FORT BELVOIR, Va. >> A homemade wind chime with the word "Whining" under a red slash is made from metal parts put in his leg after a parachute accident. Every Sunday he trims his crew cut. He didn’t join the Army willingly, but as Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger prepares to retire, he’s grateful he found his calling.
Mellinger was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, and the Army believes he’s the last draftee to retire, after 39 years. Most did their two years and left. But Mellinger had found home.
"I think I’m pretty good at it, but I like it. That’s the bottom line. I love being a soldier and I love being around soldiers," he said.
Mellinger’s motto is simple: No whining — as the wind chime attests.
When the draft notice arrived in the mail in 1972 at his home in Eugene, Ore., tens of thousands of troops had been killed. Anti-war protests were rampant. Draft cards were being burned and returning soldiers were treated as part of the problem. The military wasn’t a popular job.
The return address on the letter was the White House. Just 19, he was impressed that President Richard Nixon would write to him.
"I opened it up and it said, ‘Greetings from the president of the United States.’ I said, ‘Wow, how’s he know me?’" Mellinger said, laughing. "It was a form letter that said my friends and neighbors had selected me to represent them in the Armed Forces and I was hereby ordered to report for induction."
Mellinger told the draft board there was a mistake.
"I … told them I don’t need to go into the Army, I’ve got a job," said Mellinger, who hung drywall for a living. "They just kind of laughed."
Once the path was set, he said, he didn’t consider trying to find a way out.
He heard so many war stories in training that he was fired up about going, and was disappointed he was instead assigned to be an office clerk in Germany.
In Germany, Mellinger immediately stood out with his positive attitude, short haircut and mastery of physical fitness skills, said Bob Myers, 64, of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, then his company commander who now runs a chain of convenience stores. He replaced a soldier in trouble for illegal drug use, Myers said.
"He wasn’t a part of that culture and everyone knew that," said Myers, who was instrumental in getting Mellinger to enlist when his draft term was over.
Mellinger wasn’t long for clerking. He earned a spot in the Army Rangers, and would go on to do more than 3,700 parachute jumps. And despite the 1991 parachute accident that gave him the material for the wind chime, breaking his leg in several places, he went on to run nine marathons. He was made a command sergeant major in 1992.
Nearly a decade later, he was sent to ground zero in New York right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of an advance party from the First Army. Then came his time in Iraq as the top enlisted soldier of the multi-national forces in Iraq, where he says he survived 27 roadside bombings during his deployment of nearly three years straight.
Mellinger, 58, says his stories of being in the Army during the tumultuous 1970s as the Army struggled with issues of drugs, race and the role of women are so foreign to young troops that they look at him like he’s a dinosaur when he shares them.
A recruiting poster hanging today on Mellinger’s office door at Fort Belvoir, where he’s the command sergeant major for the Army Material Command, that encourages female troops to try out for female engagement teams that work in war zones with Special Forces troops shows just how much things have changed since Mellinger was drafted.
Until 1978, female troops were in the Women’s Army Corps separate from the regular Army. Mellinger said he recalls when most female troops weren’t allowed to carry weapons and were taken out of the field at night to sleep in a separate barracks away from the men.
"There were some stymied leaders. What do we do with all these females?" he said. "A lot of those things together caused a lot of turmoil, caused a lot of difficulty and problems and a huge leadership challenge because the military was being torn apart like the country was."
Mellinger understands well the tragic side of soldiering. He knows 40 to 50 people buried at Arlington National Cemetery and goes to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit wounded troops and their families most weekends he’s in town.
It was in a hospital room in 2009 that Jill Stephenson met Mellinger, who was standing near the bedside of her son, Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, 21. Mellinger had heard that Kopp, a fellow Ranger, had been shot in Afghanistan and he went to see him. Mellinger immediately embraced Stephenson, she said.
"It was the most compassionate, caring hug around me that I ever have received from a stranger. It was very comforting," said Stephenson, 44, of Rosemount, Minn.
Kopp died soon after. Stephenson has since stayed with Mellinger and his wife, Kim, on multiple occasions while in Washington to attend ceremonies at Arlington cemetery, where her son is buried.
Several soldiers who served directly under Mellinger in Iraq have reached out to him to talk about their combat-related mental health issues. One was a soldier who rang his doorbell and said he was haunted by the memory of helping to collect the remains of a fallen Marine, and he was bothered that he didn’t know the Marine’s name.
"I told him his name and we sat and talked for several hours," Mellinger said.
Mellinger said he has a roster with the names of the 2,614 troops killed, the 19,304 wounded, and two missing in action from his time in Iraq. He wears a metal bracelet with those numbers sketched in it in their honor.
Mellinger’s happy with the set-up of today’s all-volunteer force, but he does think the contributions of draftees have been forgotten, particularly since there’s such a romantic notion that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, everyone "ran down to the recruiting station." In reality, thousands were drafted in that war and many others, he said.
"Draftees are pretty maligned over time," he said, "but the fact is they are part of every branch of service up to 1973, and when you look at what those military branches accomplished over time, I’ll let the record speak for itself."