Listen to Veterans’ Stories – Kevin Kraft
There are four organizations that Hank Carrico respects more than any other: the University of Notre Dame, the United States Army, Florida State University, and the Catholic Church.
He displays these allegiances proudly. Catholic crosses and images of Mary and Jesus adorn the walls of nearly every room of his house in Macclenny, Florida. His sweatshirt loudly proclaims, “Go Irish!” He switches between an FSU cap and one that bears the names of various Army troops he’s served, possibly choosing which to wear based on his varying mood.
He’s 63 years old, and those 63 years can be split fairly evenly into about four sections. The first 22 years, he grew up, going to school and college. The next 20 years, he worked in personnel management for the US Army. For 19 years after that, he worked as a club manager in the private sector. Now he’s been retired since 2016.
Carrico is the kind of man that is filled to the brim with interesting stories. He’s one of those people where if you talk to him long enough, you’ll find yourself listening to one of his many tales, many of which are loosely connected to whatever you had been talking about before.
Often his stories contain little to no relevance to the conversation at all. They merely manifest. You can talk to him about something completely average, and you’ll soon find yourself listening to a story about his time in Turkey, or how he shared a class with former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana at Notre Dame.
In the Army, Carrico was not a fighter. He wasn’t on the front lines, taking bullets for freedom. He did what is referred to as “rear echelon support.” He ran officer clubs, organized ceremonies for awards, and processed evaluations, mostly. It would have taken nothing short of a full-scale Communist invasion for him to ever see combat.
Some might think this is dull work. But you forget any previous notion that this might be boring when you listen to his stories. They have a way of captivating you. He speaks excitedly of everything he’s done and everything that’s happened to him.
He loves to talk about pranks that he and other people pulled. It’s one of his favorite topics.
“Another lieutenant dressed like ‘middle of the night alert.’ I assumed by looking at him that we were under alert. I got dressed — fully dressed for combat. I went to report in to my unit and no one was there. He put a picture of a fish on the door. He said, ‘You have been hooked.’”
“As soon as you saw the picture of the fish, you knew you got hooked. Faked out. You bit on the bait. Yeah. So I jacked that lieutenant’s car off the ground and I put cinder blocks underneath. When he tried to go to work, his tires just started spinning and the car didn’t move. He didn’t know that, because he was inside the car. He assumed his car was broken, so he took a taxi to work. So I pushed his car off the blocks when he came home, and it worked just fine.”
But just when you think you’ve got him talking about one subject, he’ll seamlessly switch to another one entirely.
“There’s over 600 clubs throughout the world — most people don’t know that — 600 clubs all over the world run by the Army, and four hotels… they’re called ‘recreation centers.’ There’s one in Germany, one in Hawaii, one in Korea, and now there’s one at Walt Disney World. It’s called The Shades of Green.
“We ran our own clubs when I first went into the Army… When the military got smaller, they wanted the military to stay in combat arms and combat arms support, so they ‘civilianized’ all the club management positions. So I was one of three guys who wrote the club managers’ course and taught college kids coming out of hospitality school how to run military clubs.
“One time we were writing that class for club management and we had a Nerf basketball goal in the office. Whenever we’d get stuck on a subject or something, we’d play basketball. And so this colonel came by — he was our boss’s boss! — he comes by and he sticks his head in the room and we’re playing basketball at 3:00 in the afternoon.
“He goes, ‘Captain Carrico, Chief, what the hell are you guys doing?’
“We go, ‘We’re brainstorming, sir.’”
He was very excited to tell his story of the time he got to use a flamethrower. He insisted a new question be added to the interview that allowed him to talk about the flamethrower.
“When I was in ‘Summer Camp’ (read: ROTC “Summer Camp”), they have certain weapons that cost a lot of money, that one person fires and the other 200 guys watch.
“The guy is in the middle, at the 50-yard line of a football field, and he said that day they had a flame-thrower out there.
“So we were waiting for the instructor and when they got ready, they said, ‘We need a volunteer!’ As soon as he said, ‘We need a — ’ I jumped up and started running as fast as I could. I ran right to him, and he says, ‘Well, that was fast!’
“You put it on like a backpack, and it’s heavy. Probably weighs around 60–80 pounds. Two tanks, and it’s got a blower like a leaf blower. In front of me, about the distance from home plate to a pitcher’s mound, is two 55-gallon drums full of water with a third 55-gallon drum of water on top of those, like a pyramid.
“He told me to twist the igniter, and you just barely touch the trigger, and fire starts dripping out. It’s made out of airplane fuel and sawdust. Sawdust so it sticks to whatever you’re shooting at. The main thing it does is it takes away all the oxygen wherever you shoot it.
“I fired it up and it started bleeding, and he goes, ‘Pull the trigger and walk the flame up to the barrel.’ So I pulled the trigger and fire started coming out of it like crazy. It’s burning up the ground in front of me, it’s black, and I looked it all the way up to the barrels, and he goes, ‘Full blast!’
“I pulled the trigger all the way back, and it goes BOOOOSH! All these flames are hot on my face, and I’m going, ‘Whoooooah!’ In like, two minutes, it was over. And the barrels were melted, and all the water ran down onto the ground. That’s how hot it was. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’”
He rarely talks about more serious topics, but they will come up from time to time. He briefly glossed over the fact that he used to work in the same part of the Pentagon that was hit by the plane in 9/11, and that he knew people who were killed in the Pentagon on that day. He also speaks less happily of his final days with the Army, and what caused him to leave.
“The politics of Washington.” He speaks glumly of how that bleeds into the military.
“We have capital funding annually for golf courses on base.” A senator from Alaska who was on the Armed Services Committee called and threatened to get the military budget cut by $2 billion if Fort Wainwright in Alaska didn’t get nine new golf holes. More than likely, the Alaskan senator wanted non-appropriated money for his state in order to look better.
“The Secretary of the Army asks us, ‘How much does nine holes of golf cost to build?’ … If we’re gonna build it in Alaska, it’s gonna be $5 million. So he says, ‘Well gentlemen, I can’t tell you to do it because it’s non-appropriated funds, but help me out here. If you don’t spend $5 million on these nine holes of golf, he’s gonna take $2 billion from the military budget. Do you know how many tanks $2 billion will buy you? Do you know how many rounds of ammunition $2 billion will buy?’ So we looked at each other and we were like, ‘Well, looks like we’re gonna have to build that golf course.’
“So I was a little disillusioned when I was at the Pentagon as to the politics that are involved in funding.”
So he decided to retire from the Army. And after 20 years, he was able to leave with a pension and medical to boot. He had just been turned down for an assignment in Hawaii, and his father was dying of renal failure. He decided it all added up. It was time to go.
“I started thinking I wanted my sons to know their grandpa. That was on my mind, so I decided to put in my retirement papers.”
Hank Carrico was commissioned as an officer by the U.S. Army in May 1977, when Jimmy Carter was president, the original Star Wars had just hit theaters, and Elvis Presley was newly dead. He left in May 1997, when Bill Clinton had just won reelection against Bob Dole, Hong Kong would soon be returned to China, and America was abuzz over the Oklahoma City bombing. Two decades later, his stories can be as captivating as if you were experiencing them yourself.