Richard Alvarez knew at age 14 that he wanted to fly.
"I flew every chance I could. I got in every small plane I could," he said. He also felt called to serve. Six years later, he became "An Officer of Marines."
Today, Alvarez is Radford University's chief financial officer and vice president for finance and administration. Serving more than 24 years in higher education is a radical career change from his 23 years in active military service but still in character for a man for whose lifelong mission has been to serve. He is quick to point out, there is no such thing as an ex-Marine.
Alvarez was sworn in on May 28, 1965, and reported to U.S. Navy flight school in Pensacola, Fla., on June 3. He received his naval flight officer wings and commission on Jan. 1, 1966, and reported to fighter attack Squadron 314 at Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C. It was the first of five fighter attack squadrons in which he served over the course of his career.
In Beaufort, he prepared for deployments that took him around the globe, including stints in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. He later earned his naval aviator wings and moved to the front seat of the F-4 Phantom II. The F-4 is a fighter interceptor and tactical bomber used in close air support of Marines in combat on the ground. The plane is capable of delivering 12,500-pound bombs and can attain a speed of more than twice the speed of sound (Mach 2+). It was used by the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force as the primary fighter-attack aircraft during the Vietnam War. Alvarez completed 255 combat missions over both South and North Vietnam.
In recalling his time in Vietnam, Alvarez said this controversial era cannot be understood or accurately described by anyone who did not experience it firsthand. Without going into great detail, he said the films about the conflict in Southeast Asia are far from reality. "Fear was a luxury we had little or no time for. … You do it, and then after it's over, you wonder how you made it through the hailstorms of anti-aircraft fire."
It's always easy in retrospect to find things that could have been different with a war, Alvarez said, but he realizes history cannot be changed. "We came home to people who spit on us, cursed us and threw paint," he recalled. Yet he carries no bitterness, only unwavering patriotism and devotion to service.
One definition of war is fighting for freedom, he said, but another facet is the maiming and killing of young men and today, young women, in the prime of their lives. Civilians are killed too. "No one should confuse a real war with the movies' theme of glory and adventure."
The experience of losing a close friend in battle inspired Alvarez to undertake and accomplish a personal mission. After more than four decades of searching, he recently located the son of a friend mortally wounded on a combat mission in early 1967. "Just before we departed on a mission, my squadron mate told me how much he loved his wife and five children, and how much he missed them." The friend was lost on that very mission.
"I tried to find his family for more than 40 years to tell them about those final words," Alvarez said. "Just a few weeks ago, I got to relay the message to his second son. That was a heavy burden I had borne, and it was a relief to complete the final Vietnam mission."
He asks anyone visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., to find his friend. "I tell them to look for the name of Captain Harold J. Moe, U.S.M.C."
The difficult days of military service were balanced by many exhilarating and happy times, and Alvarez tells those stories too: of an "unofficial flight" through the Grand Canyon nearly clipping high power lines and of flying "to the fringes of outer space." Yet some stories, even today, are just too painful to tell. "You don't want to burden people with those."
Alvarez retired from active service in 1988 after a final tour of duty on the faculty at Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico. If he were recalled to service right now, he would not hesitate to answer, he said.
Just as questions linger long after a war has ended, military veterans' experiences are always part of what defines them, and bonds of friendships made in combat cannot be broken. Alvarez recently flew to California to pay one last visit to his dearest friend, with whom he served in Vietnam. "I held his hand as he died."
Alvarez would tell those considering a military career that it is an honorable yet dangerous calling. "It's a wonderful life experience," he said. "It will prepare you for whatever career you choose."
He considers his years of service to his country as a privilege. Every time he hears a military jet fly over RU, he says to himself, "That's the sound of freedom."