On Veteran’s Day, I took a moment to honor Ricky Potter. Many years ago, when we were both in uniform, I was his boss, and he was my teacher.
Sergeant Ricky Potter grew up in the South, born into a black family with no privilege. His muscular frame and impeccable bearing exuded pride. An athlete in high school, but lacking grades for higher education, he joined the Army to find opportunity.
In early 1983, less than a year out of college, I met Sgt. Potter at my first duty station in West Germany. As a brand new second lieutenant, one of the least glamorous jobs awaited me: Support platoon leader, the unit’s chief logistician.
Sgt. Potter was maintenance shop foreman, the NCO who kept millions of dollars of equipment running. It was a daunting task, and the times didn’t help. The Army’s professionalism had eroded during its 1970s transition to an all-volunteer force.
But by the time I served, the post-Vietnam party was over. Rigorous physical training was back. A high school diploma was the minimum standard for enlisted recruits. Crew cuts and spit and polish were in. Drug testing started up. DUIs became career killers.
Sgt. Potter was in the middle of it. Early on, he sensed my trepidation; even youthful bravado couldn’t hide it. One evening, he stopped by my office to reassure me: "Sir, you’ll be OK; I’ll take care of you.
Spoken like a seasoned NCO to a rookie officer. Sgt. Potter was tireless. He helped the lesser performers. He rode the slackers. He gave me daily pointers, and admonished me when I made a fool of myself. Importantly, he respected the gold bar on my collar, never showing me up in front of our troops.
Sgt. Potter also worked on self improvement. Long before online learning existed, he always packed a correspondence course book in his rucksack. He took classes, be they military or civilian - anything to earn promotion points and college credits. As he once said: "Sir, I got little kids now; what kind of example am I gonna be as they grow up?"
Ricky Potter’s promotion to Staff Sergeant was one of my proudest days in uniform.
Yet shortly thereafter, the unthinkable: Sgt. Potter was struck by lupus. Everyone in the unit was shocked, but confident he could prevail. Initially out for a month, Sgt. Potter returned to light duty. Over time, we saw that spring in his step returning, and those books back on his desk.
Eventually, my motor pool purgatory ended and I was tapped to lead a firing platoon, with its sharper troops and sexier combat mission.
But just a few weeks later, I came to work one morning and my commander broke the news: Ricky Potter had died in his sleep. He informed me that I would be the Potter family’s survival assistance officer - a lieutenant’s most dreaded peacetime duty.
The CO reasoned that my replacement was too new to the unit to accompany the deceased soldier’s family - to help settle legal affairs, pack up their home, make arrangements, and see them off to the States. He gave me a three-sentence leadership lesson: "You were Ricky Potter’s boss. He trained and respected you. You owe it to him."
I was 23 years old; really, just a boy. Yet that weeklong crucible changed me forever. Being with Mrs. Potter and the kids officially ended my youth. Several times a day, she dropped her head on my shoulder in tears. Her infant daughter kept asking for Daddy, and little Ricky Jr. didn’t seem aware that anything was amiss.
Somehow, I handled their needs. When we drove to Frankfurt for their flight home, I promised Mrs. Potter I’d stop in Tennessee someday to visit Ricky.
It’s been 29 years, and I’ve yet to keep my word. I’ve driven through Tennessee a few times since then, but there was always somewhere to get to, and more miles to go - always an excuse, but never a good reason not to pay my respects to one of the finest Americans I’ve ever met.
So on this Veteran’s Day, my salute went his way.
My commander was right: I owed it to Sgt. Potter. Often, over lunch, we’d sit together in the motor pool and I’d help him with his courses - the way to a better future. For his part, Ricky Potter took me under his wing and taught me things that college never could, lessons I rely on to this day.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.