Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Dennis ' History

denny.jpg Dennis Ward Stiles was raised on a small dairy farm in northwest Illinois. That life was good preparation for his experience at the Academy and in the Air Force. The family was happy, but the work was relentless -- long hours, no days off, no electricity or running water for years. Spartan was normal. He attended a country grade school, all eight classes in one room. His local high school was so small that it was easy to be on every team, in every club, in every local spotlight. That looked good on paper, and helped with with applications.

He went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, for three years, and kept changing majors until an Army ROTC instructor suggested that he try for one of the military academies. The Air Force said yes. The night the acceptance came was the first time he every drank -- got so drunk with a bunch of fraternity brothers that he passed out at 3:00 AM face down in a stack of pancakes in the railroad station.

College credits and athletics made the Air Force Academy a little less intimidating that it likely was for many others. He didn't take the shouting and name-calling very seriously. The competitiveness and great range of experience were well worth the effort, and offset the silly part. He never did like haircuts -- still doesn't. He was very fond of General McDermott, the Dean, and found General Strong, the last Commandant in that era, to be a misguided or misplaced zealot who poisoned the upbeat mood.

Like many others, he graduated and got married on the same day. He still has the degree, but the license was revoked many years ago.

The first assignment was to graduate school at Georgetown University, in DC. It was a hurry-up masters program, a special deal cooked up between the schools. It was a bad concept, one that required two semesters of classwork and a thesis in half the normal time. He read himself nearly blind, and had so little money that he worked part-time in a furniture store to pay for groceries, while his wife worked at a nasty awning and shade company in a rough part of the city. The rent for a really crappy apartment took half his paycheck. To end things on the perfect sour note, movers packed up his hand-carried pay records and trucked them to Texas while he sat typing thesis revisions three feet away. Broke became broker.

He had signed up for a special helicopter flight training sequence. The first phase was at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, in T-28's. The plane felt like a WW II fighter. That was fun, and the extra money was better than good. A plate of Tex-Mex food was only about $1. From there he went Reno AFB in Nevada, for H-19's and H-3's. The hardest two weeks in his entire career came at the end of that stint -- cold-weather survival in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The temperature was 22 below. It was the first and last time he ever hugged a male roommate (tentmate).

That was all preliminary to Southeast Asia. After some H-3 transition work at Patrick AFB, Florida, and a wonderful jungle-survival experience in Panama, he made the long haul to Thailand. His unit was the 38th Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Udorn, where there was a library, a movie theater and a bar with drinks for a nickel. He was usually in more exotic places, with free water. Late in 1966 he and a dozen of his H-3 friends were sent to Nha Trang, Vietnam, to fill in a gap in a UH-1 unit which did recce missions up and down the coast, along with some infiltration and exfiltration work with Army helicopters. The difference between command and control in the two services was interesting. The Air Force was all for centralized operations. The Army (then) ran ops on a sort of "Find something to do, and go do it," basis.

One of the truly low points in his career came late in the Huey assignment. His commander was a drunk, a captain who woke the crew up a 3:00 AM one morning in Saigon and said, "You have to fly General Momeyer to the Parrot's Beak early tomorrow." He assured us that there would be an escort to navigate. Right . The detachment had only been in South Vietnam for a couple weeks, and never in that part of the country. There was no guide. Roads on the map were covered over by jungle. He and his pilot got lost, and flew into Cambodian terriroty, turned around into safe airspace -- but not before the general's staff had figured out where they were. That began a visit to one of the lower rings of military hell.

He wasn't anti-war, but had doubts. Later, after Tet, the doubts would multiply.

After the SEA time, he was in a strange H-3 unit stationed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then shifted to Dover AFB, Delaware. The mission was so classified and so absurd that even now he can't drop a hint.

He went to Squadron Officers School in 1968. Back in Dover, he got an unexpected letter of congratulations. He had been picked for fixed-wing training! He said, "No, thanks." A month later there was another letter which said, basically, "Think again, your answer is yes -- or else." So back he went to Randolph and T-38's. The Air Force at this point, he would learn later, was in a major battle with the Army over roles, missions and helicopter resources. The Army won.

After racing around upside down and sideways in the T-38, he elected to stay in Rescue operations, and took an assignment in HC-130s at Woodbridge AFB, England. The Suffolk setting was wonderful. Constable country. Much of the flight time was over the Atlantic, back and forth between the UK and Keflavik, Iceland. He did a lot of two-week alerts Iceland, with racketball at 3:30 in the morning. There was time for private travel all over Europe. He always thought that flying a C-130 was like flying a cow -- but it was a nice cow and got the job done.

He got promoted. Then came the Armed Forces Staff College, with the Pentagon waiting just after. He was in an interesting long-term planning office for a couple years, living near Fort Belvoir and making that basic commute along the Potomac. Certain staff successes brought attention from the Chief of Staff's office, and he was made the Assistant Executive Officer under General David Jones and later under General Lew Allen. Both chiefs were affable, but kept a distance in the perpetual battle at that level to protect time. The work was interesting. The hours were long -- so long that they turned into an almost a surreal loyalty game. Some of his compatriots moved into trailers in the Pentagon parking lot. He learned, among many other things, that the military-industrial complex highlighted by President Eisenhower had never died, and that the Air Force was not an epicenter of power in the Washington community. He got divorced. He got remarried. It was wild and bruising time.

Love of foreign languages was one of the legacies he carried forward from college years. He had kept up some fluency in French, and had formal proficiency scores on his Air Force record. One day, out of the blue, the Personnel Center at Randolph called and asked if he might just consider an assignment to the French War College in Paris. He said, "Oui -- don't hang up." Those two ensuing years in France were the best of his life. He and his wife, Mary Jane, lived in the city center, a five-minute walk from the Tour Eiffel. The school was relaxed -- its motto, "One should reflect." It was another time of personal and professional growth. His French classmates were spirited and warm. He became more than ever convinced that if only undue arrogance hadn't blocked the flow of discussion, the American government could have listened to French cautions and eased its way out of Vietnam many years and thousands of deaths before 1975. Ego is a terrible demon.

On leaving that honeymoon assignment, Dennis chose to follow an operations rather than a senior staff channel. That was a mistake. He was named Director of Operations for the 314th Military Airlift Wing at Little Rock AFB. Back to the C-130, this time in a more diverse mission. The flying was a straightforward extension of what he had done before. The ever-recurring inspection pressures were annoying, but his far deeper conflict was with base culture. Under the Reagan Administration, Air Force conservatives in the field felt empowered to assert their personal values. Church attendance, wives' clubs, and old-fashioned family tradition were important measures of professional worth. He and his wife, meanwhile, had drifted far to the political left. She worked in a center for raped and abused women (senior officers' wives saw that as about half a step above a strip club). He mowed the lawn, usually shirtless, on Sunday mornings and read the New York Times. He and Mary Jane were not exactly shunned, and had no particular performance issues, but came to feel like prospects for an exorcism.

Haunted by his more stimulating years in Washington and Paris, Dennis one day called an acquaintance in the Pentagon and asked if there were any openings in the Attache field. It was good call. Soon enough, the interviews were over. He and his wife found themselves in an intense year-long Arabic language training program in Rosslyn, Virginia, prior to a long assignment as the U.S. Air Attache in Egypt, with simultaneous accreditation in the Sudan. There were a few growls and bitter feelings behind him, but to the Air Force's credit, the system turned almost totally toward the Embassy life ahead.

He and his wife spent over four years in the Middle East, often exhausted and sometimes swallowing pills for amoebic dysentery, but always feeling good about the work, the professional atmosphere and the sense of contribution to national interests. The social whirl was just that -- often out or hosting six nights a week -- and the C-12 airplane was far more a distraction than an asset, but the level of satisfaction was very high. There were serious issues -- the Iran-Iraq War, border tensions with Libya, and the radicalization of the Sudanese government, just to name a few

As a follow-on to Egypt, he was given a choice between Algeria and Austria. Austria sounded greener. He spent the last seven years of his Air Force career in Vienna, with separate temporary work in Slovenia and Slovakia. Communism collapsed. The wall came down. Mary Jane took a position with the International Atomic Energy Agency in the UN. There was always more work than time.

He left these experiences with great respect for the State Department and for the various American Ambassadors he served, both the Department pros and the political appointees. Among them Swanee Hunt stands out in his mind as the best, a whirlwind one minute and a sensitive diplomatic breeze the next. Amazing people -- the whole Embassy crowd.

Next came 1994 and retirement. He and Mary Jane thought about California, got some housing prices, brought reality to realty and thought again. They settled instead in far more affordable Charleston, South Carolina. It's been a happy choice. It's a cultural city, sporty, uncongested, and there has been snow four times in twenty years. Dennis has owned tour companies. At one time (before the recession), his group operated in eight locations including the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. Now, an aging street-walker, he keeps his focus local. His company is Old Charleston Walking Tours, Inc. He has been active as a poet, with widespread journal publications and one full-length book, The Fire in Which We Burn. Mary Jane gardens. Dogs rule, whenever the cat takes a nap.

He looks back with great fondness on his Academy years, and is proud of his time there. He was always, from the beginning, a sort of hippie in uniform, but disguised those leanings well enough to have a rich and varied 30 years of service. Would he do it all again? You bet!

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