EDITOR'S NOTE: This story appeared in The Register's Salute to Veterans Special Section that published on Nov. 8, 2019. Copies are available at The Register's office on Big Hill Ave. during normal business hours.
Serving his country. That's what George McMakin says Veterans Day means to him.
The veteran with almost 24 years of service to his name noted he doesn't like to brag about his army life. However, when recognition is given, McMakin said he feels honor.
"I only wear my hat because I'm proud of my wings," he said beaming and pointing to a U.S. Army veteran hat with a set of wings pinned in the center.
Growing up in Frankfort, McMakin said he was attracted to the military at an early age, likely inspired by his father who retired as a Navy lieutenant commander that had served in WWII. His mother was a registered nurse.
Further spurring him toward the military were hobbies such as the Boy Scouts and hunting with his father, McMakin recalled.
At 18 years old, right out of high school, McMakin enlisted into the U.S. Army. It was 1962 and during the Vietnam conflict.
"My platoon sergeant in basic training told me I was going to be a lifer," McMakin said. "I enjoyed it, I really did."
Having had two years of learning to type during high school, McMakin sought a communications focus in his military career and was sent to the Philippians as part of the 1961st Communications Group responsible for information routed throughout Southeast Asia.
"I had teletype," he explained. "It was a relay station. In other words, we had (more than 100) teletype tapes coming in, and we would take them and reroute them to the location where they were to go."
McMakin was then sent to Okinawa, Japan, to a 4-Star general's headquarters.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1964, McMakin was stationed at a missile site in Seattle, Washington, to handle nuclear codes as a crypto operator.
"Most of my communication was in bunkers," he explained.
Reenlistment brought McMakin back to Kentucky in 1965. His first sergeant at Fort Campbell was a glider soldier from WWII and immediately took a liking to McMakin, making him his company clerk after learning of his typing skills.
The young soldier would get to work typing the company report at 3 a.m. and sometimes wouldn't end his day until 8 p.m., after having been sent to type for the battalion and the support command. He also served as the company's supply clerk.
While at Fort Campbell, McMakin also became a paratrooper and went to single engine rotor helicopter training and was placed in a maintenance battalion.
In 1966, McMakin had a major parachute accident during a training mission when his first and secondary equipment didn't deploy correctly.
"I was at 1,500 feet," McMakin recalled. "I was the next to last one out of the plane and beat the first one to onto the ground."
McMakin was transferred to 142nd Transportation Company in 1967.
After he was honorably discharged later that year, McMakin had short stints working at a Butternut Bread factory, in construction and as a policeman.
In 1971, the lure of the military called once again. McMakin joined the Army National Guard and became a helicopter mechanic. For 18 years, he worked as a civil service technician and then as a test inspector during weekdays and as military intelligence on the weekends.
Officially retiring in 1989, at an E-7 rank intelligence sergeant and with 12 medals, the longtime military man recalls his career fondly.
"I enjoyed working for the government and helping people," McMakin said of his long time in service. One specific memory, McMakin said, was when strong tornados hit Kentucky and the National Guard was sent in as aid.
"We probably spent 19 hours a day (out there), Martha Layne Collins made me and the rest of them Kentucky Colonels," he said.
Following his military retirement, McMakin returned to a life of service by working for FEMA for seven years as emergency communications.
"They would send me out for two months at a time for disasters," he said, noting he continued the job until he was 67 years old.
Now, McMakin now finds himself staying true to his roots by working with the Madison County Emergency Management providing back communication through HAM radio. He also has found continued brotherhood through the American Legion.
Such camaraderie is important throughout one's military career.
"It was just like brothers and sisters," he said of those he served with. "You're family. It doesn't matter what race you are or where you're from. You have people from all walks of life...you get together and you become a team."
Two sons have followed McMakin into military service and continue their family's patriotic linage.
To young men and women considering a military career, McMakin suggests finding a focus that can help them excel during their service but also transfers skills to civilian life following retirement.