03/02/09 — Recruiter who signed up airman was also there for his retirment

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Recruiter who signed up airman was also there for his retirment

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 2, 2009 1:46 PM

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Rae A. Perry/4th Fighter Wing

Chief Master Sgt. Charles Nail, right, is pinned by retired Master Sgt. Del Harris upon Nail's retirement from the Air Force, Friday at Seymour Johnson, after more than 30 years. Harris was Nail's recruiting officer

The familiar hand that stuck an Air Force retirement pin onto Charles Nail's uniform Friday took him back more than 30 years.

He shook that hand back in 1978, when recruiter Del Harris visited his Hickory, N.C., high school.

"I told him, I said, 'Don't give me any bull. I already know I am going to join the Air Force,'" Nail said. "So he told me everything I needed to know -- everything that would happen to me in basic training."

He had decided to join the military seven years before, when he went to visit his brother, Barnie, at Lackland Air Force Base.

"I was hooked," he said. "I said, 'This is for me.'"

But Harris sealed the deal.

"He was a straight shooter. He didn't sugar coat anything," Nail said. "That kind of inspired me."

And he believed in the young man's desire to serve -- so much so that he tried to convince the 17-year-old's father to let him enlist.

"(My father) wouldn't do it. He said, 'Nope. I'm not going to sign your life away,'" Nail said. "This was toward the end of the Vietnam era and he saw some folks come home in a box. He didn't want to see that happen to me."

So the day after his 18th birthday, he took matters into his own hands.

It was Feb. 27, 1979, and Harris was there.


Nail ended up in tech school after he graduated from basic training.

He was trained to be a straight-jet engine mechanic and was assigned to Pope Air Force Base.

"Tech school basically centered around the F-4 so I thought that would be the kind of base I went to," he said.

But Pope did not house fighter aircraft.

So Nail, instead, cross-trained on a new type of engine -- that of the C-130.

The Air Force was everything he hoped it would be.

His wife, Wanda, though, wasn't convinced.

"We got married at a young age, directly out of high school," Nail said.

"At first, she really hated the Air Force. ... Both of us coming from a small town, the only thing she ever knew was home. But we stuck through it."

And in 1982, after the birth of their first child, she finally came around.

"When he was born, we decided at that point that probably we need to stay in the Air Force," Nail said. "I told her, 'Don't play with me now. If you want to stay, I will re-enlist. But if I re-enlist, it's for 20 years.'"

Less than a decade later, the airman left his family behind when his unit was deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm.

"You didn't know what you were getting into, so it was a very tough thing to leave them behind," he said. "But the wife knew I had to do it. I knew I had to do it. It was what I signed up to do."

Nail never thought he would complete 30 years of service.

He didn't expect to climb the ranks of the enlisted -- to be a chief master sergeant one day.

"My vow was, if I ever made it, I would never forget where I came from and I would take care of the airmen," he said. "So that's what kept me going."

And it kept him grounded, as he "always knew" that a career in the military wasn't really about him.

"It's about the people. People make the Air Force. So I have tried to make sure that I treat them the way I want to be treated," Nail said. "I treat people with respect. If I can do that, I can look at myself in the mirror every day."

It was a lesson that had always been reinforced by the man who brought him in.

Maybe that is what made Friday so special.

Nail had grown into the kind of man Harris had always wanted him to be.

"Without (Harris), without the Air Force, I wouldn't have experienced everything I have experienced. I probably would have been working a furniture factory," Nail said. "I'm just proud to have known (him) -- to have been around (him)."