By Mari Radtke
Traci (Rohrbaugh) Nelson graduated from Sutherland High School in 1984. She ventured to Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge to learn a bit about Fashion Merchandising. That time was followed by attending the Dental Assisting program at Western Iowa Tech in Sioux City.
With no clear purpose from either educational experiences and a friend going into the Air Force she decided “that sounded like an adventure that was also something that I would like to experience, but I would follow my grandfather’s path and join the Navy!” She joined the Navy in 1986 and was in the DEEP program until she left for basic training in November of that year. She went to Sioux Falls for MEPS, Military Entrance Processing Station and then off to Orlando, FL for basic training at a base that no longer exists. “I remember arriving in Orlando, sometime in the O-DARK THIRTY time of the night. Loading onto a bus with dozens of other ‘recruits.’”
Nelson recalls arriving in Orlando, going through the front gates of the base and emptying out of the bus and instantly being shouted at to form a line. One by one names were called out and were marched off into the night. “A handful of us were left as there were not enough of us there to form a complete company and we would have to wait until the next bus load of recruits arrived. That night, Nelson learned about a quarter deck after spending several hours on one waiting. Things you can’t do on a quarter deck: sleep or talk. “Over the rest of the early morning hours people trickled in until there were enough of us to be moved to this big room, where we spent the next three days waiting for enough people to form a company.” Some details have become foggy over the years, but Nelson recounts one memory of a young guy who had been chewing chew and swallowing it, as it was not allowed and he was afraid of getting yelled at or in trouble. He sticks out vividly in her memory. “As he got sick from it and started running and throwing up and Traci just happened to be in his path and was splattered with his vomit. We had no change of clothing and for the next several days I stunk of his chew…” eww.
Nelson describes basic training as “something so different than what any of us had ever experienced. I would not say it was a top ten on my list of things to do again, but it was too late for second thoughts!” Nelson explained that quitting meant you could be in a hold area longer than basic training itself. “Everything was an earned privilege and they broke you down to less than zero. Myself and my 75f company members needed to work together, win flags in marking, schooling, working with the pieces, which is what the navy called a gin, running, get along and pass inspections from folding our clothing to making our racks, which is a bed!” These activities were the way to privileges. An example of privilege was sitting on furniture, not the floor. She explained “we marched everywhere as a company with one girl calling out commands and a girl calling cadence (singing). Our Company Commanders (CC) walked to the side of us, watching to catch any of us doing something wrong, so that we could be corrected. Corrected meant being screamed at and lots of calisthenics. Cycling is what the push ups, jumping jacks or other exercises were called. Sometimes the punishment was for an individual, sometimes it would be a group effort, which was not a popularity winner.
“Each day was cut out with instruction, rules and more learning. We marched to Chow, breakfast, lunch and dinner, we marched to the grinder (a large cement pad) where all the companies would go to and fall into line in the order we arrived. There we waited, in sun and heat, pouring rain, sprinkles, cold, and wind until our turn to enter the galley. A person standing out front would tell you, ‘you scuff it, yo ubuff it, you smear it, you clear it!’ I remember that clearly as for a long time I had no idea what it meant or what it was even about! Eventually I figured it out. The door frame on the ground was finished brass, that was what you were not to scuff and the glass was what you were not to smear. The entire basse is treated as a Navy ship. The galley door area was treated as a quarter deck, that is where you would enter the ship.”
Nelson spent 9 weeks at basic. For all recruits, one week is “cut out.” She was selected for work in the galley, Navy-speak for cafeteria. That was even longer hours. After Pass and Review, that is the name of Navy grad. So from there she went o to Seaman Training school. It was on the other side of the same training base in Orlando. Seaman school is for undesignated with a rate (job). There she received training in “tying knots, and other basic navy stuff. “We had more privileges than we had in basic training. Here we were no longer called recruits, we could sit on furniture and wear our civilian clothing and we could get permission to go off base!” she said.
Because she did not have a designation after this school, she went from Orlando to San Francisco after graduation and was put into damage control – fire fighting. She was stationed at Treasure Island, located between the two big bridges and having the city on one side and on the other side was Oakland. Alcatraz was off to the side. Nelson spent 6 months there. She even found a couple of boys from home stationed there on the Carl Vinson. The two Marines were Frank Hase and Bruce Hartman, “somewhat like brothers to me. We did meet up and hang out a few times?”
After training in San Francisco the group wne to their first duty station at Naval Air Station (NAS) Adak, Alaska, one of the islands in the Aleutian chain. It is located about in the middle of the 700 mile island chain between the mainland and the end of the chain. “This is where I spent the next 3.5 years of my life,” said Nelson.
Nelson said they left Anchorage on a Reeves air plane full of military and military dependents with a few civilian workers. “Upon arriving my first observation was it was just like Sutherland, only you could not leave! OK, and it had a much bigger population!”
Undesignated seamen could be sent either to the galley or to the fire department. Although she had hoped for the fire department, she ended up with the galley, deciding as time went on that it was a blessing. The fire department schedule was brutal. “The galley was a stepping stone I later decided.” She was there for 6 months, doing all of the duties of an E3. She earned Mess Attendant of the month. “This gave me the opportunity to decide if I 1) wanted to stay in the galley and work, 2) go to the fire department and work or 3) go to the blue shed and work. I picked the blue shed. It was the department of supply.” Everything on the island went through the blue shed, coming and going.
She started in Partial Post working small boxes that came in, some were personal. Some were official and required much more work. She also worked in MAC CARGO with two air force liaison officers. The prepared manifests for large items leaving the island on C-130 or C-141 airplanes. Here she learned from Chief Scrvens that she was falling behind in her promotions because she was still undesignated. She tested for E4 and passed. That gave her the rank of Petty Officer 3rd class. She now worked in supply. She performed in storage bay, small bins and large bins. She was also part of a team to load and unload docked barges. She also ran the base store for office supplies for a time.
Life on Adak was much like anywhere else, USA. On the island you could find a gym, bowling alley, four bars/restaurants. Some were for enlisted, another for chiefs and another for officers. There was a commissary (grocery store), a BX, barbershop for men and women, a McDonalds, a movie theater, library, quick shops roller skating and a hobby building for different crafts and auto working. Fish and wildlife were strong and a million dollar high school for dependents with an olympic sized swimming pool. Hiking, fishing and hunting were all available. There was also an island bird (military plane) for off island trips to Hawaii.
She extended 3 times choosing 30 free days of leave for each extension.
From Alaska back to California. Nelson’s next duty station was Naval Air Station North Island, CA. She was attached to Naval commutation and technology station. She spent 3 years working in bulk supplies of computers for the navy fleet, mostly purchasing of computers and other bulk items. In December 1992 she came up for orders and sea time. She could choose between 3 ships (haze grays), but chose instead to leave the Navy.
When returning to Sutherland she joined the Naval Reserve in Sioux City. During this time she was in supply group. “Our Mob site was Japan. I traveled there three times for my two weeks where we worked in the fisc supply warehouse.”
For about a year she drilled in Sioux Falls.
Eventually the Sioux City reserve hooked up with a new unit out of Washington state, Naval base of Port Haddock. “We are now a weapon ordnance handling unit,” she explained.
At Port Haddock the job was to help with the loading and unloading of ordnance on Navy ships.
In October 2002 she joined the 185th air refueling wing in Sioux City, Iowa. “My son Reid turned two that February. I came home from a seven week school in San Antonio, Texas a few days before his 2nd birthday. I was an honor grad.”
She continued with supply, this time with LRS Logistics Readiness Squadron. She worked in the area of mobility and with real world chemical gear.
She deployed three time with the 185th. Her first tour was to Qatar, then then a couple years later she went to Kuwait. Her final deployment wsa in January of 2018, back to Qatar. Nelson remembers her deployment to Qatar and Kuwait fondly. She stays in touch with several of the people she was stationed with there. “Over the years I have been blessed to work for and with such good, wholesome people aht we develop such depe relationships that we become a family, our military families.”
In March of 2020, before the world went upside down she retired from the 185th and the military world. “I went to the 185th to finish my 6 years I had left to complete 20 for retirement. I have heard it said days pass by slowly, years go by fast. Reid was 2 and in February of 2020 one month before my retirement he turned 18. I guess when something is good it’s hard to give it up! I retired with 33 years in service.”
By Mari Radtke