AOPA Regional Rep Reflects on Military Service

By Ariadyn Hansen

Long-time Grand County resident, syndicated columnist and novelist Bill Hamilton feels the Fourth of July is a wonderful time to reflect on those who have served in the military in the past and who serve so nobly today.

Although Hamilton refers to himself as a “recovering lawyer,” he never actually practiced law because, after leaving the University of Oklahoma, he became intrigued with serving in the infantry. He stayed on active duty for 20 years, decades that included the Army Language School, a covert intelligence assignment in Europe, command of several infantry companies around Southeast Asia, a tour with the Air Force, high-level staff assignments, a tour with the Navy, and two different battalion-level commands.

“One of the benefits of airborne military training is self realization — realizing your body can stand a lot more stress than you ever thought possible,” Hamilton said.

"As an infantry company commander in Vietnam with the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division, I found myself carrying an 80-pound rucksack up the hills of the Central Highlands in over 90-degree heat and humidity,” Hamilton said. "My mind went back to airborne training in August at Fort Benning, Georgia, and it didn’t seem quite so difficult."

After the first two tours in Vietnam, Hamilton was sent to the Air Force for two years and served as the Ground Liaison Officer to the 19th Air Force and the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing.

Hamilton refers to his F-4 fighter position as GIB, “guy in the back.”

"At the time our wing commander was Colonel Chuck Yeager," Hamilton said. "Colonel Yeager told me to: ‘Get in the back, and don’t touch anything.’"

Little did Hamilton know, he would later be inducted into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame.

At the same time, Hamilton was also a World Wide Contingency Planner for the 19th Air Force.

As a Master Parachutist and certified Jump Master, the 19th Air Force sent Hamilton around the world looking for places where the Air Force might have to drop the 82d Airborne or the 101st Airborne Divisions.

Hamilton recalls when he parachuted into places such as Turkey and Greece.

He said he especially remembers visiting the dusty little ruins at Drama, Greece, where the first play in history took place.

Hamilton said he also stumbled across the ruins of Philippi, the early church founded by the Apostle Paul.

“That was plenty of ‘drama’ for one day,” Hamilton said.

After two years with the Air Force, Hamilton did a second tour in Vietnam where he served for six months as the G3 Operations Officer for his old division.

“Finally,” Hamilton said, “they let me go back to my beloved 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry.”

As a major, Hamilton said he was too senior to command a company anymore, so he served as the battalion operations officer. At the end of that tour, they went into Cambodia for 57 days.

While Hamilton was never a prisoner of war, he recalled being close to a POW camp.

“While in Cambodia, we received some intelligence about a place where American POWs were being held,” Hamilton said. “Along with some very brave chopper pilots, I got to lead a raid deep into Cambodia; however, we missed the POWs by just a few hours.”

While many Vietnam veterans experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Hamilton said he hasn’t dealt with the disorder.

“That was my only ‘if only’ regret about those days,” Hamilton said. “I don’t have any post-traumatic stress from Vietnam other than to wish that we had gotten that intelligence about four hours earlier. Sometimes I think about that.”

According to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, over 23 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD.

Although Hamilton didn’t experience the disorder, to say he wasn’t scared is a different story.

“It would not be truthful to say that I was never scared in Vietnam or Cambodia,” Hamilton said, “but when you are responsible for the lives of others, something happens to your fears and you realize you have important things to do and you have to get on with the job at hand.”

One aspect of Vietnam Hamilton remembers clearly and still uses today, are his memorization skills.

Hamilton recalls having to memorize 20 to 30 radio frequencies at a time.

Hamilton said the signs would change every night at midnight.

“For the next day’s operations, we operation officers would have to memorize or write on the backs of our hands about 20 – 30 new call signs,” Hamilton said. “It was pretty hectic, a mistake could easily get people killed.”

Hamilton said there was a lot of fear that came along with the call signs.

“Due to fear of capture you weren’t supposed to write anything down on paper,” Hamilton said. “So, I used to take a ball point and write on the palm of my hands, but in the heat and humidity it wasn’t long before it disappeared.”

“So I had to train my mind,” Hamilton said.

After Cambodia, the Army sent him to study at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he was named a Distinguished Graduate.

Along the way he also taught sailing at the Newport Yacht Club where he met his wife of 37 years, Penny.

He also found time to earn a master’s degree from The George Washington University.

After Newport, he went back to Europe to command an airborne battalion and, later, an armored cavalry squadron.

In 1979, after 20 years of service, Hamilton responded to the offer of former Nebraska Gov. Charles Thone to become his aide and his deputy director of policy research. Later, the Hamiltons helped manage the political campaign that elected Kay Orr to become the first female governor of Nebraska.

During those years, Hamilton earned a doctorate, taught at Nebraska Wesleyan University, worked briefly with a Wall Street investment-banking firm, and then returned to Lincoln to be the editor-in-chief of The Capital Times.

Hamilton was also recruited by USA Today and is currently a featured commentator and nationally syndicated columnist.

He and his wife, Penny, are also the co-authors of a series of espionage thrillers.

Although Hamilton is coy when it comes to talking about the honors he has received throughout his service, his awards include; the Legion of Merit, the Silver Star, four Bronze stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, the Vietnamese Medal of Honor, and 20 Air Medals.

Hamilton said he wouldn’t trade his experience in the military for anything.

“The 20 years I spent in the military were very rewarding,” he said. “Even if they don’t make a career of it, I think most young people benefit from serving their country in that very special way.”

Hamilton recently reconnected with old friends from the military he hadn’t seen or heard from in over 40 years. This came about after he was named to the University of Oklahoma’s Army ROTC Wall of Fame.

“That generated a lot of media,” Hamilton said. “People from long ago recognized my name and got in touch, mostly via e-mail.”

Hamilton said serving in such a dangerous time helped him form a unique connection with the men he served with.

"Sharing dangerous moments creates a certain bond," Hamilton said. "It is difficult to explain. I have enormous respect for those young men and women who served in Southeast Asia and who are serving today under some incredibly difficult circumstances.”

Hamilton feels our veterans deserve to be recognized as well as today’s troops.

“I hope everyone is sending todays troopers lots of snail-mail, e-mail and care packages," said Hamilton. "Also, our veterans deserve support as well.”

Hamilton is currently involved in several veteran organizations including The Patriot Guard Motorcycle Association and The Association for Intelligence Officers.

Hamilton said he has the up most respect for the men and women he served with, as well as those who are serving our country today.

“The men and women I served with were incomparable,” Hamilton said, “sometimes, when I think about how great they were, it still takes my breath away.”

— Ariadyn can be reached at 970 887-3334 ext 19605 or by e-mail at