Soldier to the bone: Veteran continues military service
NATCHEZ — When Ben Tucker finished college at 24, he was a couple of years older than most people at that milestone, and he hadn’t seen much of the world.
“I finished college, but I wasn’t ready to look for work yet, I wanted to travel,” he said. “Someone I knew suggested the military.”
That suggestion would ultimately send Tucker to Italy, and later, twice to Iraq.
Tucker went to a U.S. Army recruiter and asked if any available positions would allow him to travel. This was during the Vietnam era, but at the time the recruiter could only offer him stateside assignments or a placement with an airborne unit in Vicenza, Italy.
Tucker signed up. He did basic training at Fort Polk and airborne training at Fort Benning before serving three-and-a-half years with the 509th Parachute Infantry in Italy.
It wasn’t the toughest assignment in the world, serving Uncle Sam in the Mediterranean region.
“The Italians were a great, easygoing people,” Tucker said. “I loved Italy.”
After serving in Italy, Tucker spent six months at Fort Bragg before he reached his term’s end.
Tucker left the Army. But before long, he was looking to re-enlist. Four years hadn’t been enough.
“The military was in my bones, it was a part of me,” he said.
This time he joined the U.S. Army Reserve, linking up with the Reserve unit in New Orleans because he had family members there. A year of traveling to New Orleans later, he joined up with the Army National Guard unit in Natchez for a year before joining the Louisiana National Guard.
Then, one day in 1990, he got the call. Tucker was going to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm.
Tucker was operating out of a base in Saudi Arabia, driving a truck every day to transport Iraqi prisoners of war from one location to another.
Looking around the region, Tucker observed those who lived there fell only into two classes, very rich and very poor.
“It was interesting, to say the least,” he said. “The prisoners would ask for food, cigarettes, but they could speak very little English. When they were captured, they pretty much just surrendered because they were hungry.”
After nine months of hauling prisoners, Tucker was able to come home and take care of some unfinished business.
“When we left out, the City of Vidalia gave us a big send-off, but it really saddened me to sit there on that truck and watch my then girlfriend as we drove off, she was in tears,” he said.
“As soon as I got back from Saudi Arabia, we got married and we adopted two kids.”
Twelve years later, Tucker had to see the same scene play out again, except this time, his children Amelia and Chris joined his wife Gloria in shedding tears beside the road.
Tucker went back to Iraq in 2003 as part of the first thrust of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
By then, he had been promoted to platoon sergeant, and served as the leader of a transport convoy moving equipment across the country to the front lines.
“It was really challenging, really scary at times,” Tucker said. “I passed through areas where convoys had been hit, or would pass through an area and the next day a different convoy would be hit, but I was always blessed.
“It was scary, but it was what you were there for, and you just got out there and got the job done.”
He spent nine months in Iraq.
His time with the Guard ran out, and Tucker returned — for the first time in years — to a civilian life that didn’t include a connection to the military.
But that didn’t last. When he heard about a job opening for a caretaker at the Natchez National Cemetery, Tucker applied and took it on.
These days, as the caretaker at the cemetery where veterans are buried, he still spends his time among military men, women and their families.
Sometimes, it even allows him to travel, just like he wanted when he originally signed up in the Army recruiter’s office all those years before.
“I love this job because it is soldiers dong jobs for soldiers, and I am a soldier to the bone,” he said.