SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Master Sgt. John Anderson likes The Beatles. However, unlike most who serve in today's military, Anderson remembers The Beatles from his youth.
"Yeah, I've had a 'Long and Winding Road'," the 58-year-old Connecticut Air National Guard member mused recently about his military career -- and the group's final No. 1 hit in 1970. "I used to watch the Ed Sullivan Show (where the band made its American TV debut in 1964) all the time."
Anderson is deployed as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning NCO in charge for the 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron, which is part of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing here. He is closing in on a 20-year military career and will be forced to retire at age 60 in early 2014.
His 20 years of service began with two years of active duty, starting in 1972. Eight years in the Guard followed. And then, remarkably, a 21-year interruption in service before returning to the Guard in 2003.
"John has always been a guy where ... no matter what you ask, the answer is always 'Yes'," said Lt. Col. William Neri, Anderson's commander both at home and here. "I trust him implicitly. The experience he shares with his guys is not just from the military, but from life."
Keeping it cool
Anderson has always, perhaps unintentionally, cut against the grain.
"I signed up at 17," he said. "I wasn't even out of North Branford (Conn.) High yet. My parents had to sign the papers for me to get in."
When he joined the Air Force, the United States was facing some difficult truths. The nation's military was in the final stages of a humiliating setback in Vietnam. Popular support for the troops was arguably at an all-time low -- particularly among the young baby boomers of Anderson's generation. President Richard Nixon, increasingly unpopular, would soon be forced into resigning the office to avoid impeachment.
The home front wasn't much better, with inflation running high and good jobs becoming scarce.
"I knew (joining the military) was about the only way out," he said. "The only way I was going to find anything was to join the military."
So the geo-politics of Southeast Asia and the "counter-culture" of his generation mattered little to Anderson.
What he found was a life-long career vocation with air conditioning and the pride of serving in uniform.
"I told (Air Force recruiters) I wanted (an air conditioning repair position)," he remembered, thinking back to his childhood fascination with coolant systems like refrigerators. "They guaranteed me A.C. I was pretty excited."
While many just want to be fighter pilots, Anderson's aspiration were different from the start.
"I realize now (the recruiters) must have thought that was pretty funny," he laughed.
Base closures in 1974 forced Anderson to consider his options, among them being leaving active duty if he could find a Guard or Reserve unit that would have him and double his enlistment. The process was known as Palace Chase.
"That's when I joined the 103rd," he said of the Connecticut Air National Guard air control squadron, which is still his home unit today.
Making a decision he would later regret, Anderson left the Guard in 1982.
"I had a lot of family pressures: kids, my job," he said. "It was tough to give up even one weekend a month."
Anderson left, but the fire still burned. Through the rest of the 1980s and all through the '90s, the pull of service was still lurking deep inside.
"I really didn't want to leave," he said. "I felt pressured into leaving."
When patriotism kicked in
But he moved on, starting his own heating and cooling service and repair company in 1988. Anderson also spent several years as a teacher at a vocational school, passing on his knowledge to high school kids and hoping to make a difference.
Eventually, Anderson made his way back to the Guard.
"I was thinking about benefits," he said. "When you own your own business, the money can be great ... but you're on your own."
After beginning the process in the summer of 2001, Anderson severely injured one of his heels on the job. While recovering from surgery in the hospital, he watched the World Trade Center towers crash to the ground.
Like millions of others, he had an angry, visceral reaction to what he saw.
"That's when the patriotism kicked in," Anderson said. "I had to get back in and do my part.
"The Air Force had given me everything ... my whole career came from what I first learned in the Air Force."
It wouldn't be easy. Anderson had a metal plate and screws in his foot that would need to come out for him to have any chance of getting back in the Guard.
A year passed before he was finally rehabilitated enough to have a second surgery to remove the plate and screws. Finally, in 2003, Anderson was able to return to military service.
He came back to an Air Force he did not recognize. The forward-based, Cold War nuclear-centric Air Force he left in 1982 had transformed into an expeditionary, forward-deployed, stealthy, smart-bomb centric force.
"It knocked my socks off because almost everything had changed," Anderson said. "As far as the Guard, it had become more regimented than it had been in the past. I actually liked it more because it was closer to being like the active Air Force."
Leaving a legacy
Anderson hasn't missed many opportunities to do his part. He's deployed three times to Southwest Asia and numerous times to support disasters in his home state.
His current assignment has offered Anderson a real opportunity to leave a legacy, both by mentoring his Airmen and helping others all around the base.
"Everything he teaches me ... it means a lot," said Senior Airman Oshane Callam of Stamford, Conn. "It's not just about our work here ... it's family experience, business experience. He's like a second father. He makes me have a lot of hope for the future."
The 22-year-old Callam said Anderson's example and teachings have inspired him to focus on completing his education and starting a business.
Recently, Anderson has received praise from wing leadership for significant help he has provided the base's expeditionary civil engineer squadron. He offered up his expertise to the civil engineers and others, who wisely took him up on his offer.
"His efforts have been fantastic," said Chief Master Sgt. Freddie Davis, 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron superintendent. "For starters, he's bringing about 24 years of experience working on larger, more complex systems like at the (dining facility).
"If anybody has been to any of the DFACs and enjoys how cool (the temperatures) are, they will be able to appreciate what he's done for us."
Anderson, who is fit and looks years younger than his age, has two regrets: leaving the Air Force in the first place and, because of his age, knowing his time for mentoring Airmen is growing short.
"Anybody can teach them the stuff that's in a (technical order)," he said. "I've been trying to teach them what's not in the TO"
In another year or so, Anderson's "long and winding road" with the military will end.
"He's a terrific individual with a very supportive wife and family," Neri said. "I guarantee you he will be missed by this unit."