Seventy-two-year-old Capt. Freddie Odomes is an Auburn resident who has served a total of 26 years in the military. What is most notable about his 26 years is how they are distributed; he is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War (serving from 1964 to 1987) and was most recently on active duty in his 60s, from 2006 to 2010.
He enlisted in the military to become a paratrooper.
“I saw a commercial, and the sky was just full of parachutes, I mean it Opelika Paratrooper was so beautiful,” Odomes said. “So I checked around to learn skydiving. And when I got the prices and all this, what it took, I said, ‘I can’t afford that.’”
He could not afford lessons on his $75-per-week budget, money he earned painting cars. He found a way to learn though; he joined the military at 18.
“The military would train me how to jump and pay for me jumping,” Odomes said. “Then to find out they give me food, a place to live … what more could you want? They didn’t even have to mention retirement, they didn’t get that far.”
He soon went through AIT (advanced individual training), was assigned a role in personnel administration and went to jump school. Jump school was three weeks of training at Fort Benning in Georgia.
“It was kind of strange because we got locked down on the center here at Fort Benning the day we got there because they knew we were going to Vietnam, and we basically had no idea we were going,” Odomes said.
He added that if he had known, he probably wouldn’t have gone to jump school. As it happened, though, he did go to jump school, which he called a traumatic experience because of the lockdown and abrupt shipping off to Vietnam upon graduation from the program. Odomes was the commander of a five-man unit within the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in 1970. They lived on a hill with the Vietnamese counterparts they were advising. The hill was a Vietnamese position, so those counterparts were responsible for the overall security of the position while the Americans advised the team on how to protect it.
The Vietcong attacked the position in the middle of the night, and rockets struck the hill on which Odomes and the rest were living.
“I had multiple fragmentation wounds all over my body,” he said. “My eyes, my face, my arms, my legs.”
He received morphine and rough bandaging in the field before being airlifted to a triage setup then an American hospital.
Odomes was awarded a bronze star for his actions while wounded.
“They saw fit to bestow [it] upon me for my actions at that time when I was wounded,” he said.
He recuperated well, went to school (a theme of his life) to be a Ranger and was a Ranger instructor for two and a half years. After that he was one of the subjects of a reduction in force, when there’s an abundance of officers in the Army and some are cut.
He went to school again, this time for a basic noncommission officer course.
Odomes traveled to Germany for the first time, a two-year stay working in personnel administration, the role he was originally assigned before his surprise trip east.
Odomes made two more trips back and forth from Germany, working different administrative jobs and being shuffled around in the military ranks before he retired from the military and rejoined civilian life, which he found lacking. More specifically, lacking vacation time—he found the civilian work schedule too demanding.
“As time progressed [in the military], it got to the point where we were getting, if we were in the field training something and missed a holiday or we just performed exceptionally well, we would get what’s called a training holiday,” Odomes said. “We were putting training holidays on Friday and Monday, so it might get slid in there and you might have a four-day weekend.”
He was also spoiled by the German holiday schedule. His wife of 42 years, Sonja, is from Germany and said she never had a problem making the decision between the American and German holiday schedules.
Odomes went back on active duty at the age of 58 as the commander of the warrior transition battalion and a company commander within the battalion.
“[The warrior transition battalion] was developed to take care of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and some other places overseas,” Odomes said. “Certain medical conditions couldn’t be handled right away; the person was recuperating, but they needed special attention, and that’s what we provided for them.”
The transition battalion worked with the veterans to help them transition back to civilian life “with dignity and respect,” as Odomes put it, in addition to that special attention during the recovery process.
He retired from the military with finality in 2010 and headed to school to study psychology.
Odomes said part of the reason he wanted to return to school was so he would not be a hypocrite.
“You need an education, you need to get yourself prepared for the future,” he said he often told young people. He wanted to follow the advice for himself.
He chose psychology as his area of study because of his experience in war.
“When I came back after being wounded, I had no support system from the military,” he said. “In World War II, they’d just look at a person and say, ‘Oh, he’s just shell shocked.’ They didn’t even put a name on it when we came back from Vietnam.”
He graduated in two and a half years with a 3.9 GPA and is now using what he learned (and what he has experienced) to help other veterans. He is involved in the 173rd Airborne Association, in which he visits in-patient but ambulatory veterans.
“Most of what we do is just, what are they doing, how are they getting along, ‘See you next time,’” Odomes said, modestly.
He also works with the American Legion helping disabled veterans receive their benefits from the VA.
“You get whatever you need, but you have to sometimes put your foot down and let people know that you are human, that you have a need and you’re entitled to it,” Odomes said.
He serves the youth of the community with Sons of the American Legion by teaching young people what the American Legion stands for and sending members to oratorical contests.
“That’s kind of like helping to prepare them for what they’re gonna be confronted with when they go off to college,” Odomes said.
He said that when he joined the military , he accepted what would come with it, bad and good.
He accepted that he might be torn up and run through with shrapnel from rockets destr0ying he earth around him in Vietnam. And he accepted that he would get paid for jumping out of airplanes.
Odomes accepted that he would learn things and experience things that would put him in a position to help veterans of the wars that came after his generation’s (although his service is not, by any stretch of the imagination, confined to one generation). He accepted death.
“You cannot predetermine where or when you’re gonna die,” Odomes said. “It’s something that you don’t need to worry about. I could very well, very easily be killed right here in the United States . . . it’s gonna happen.”