Col. William “O’B” O’Brien ’64, USAR (Ret.) reflects on life, life lessons, and heeding the call to serve
Editor’s note: The follow essay is adapted from a speech O’Brien delivered at the 2019 Gloucester Veterans Day ceremonies in Massachusetts.
When we view our life’s journey and time here on Earth as a race against time, we learn to appreciate every minute. We’re also able to continually measure our progress in the personal and professional goals that we strive for. Over the course of my own life and career, I found four tenets that guided my own journey: First, establish a work ethic that creates financial stability and independence. Second, achieve professional respect and recognition. Third, maintain family relationships. And finally, attain the self-respect to be comfortable in one’s own skin. In my view, these four principles define our personal legacy and determine how we will be remembered. The challenge is how to keep all four in proper balance over the course of a lifetime.
Although I was born in Brooklyn, my family moved to the shores of Great South Bay in eastern Long Island when I was still a child. I grew up in a community that has for generations been influenced by the beauty and power of the sea. It was where I learned to re¬spect the natural order of things and our inability to alter the course of nature, especially the implacable force of the shore’s weather—wild nor’easters, ice, fogs like pea soup, full-blown hurricanes. It was there that I came to appreciate the language of the sea, a language short on words, full of action, and rich in metaphor. Cast off. Ready about. Drop anchor. Batten down the hatches. And my favorite: A rising tide lifts all boats.
The language of the sea served me well charting and navigating my own journey. Learning how to row a boat and to tack into the wind provided lessons that would guide me throughout my life. Yet, as a young teenager, the opportunity to fish, duck hunt, clam, and beachcomb also provided distractions that took a toll on my academic achievement. The realization that my poor academic performance disqualified me for an appointment to West Point served as a brutal wake-up call. I was further discouraged by going zero for six in college admissions. Fortunately, my mother came to the rescue. She called the admissions director at Norwich and got me accepted as the last cadet in the Class of 1964.
At Norwich, I began my call to service. (I would ultimately spend two years on active duty as an Army lieu¬tenant, and 26 years as an officer in the reserves. It’s a path that I share with so many Norwich alumni.) My graduation from Norwich in June 1964 coincided with the start of the Vietnam War. Our role in the military was challenged by those for and against the war. There was no middle ground. We came of age quickly. It was an era of student pro¬tests, inner cities burning, the civil rights movement, and political rifts so deep they tore families apart. In 1968, I served in a civil affairs unit that trained during weekend drills to deal with anti-war protests. During the week, in what would later grow into a 20-year career, I worked in the administration at Princeton University, protecting the rights of students and faculty to protest the war and apartheid. This experience initiated my search for the common middle ground, which I grew to think of as the “high moral ground.”
With the end of the war, my attention as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve turned to creating a role for the military in domestic disaster relief and recovery operations. My initial encounter was in 1972, when flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes devastated towns along the Susquehanna River in northeast Pennsylvania. Working with civil defense, federal, and state agencies, we assessed damage, expedited relief supplies, and made recommendations on how to plan effectively for future natural disasters. Several years later, a February blizzard in 1978 devastated the New England coastline with snow, ice, and high water. We spent several weeks operating out of Naval Air Station Weymouth, assessing the damage to determine how preparations could have been in place to reduce the disruption and suffering caused by this storm. I remember learning that huge bulldozers and front-end loaders were air lifted in all the way from Arizona to clear the snow from Massachusetts Route 128. Yet similar equipment found at nearby Fort Devens could have just as easily done the job.
The true test of my role as a citizen-soldier came in October 1983. The Cubans were building an airfield on the small Caribbean island of Grenada. At the same time, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, was blown up with the loss of 256 lives. President Reagan ordered a task force to eliminate the Cuban presence on Granada and then to continue on to the Mediterranean as a show of force to stabilize Lebanon. My civil affairs brigade was assigned to CINCLANT, as part of the task force for this mission. I was ordered to deploy with two six-person teams of civil affairs specialists to Grenada in support of the operation, which was named Ur¬gent Fury. I vividly recall driving to my reserve center and being told I was to be deployed. The next day, I drove to Fort Bragg, N.C. Joined by my teams, we boarded a C-141 Starlifter to Granada. Since there was no actual reserve call-up and the operation was classified, I couldn’t even tell my wife Kay where I was.
I believe that a call to service originates within a community culture based upon a foundation of caring about improving the human condition. I come from a family with a long tradition of military service. My grandfather served as a Rough Rider with Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish–American War. My father served in the Navy during World War II on a troop transport in the Pacific theater, transporting Marines to the battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. My cousin, Col. Peter Cuthbert ’51, served as an armored officer in Korea. So as a young boy, I had always thought of pursuing the noble career of a professional soldier. And I did.
Now, years later, every time I pass the sign for Concord and Lexington, I think of what I may have in common with those Minutemen who answered the call, grabbed their muskets, and engaged the British.
In addition to his military service, Bill O’Brien worked for 20 years at Princeton University, serving as outreach activities director and vice president of health and policy. In 1998, he joined Obik, LLC, as a senior strategic advisor. He lives in Yardley, Pa., with Kay O’Brien VC ’65, his wife of 54 years.