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Celebrating Our Vets

These 8 vets followed their passions after their tours of duty

WING MAN: Retired Marine Art Nalls has a thing for old jets

When I told my friends I was buying a Harrier, they thought I was crazy. I drive a 10-year-old pickup. But my passion was for flying the Harrier jet, and I put my money there. I won't be able to pass the flight physical forever. So I train replacement pilots. I don't need to be flying one of these planes to keep it flying.

Art Nalls, 62, is a real estate developer in the Washington, D.C., area.

 

THE COAST IS CLEAR: Coast Guard vet Vincent Patton helps launch the next generation of sailors

My brother Greg went into the Navy when I was 10 years old. I wanted to follow in his footsteps, so when I was 14 I joined the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, a leadership program for young people. I learned things such as knot tying and firefighting, and spent time on a ship. Being a sea cadet taught me essential tools that I carry with me today: responsibility, attention to detail, and understanding the value of courtesy, respect and your personal appearance.

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The day after my 17th birthday, I went to join the Navy. I told all my friends; I was so excited. I walked into the building and saw a gentleman in uniform talking on the telephone. He said, "Have a seat. I'll be right with you." As I sat down, I looked on the wall, and the ships were white, not gray, and they said "Coast Guard." I had walked into the wrong recruiting office, but I was too embarrassed to walk out.

I looked at all the pictures on the walls, and I saw a commendation for a dramatic rescue in Alaska. The ship was on fire, and the Coast Guard saved the day. So I decided I would join the Coast Guard. Two years later, I was involved in a rescue just like that one.

We had a deep level of respect for the sea. We knew what it could do — we were always out rescuing people — so we respected the ocean and loved it. Over my career, I was on three ships and spent six years at sea, and I loved every second of it.

The Coast Guard also ingrained in me a desire to help, to work toward a greater good. I had always been interested in theology, so when I hung up the uniform in 2002, I went off to divinity school and spent two summers in Haiti, where I worked in schools and managed a food-distribution center. I also volunteered as a trauma counselor and taught at-risk kids how to sail.

Today I'm on the board of directors for the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, back where I had started, going on 50 years ago. I tell the cadets how much the things I learned as a cadet have helped me over the course of my life. It's really about being a good citizen, learning about the country and the Constitution. It teaches them teamwork, awareness, how to handle an emergency situation. And they are exposed to life at sea.

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I've been retired now for 13 years, and that's what I miss most: going to sea. You're out in this wonderful area of the world, the deep parts of the ocean, that few people get to experience. Seeing the sun rise and set over the water, feeling the ship pitching in the waves, being on this man-made vessel that can power through all kinds of rough weather — that was such a tremendous rush for me.

Vincent W. Patton III and cadets at the Washington, D.C., Naval Yard. Patton, 60, served as master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard and is executive director of an educational foundation in Fairfax, Va.

 

 

WILD BLUES YONDER: Ex-paratrooper Paula Boggs jumps into music

My first guitar came from a Richmond, Va., pawnshop. I was all of 10, but it was love at first strum. I started jamming with other kids and writing my own songs.

I joined Army ROTC at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I was a serious student but a flaky cadet. Seeing that, my professor of military science sat me down and said, "I think you need an edge — you need to go to Airborne School."

"Whoa, sir," I blurted out. "You have me confused with someone who's not afraid of heights!" But he was persuasive, so off I went to Fort Benning. As I was gliding down through the sky on my first jump, "Sailing" by Christopher Cross came into my head and stuck there. Four jumps later, I earned my wings — one of the proudest moments of my life.

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I delayed active duty to attend law school, then practiced law as an officer at the Pentagon and the White House. Ultimately, I became general counsel for Starbucks in Seattle.

After taking a songwriting course at the University of Washington, I formed a trio with a bass player who heard me at the final recital and a drummer I met on MySpace. We began doing open mike nights, often with just a few hardy souls in attendance. By 2010, the Paula Boggs Band was playing "soulgrass" — my word for our roots in folk, rock, jazz, blues, country, gospel and bluegrass. Two years later, I took early retirement. I've focused on my music ever since.

Song ideas come to me as I read, walk or just recall my experiences of love, loss, joy, heartache or humor. When faced with a tough challenge, I simply imagine I'm leaping from a perfectly well-functioning plane into the unknown.

Paula Boggs, 56, just released her second CD, Carnival of Miracles.

 

 

STARS IN HER EYES: The Air Force introduced former astronaut Eileen Collins to the wonders of astronomy

As a child, I learned very little about astronomy in school. We were only taught that there were nine planets, which revolved around the sun, and that ancient peoples thought the sun revolved around the Earth. Unfortunately, we never learned about deep space, nebulas, black holes or supernovas.

My first Air Force assignment was in Enid, Okla. That's where I discovered the clear skies, and I was excitedly in awe of the multitude of stars. I could see the Milky Way galaxy from my backyard! I bought two telescopes and joined an astronomy book club. I learned the constellations, knew all the major stars and followed the tracks of the planets. I trained jet pilots then, and I later became an astronaut and commanded two space shuttle missions.

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Stars look the same in space as they do on Earth, though they don't twinkle, because there's no atmosphere. As astronauts, we were required to know how to find primary stars by looking out the window. With a star tracker, we could identify our position in space. You can use the stars to navigate, and it's a very precise science but also an art — but people have lost that art. In the shuttle program, we didn't study the stars as much as the early astronauts did.

The space shuttle flew very close to the Earth's surface, about 200 miles away. We were exploring only a very small amount of the Earth's neighborhood. There's so much more to learn out there. Cosmology is my ultimate interest now, understanding the makeup of the universe and its origins.

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When my children were younger, I'd take them out to a dark part of the neighborhood. We'd look at the sky, and I'd point out the constellations and the planets. I live in a big city now, and it's hard to see anything in the night sky, but someday I will move out to the country and get myself a nice telescope. I do have an observatory named in my honor at Corning Community College, in New York state, which I visit once in a while.

From traveling in space and studying astronomy I've learned that it's not all about me. All these little things in life that distract you and frustrate you — whether it's something wrong with your house or car, or something that didn't go right at work — it's just not that important.

We're dots on the surface of a ball that's spinning, hurling itself around a sun, in a universe that's so massive, we don't even know how big it is. To me, that's just mind-boggling.

Eileen Collins, 58, lives in San Antonio. A retired astronaut, she now serves as vice chairman of the Astronaut Memorial Foundation.

 

 

THE ART OF THE MEAL: For legendary chef — and French Navy veteran — Jacques Pépin, painting and cooking both scratch the same itch

Not long after I came to America in 1959, we rented a house in Woodstock, N.Y. A lot of people up there were painting, so I did it, too. Did I think I had talent? I don't know about talent. When I do some things, like cooking, I just like it. When I paint, I eliminate a lot. It's like cooking and then arranging a plate of food. With a rabbit or a pheasant, I can add cilantro and tarragon and maybe mushrooms and white wine. But then you add this and that, and all of a sudden it's no good. When I paint, I want to be able to put my eye on it and focus.

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My paintings are always about food in some way. Lobsters, chicken, garlic. I can't escape it. I would say my inspiration for cooking and painting comes from dishes from my childhood. The smell of the roasted chicken my aunt made. Baked pears or apples every fall. Food — it means security, it means love, it means home. The day before yesterday, I am in the woods with my dog, and I smell the mushrooms and the soil, and all of a sudden I start to feel very powerfully, overwhelmingly, that I am 8 years old and walking in the woods with my father and brother, picking mushrooms. That is the music.

When I cook, I give it with the most love to whoever I'm feeding. And they eat with gusto, I hope, and I feel rewarded. And when I finish a painting, I give it to a friend and I say, "Enjoy it," just like with eating.

In cooking, we have rules. I was in the French Navy from 1956 to '59, as the chef for the president. When you serve dinner to the prime minister, it must be proper. There are rules; it is military, very strict. In painting, the only rule is that I do it and at some point I stop. Is it good? I don't know, but I'm satisfied. For years I painted in oil, until at least 1978. Then I changed to acrylics and watercolors. I don't know the reason.

Most of the time, I start with a bit of pencil, to grow some shape. I start working on this, putting down blues next to greens. And maybe within an hour, the original idea may be lost. I'm doing it out of what's on the canvas now. And I have some taste in my mind, a ratatouille or whatever. I try to let the shape and the color take hold of themselves, take hold of me.

I don't have anything to prove with my painting. I cook for people, to make them happy, and I paint for people. I give a painting to my daughter, and I want to make her happy. I want her to remember that her father made it for her and that it was made with happiness. That's really what it's all about.

Jacques Pépin, 79, has published 25 cookbooks. His latest is Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul in the Kitchen.

 

Personal Best Vets Eldonna Lewis

 

HOG HEAVEN: Eldonna Lewis Fernandez found a new freedom in the Air Force — and afterward

When I'm having a stressful day, I can hop on my Harley and the stress just melts away. I always feel better after I take a ride. It makes me a happier person.

I had a pretty rough childhood. Both my parents were alcoholics, and my mother died when I was 12. When I was 18, I came home to an empty house and an eviction notice, so I was basically on my own. I didn't know what to do with my life, and then I saw a commercial for the Air Force. It was like the family I didn't have. It gave me a support system. People understood me, and I thrived. I ended up at the rank of master sergeant and retired in 2003 after 23 years.

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The first time I took a ride on the back of a motorcycle, I wanted to learn to ride. When I got orders to go to England, I bought the Harley-Davidson Softail that I have now. It's midnight purple with a pink emblem and flames. I saw most of Europe from the seat of my Harley. I rode all over England, Scotland and Wales. I rode across Germany, France, Italy, Slovenia, Spain and Norway. And I met so many great people.

A few years ago, I rode a dirt bike on a trip with 11 other women — from Anchorage, Alaska, up to the Arctic Circle and back: 2,500 miles. I exercised for 12 weeks before that trip. Riding on the dirt is different from on the street. You use more of your body and your strength. You have to focus more because of the rough terrain.

I hear a lot of women say, "I could never do that." But you can. I'm 5 feet 5 inches, 125 pounds, and my Harley weighs 626 pounds. It's definitely a great conversation starter.

When you're in a car, it's more of a spectator sport. You're seeing where you need to go, but you're not experiencing it. On a bike, I've felt the spray of the water on my face going along the Pacific Coast Highway. I can smell the freshness of a forest. I have to lean my bike to go through a turn, being one with the road. It puts me in a meditative state.

Motivational speaker Eldonna Lewis Fernandez, 54, is the author of Think Like a Negotiator.

 

 

HEAVY MEDAL: For retired National Guard Gen. Gary Huffman, every object tells a story

My wife, Deb, talked me into building a little cottage behind our house where I could display my military memorabilia. I call it the villa, after the place I lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina as the commander of NATO forces there. Once a week, one of my old military friends will come by. We'll sit with cups of coffee and swap war stories. There are photographs of soldiers I served with, and a replica of the battalion colors of the unit I commanded in Iraq. They remind me that it's a big world, and no one is a solitary ship; with every assignment, there were others who made me successful. We all have a network of people who help us accomplish what we accomplish. Except for my Purple Heart. That one is personal.

Gary Huffman, 63, retired as a brigadier general from the Mississippi National Guard in 2012. He lives on his farm in Chickasaw County, Miss.

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PIANO MAN: At 100, World War II vet Irving Fields prefers to play "the music of forever"

When I wake up in the morning, I check to see if I've made the obits — and I haven't yet — and then I get ready for the high point of my day: playing the piano. There's nothing more natural to me. I've been playing since I was 8, and have gotten to play with or meet the greats: Sinatra, Milton Berle, Kate Smith, Jackie Gleason. Ava Gardner used to dance to my music with her shoes off.

In 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was drafted into the Army. They found out I could play and sing, so they put me in the Special Services and told me to form an orchestra to entertain the troops. The only good musicians I could find in my camp were a drummer and a bassist, so I formed a trio. People told me later it was one of the first piano-bass-drum trios in jazz history. When I got out of the Army, that's the kind of band I formed. I figured if it worked for the soldiers, it would work for everyone else. I went down to the musicians' union and found two guys, Michael Bruno and Henry Senick. We ended up playing together for nearly 40 years!

Waking up every day knowing I'm going to play keeps me young. The music I prefer is what I call the music of forever — Gershwin, Sinatra, Chopin, Jerome Kern, you name it. I concentrate on the melody — that's what keeps great songs great, years after they've been written.

When I perform, it's like giving a Carnegie Hall concert in a restaurant. People stand up and applaud. They come to hear me play in my own style, and they make requests. I tell them I'm a musical chef. I ask them, "Madame, do you want your Chopin rare, medium or well done?"

And I'm still getting better! I'd never been able to play one lightning-fast passage in Chopin's "Minute Waltz," not for decades. But one year ago, I told myself that, despite the carpal tunnel syndrome in my left hand, I would learn to do it. And I did.

When I turned 100, I was treated to a cake in the shape of a grand piano. They put it right on top of my grand piano and sang "Happy Birthday" to me. I was as happy as a boy.

Pianist and composer Irving Fields, 100, plays regularly at the Park Lane Hotel and Nino's Tuscany Steakhouse in New York.

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