News: Heroes among us: Vietnam veteran joins Air Force voluntarily during draft
Story by Senior Airman Cortney Paxton
MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. - According to www.about.com, from 1948 to 1973, during peacetimes and periods of conflict, men were drafted into branches of the United States military to provide manpower for services with vacancies, which could not be filled on a voluntary basis.
Senior Master Sgt. Robert Stillwell, retired 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs graphic artist, was a sophomore in college when the draft picked up to support efforts in the Vietnam War. Although he wouldn’t have had a problem being drafted into the military, he wanted an option as to which branch he served, so he voluntarily enlisted into the Air Force in 1968.
“My dad was drafted into World War II – he was a tail gunner on B-17s,” said Stillwell. “My brother was drafted into the Army prior to me enlisting into the Air Force, and I decided I didn’t want to take that chance. I thought the Air Force was more interested in the intellectual side. I thought I could have more of a career – a more meaningful job as opposed to being in infantry.”
His service proved to be more than meaningful. He started his career as a casual control airman then, after a month, he was given a job as a security policeman. After a year as a security police Airman, he was deployed to Vietnam in support of the war. This year-long deployment was his only one, but it proved to be one of the most memorable times of his military career.
“I met up with my cousin Tom in Vietnam who was an Army crew chief on a helicopter,” Stillwell said. “He was on his second tour to Vietnam. I went on two weeks leave in-country and caught a hop [flight] down to Saigon where he picked me up. I flew missions with him as the door gunner.”
It was common for members deployed to Vietnam to make sacrifices in support of the war; however, it was during a church retreat that Stillwell put his life on the line for his fellow airmen.
“I earned an Airman’s Medal in Vietnam for saving two people who were drowning in the South China Sea,” he said. “It was actually a church retreat that I had gone on in Cam Ranh Bay. I was on the beach and happened to notice these people way out – probably a half-mile out – so I swam out to see what they were doing. They had actually gotten caught in a rip tide – they would swim in a ways and just get swept off their feet and carried back out. I swam out and grabbed one guy and then about another 100 feet out I grabbed another guy. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it but someone saw what had happened and I ended up getting awarded for it.”
That wasn’t the only time Stillwell wasn’t thinking about himself during his time in Vietnam. He often had his family members back home send him children’s items that he, and a fellow Airman, would take to a local orphanage in Phan Rang, Vietnam.
Along with the Airman’s Medal, Stillwell also received a Bronze Star, two Meritorious Service Medals, three Air Force Accommodation Medals, a Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Long and Short Tour Medals, a Good Conduct Medal and many others.
Following his deployment to Vietnam, Stillwell got stationed at Geiger Field, Wash., where he was happy to be close to his home in Wenatchee, Wash. His assignment to Geiger Field was one of many he had across the country, which included assignments at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; Carswell AFB, Texas; Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; Wurtsmith AFB, Mich.; Gentile Air Force Station, Ohio; and finally Malmstrom AFB where he retired. His only station overseas was to Anderson AFB, Guam.
After only three and a half years as a security policeman, Stillwell cross-trained into the visual information career field where he was primarily an illustrator.
“I cross-trained into VI and got sent to Ent AFB in Colorado Springs, Colo.,” he said. “This whole base was only one city block, but it was probably the best thing in the world for an illustrator. The civilians there were former Disney animators and one guy had worked for Hollywood Studios; in the 1950s he used to do the old movie posters when they were painted. Another guy I worked with was a sculptor and he did some of the sculptures at the Air Force Academy. Being able to work with those sorts of professionals really set the standard for me and showed me what could be done in that career field. They always told me, ‘if you’re going to do something, do it right the first time.’ I was able to pass that on to a lot of younger Airmen later on.”
During his assignment at Carswell, Stillwell’s primary job was just as interesting as the people he worked with. He was tasked with drawing panels of an Air Force cartoon character named “Triangle Man.”
Stillwell, along with his coworkers, worked every day to make at least 10 panels of Triangle Man that would create a moving picture if played one after the other. They would draw different facial expressions on his oval head and glue it on his triangle body with appropriate hand gestures. From there, the panel would be photographed and put on film strips to be played almost like Claymation.
His work was seen all across the Air Force community as these film strips were copied and sent to bases across the country and the world. But Triangle Man wasn’t the only work of art Stillwell provided the Air Force during his time in the service.
“One of the coolest things I got to do was work for the Air Force Orientation Group in Ohio,” he said. “We got to build all of these fantastic exhibits and displays and tour them across the country. One of the best shows was “Gifts of Flight” – it taught the importance of staying in school. I averaged about 200 days on temporary duty a year. You’d be gone about 40 days and then get a month off. We also had a great art department that could do virtually everything. We screen-printed all of the banners for the Welcome Home parade for the Desert Storm Airmen in 1990. I also did portraits of the Outstanding Airmen for Airman Magazine for four years in a row, but one of the best things I got to do was some artwork for the Air Force art collection. I was among some of the first enlisted active duty to have art accepted into the collection. I did a watercolor painting of an A-10 aircraft and submitted that to the art collection and it was accepted.”
Stillwell also draws portraits of Medal of Honor recipients for dedications across the country. To this day, he’s provided drawings of four individuals to be hung in the buildings named after them.
Stillwell spent many days apart from his family as his job, especially as a part of the Air Force Orientation Group, sometimes required him to travel. While he enjoyed the travel, it was sometimes rough for him to leave his home life. However, every time he changed stations, his family was very supportive when it came to moving.
“My wife enjoyed every place we went with something new and something exciting,” he said. “Our daughter was born at the Air Force Academy during graduation day, which was pretty amazing. There were jet flybys and everything. All of our kids were born in different parts of the country. Andrea was born at the Air Force Academy; Bobby was born in Wenatchee, Wash.; Rachel was born in Agana, Guam; and Heath was born on Elmendorf. They all got to experience different school systems and different parts of the country.”
Although they embraced travel with open arms, one permanent change of station proved to be a little tougher than the rest.
“When we [moved] from Guam we were supposed to be going to California,” Stillwell recalled. “My family and I had gotten on the plane and they pulled us off the plane and told us our assignment had been changed. So we had to go and pull all of our household goods off of the carrier and repack it to be put on a different carrier to go to Texas. There was no notice – we were already boarded the plane and ready to take off when they pulled us off. We ended up in Guam for four extra days.”
Stillwell’s career was filled with both challenges and excitement. Although his career didn’t start in the direction he wanted it to, he stuck to his dream and ultimately lived it. His artwork has become a part of the Air Force’s history and will continue to influence Airmen both of the present and the future. He will continue to provide the Air Force with incredible works of art, and encourages all Airmen to do the same.
“Learn to do the job right the first time and take pride and ownership in what you do,” he said. “When I did something I wanted everyone to know it was something I worked on. You want to be proud of what you’re accomplishing no matter what that job may be. I think pride in ownership was one of the things that I carried with me throughout my military career.”
Editor’s note: This is part four of a series highlighting the experiences of past military service members.