and now Army Forces Command's (FORSCOM-wide) Sergeant Audie Murphy Club. The Roberts were the 15th and 16th inductees into this prestigious leadership organization.
I asked Mary about a mentor and she didn't hesitate one second: "Willie Morris."
"I got promoted to first sergeant while in Berlin," she said. "I didn't want it initially."
Mary didn't like that she had to discipline her friends and couldn't go out with them anymore. Morris talked her through that and when she was picked to be a drill sergeant and had reservations, "Willie told me to 'get my ass there, your career will be set,'" she said. "I never will forget that man."
Chuck's mentor was 1st Sgt. Dan Kelly.
"The way that he carried himself ... he was "stract" (possessed standards, carried himself well)," Chuck said. "The epitome of what a soldier should be … never forget how he supported me and how he was there for me."
The longest, most intense separation the couple dealt with began with both being sent back to Fort Bliss for Sergeant Major Academy training. After that, Mary was sent to Panama while Chuck was sent back to Fort Gordon for more training. Niki was sent to stay with Chuck's sister.
"That was the longest time being away from our daughter Niki," Chuck said. "It was tough."
And like any good mother, Mary wouldn't be deterred in coming home to see her little girl after duty in Panama.
"I had called ahead and they said that the Berkshires was getting ready for a terrible snowstorm … didn't bother me … I drove right through it to get home," she said.
Mary said she loved the service, the friendships, the bonding -- even though some parts were tough. "It built who I am today," she said. "It keeps you grounded and gives you a sense of purpose."
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat," Chuck said. "It taught me standards, ethics." The bonds he made with his fellow soldiers have continued he said, "when you need'em, they're there ...
I had four great friends in the service … three of the four came back for my daughter's wedding, the fourth couldn't make it because of a family emergency … that's special."
And despite the hardship in being away from her parents at times during her childhood, Niki, who coordinated the interview, said, "I loved being an Army brat … I'm so proud of my parents."
The Roberts reside in Williamstown, where they are actively involved in Richard A. Ruether Post 152 American Legion, of which Mary is currently vice commander, and they take with immense pride in their grandson, Brodie.
Mary and Chuck Roberts, thank you for your service to our great country.
Veteran Spotlight is a special column by Wayne Soares that will run twice a month. Soares is a motivational speaker and comedian who has frequently entertained the troops overseas with the USO. To recommend a veteran for Soares' column, write to email@example.com.
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