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Wilcoxen had nearly 50 years of military and civilian service


Staff writer

It was 1956, just a few years after the Korean War. And Bob Wilcoxen, couldn’t wait to enlist in the Marine Corps.

“It was the most patriotic thing you could do. To serve your country,” Wilcoxen said recently at one of his favorite restaurants in Lexington Park.

At 17, Wilcoxen’s parents had to give their permission for him to join. But from there, he served 20 years, including as an infantry unit leader in Vietnam. By then, he was 28, “the old man,” leading a group of 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds, his wife, Ruth, chimed in, sitting across from him in a booth.

Wilcoxen was named Veteran of the Year by the Joint Veterans Committee of Maryland in March. At a dinner at Elks Lodge 2309 in Crofton, Wilcoxen was honored for his service, which the committee said included presidential security detail for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, orders to Vietnam in 1967, service in Okinawa, Japan, and security work at Fort Meade. Wilcoxen retired in 1975 and, the committee noted medals he’d earned, including Bronze Stars and a Navy Commendation Medal.

Wilcoxen went on to work for the Department of Defense, finally retiring at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in 2004.

His career included more than 47 years of active military and civilian service. And, he has been a member of the Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, the American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Marine Corps Commandant James Amos were among those who sent Wilcoxen letters of commendation. Local officials, including the St. Mary’s County commissioners and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), also offered their thanks and congratulations.

All of the letters were bound in a program printed for the day of the banquet.

Wilcoxen is state commander of DAV Maryland and also served as past chair of the Joint Veterans Committee of Maryland.

“It is a great day, indeed, when we are able to recognize someone who has made a tremendous contribution to the Department for nearly 50 years,” Hagel wrote. “Whether fighting on the battlefields of Vietnam or helping fellow veterans in need, truly you have emulated the meaning of the Marine Motto, ‘Semper Fi!’ I am proud to consider you as one of my brothers-in-arms.”

The county commissioners wrote, “you have dedicated yourself to help the heroes who have sacrificed so much to protect our freedom.”

This latest honor “was a highlight for my career,” Wilcoxen said.

Now, at 74, Wilcoxen thinks back on times of war that are sometimes difficult to process. When asked what it was like in Vietnam, he said, “to put that into words would be kind of difficult.”

He endured hand-to-hand combat. “We had numerous casualties,” he said. And, he was injured when trying to deflect a grenade that entered a foxhole. Wilcoxen said he was flown out to Japan, where he was evaluated and later sent back to Vietnam, on his birthday, Jan. 8. Ruth said that he still has shrapnel in his body from the explosion.

Later in Vietnam, Wilcoxen went on to teach American troops about Vietnamese culture, tradition and religion. When asked if it was difficult, to get to know his enemies in such an intimate way, he said, “It’s not easy for any individual. But, if it would save lives, would you do it?”

He and another person spent much of their time “in a Jeep, driving all over Vietnam to provide instruction,” Wilcoxen said. He helped teach troops that it was better to diminish their stature, and to speak softly. Many Vietnamese were put off by the image of the big, loud American. He taught them to recognize Vietnamese religious symbols so they wouldn’t be taken down haphazardly (some resembled the German swastika). And, that something as simple as a bird flying from right to left could have been a sign to a Vietnamese soldier that something was happening that needed his attention back home. Many Americans thought their opponents were cowards when they’d just walk away from the battlefield, but there often was another reason, Wilcoxen explained.

One job he was most happy to complete, Wilcoxen said, was helping to convert part of a hospital to a children’s ward. He didn’t have a translator, he said. But it worked, even though they “drew pictures in the sand” at times, to get the job done.

In 1971, Wilcoxen was assigned to Fort Meade. One day, he was responding to an alarm and, running through the hall, knocked down Ruth. They were married May 6, 1977 (5-6-77). “It had to be a date I could remember,” Wilcoxen said, laughing.

Ruth has volunteered with her husband, traveling many weekends supporting veterans and their causes, laying wreaths in their honor.

“It’s been a wonderful blessing,” she said.