For Milton Freels, a library technician at the Sweetwater Valley Library in Austell, working in his part-time role as a public servant is a good fit. He knows many of the library branch’s patrons by name. Many ask about him when he is away.
Freels, a long-time Powder Springs resident, has worked in corporate and public service positions since starting in the 1960s. He has been on the Sweetwater staff for almost 12 years.
“When I was a kid I spent many hours in the library,” the Kingston, Tenn. native said. “I enjoy working for the library, I wished I’d started earlier.”
Retirement “is not in the foreseeable future,” he said.
For Veterans Day 2016, Freels is sharing how his life and work ethic were largely shaped by his military service.
Freels credits his decision to volunteer and join the U.S. Air Force at age 19 as pivotal for turning him from having limited job opportunities into a worker committed to service for decades.
The decision put him on the path of getting his direction in life and work skills. It also was fateful. In 1964, while stationed at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, Freels received orders to go to Vietnam.
Milton Freels flew about 9,000 miles from home to serve as an airman supporting operations of an air base. He would live through two major historic events of the Vietnam conflict in the one year and four days he served in Vietnam as an aircraft ground equipment repairman at the Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon.
As Freels was first in Vietnam, the U.S. commitment was essentially limited to training and support roles. He was there as the war flared up when President Lyndon Johnson and the military commanders ordered a shift to combat involvement.
On Halloween night 1964, just after midnight on November 1st, mortars were dropped on the airbase by the Viet Cong, the first attack in Vietnam against American servicemen. Five Americans were killed and dozens injured. It was a nerve wracking night, Freels said.
Perimeter security at the Bien Hoa air base was handled by the South Vietnam forces through much of the time Freels was there. That would change as the Americans and their aircraft were targeted by Viet Cong forces.
In early May of 1965, 3,500 U.S. Army combat troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived – the first American ground troops to land in Vietnam – and Freels was there to watch as many exited the aircraft.
“Man, we were glad to see them,” Freels said of the arrival of the troops.
Among Freel’s duties was to move not-yet-fused bombs at the base. The air base was increasingly active, he said.
Two weeks after the arrival of the combat troops, one of the biggest disasters in Air Force history occurred at Bien Hoa. Historical accounts show that the demand for ordnance led to several bombs being placed near the aircraft outside of the storage area. On May 16, 1965, a jet on the ground exploded, and several bombs went off in the disaster. The explosions killed 27 men and wounded many more.
Freels was off-duty when the disaster occurred, but his memories of it are vivid, he said. He participated in disaster recovery operations. After the accident, American troops took over perimeter security.
After Freels’ year in Vietnam he remained in the Air Force and left military service in 1966. “I’ve been working ever since,” he said.
Elaine and Milton Freels are celebrating their 54th wedding anniversary on November 10th. The couple has a daughter and a granddaughter.
The interview for this article is the first public account of Milton Freel’s military service. He learned much from those four years, including sound work habits like arriving on time each workday, he said.
“The military is a great career,” he said.
Freels said he has a direct and downhome approach to serving the Sweetwater Valley library patrons. It’s a place he enjoys.
“This has been my home right here, Sweetwater.”