April 18, 2013

‘This was always home for us’

Campbell returns to Dalton after finishing Air Force career

Charles Oliver

— Bob Campbell had to sell his car to go to college after graduating from Northwest Whitfield High School in 1978. But his father, a career Air Force man, suggested a different plan.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you consider ROTC, maybe you can get an Air Force ROTC scholarship?’ I was like, ‘I don’t want to join the Air Force. I don’t want to cut my hair.’ Two years later I was in the Air Force,” he said.

Campbell recently retired as a colonel after 33 years in the Air Force, and he and his wife Elaine have returned to Whitfield County.

After graduating high school, Campbell spent a year at the University of Georgia before deciding college wasn’t for him.

“I probably went a year too soon. I wasn’t ready for it, and I didn’t do as well as I hoped to,” he said. “We got married. We bought a house. We both had good jobs, and we were making decent money. I worked as a warehouseman, and she worked for Procter & Gamble. This was in Michigan. She’s originally from Michigan.”

But Campbell said he wasn’t happy.

“I’d come home and say ‘I hate this job. I ought to join the Air Force,’” he said. “Well one day I came home and before I could change, she said, ‘You’ve got an appointment with a recruiter.’ So I talked to the recruiter, and I decided that was it.”

At his retirement ceremony at the Pentagon earlier this year, Campbell said a general asked him why he’d joined the Air Force.

“I had to think about it, and what I finally came up with was that I was looking for family. I was used to that Air Force camaraderie as an Air Force brat. I was used to being able to go anywhere and make friends, that close-knit felling, and I was missing that after my dad retired,” he said. “To me, it was like going home.”

Campbell served eight years as an enlisted medical laboratory technician while going to school at night.

“It took me eight years to finish my degree. My final school was Rollins College, a small school in Winter Park, Fla.,” he said.

After finishing college, he passed officer candidate school and was commissioned as an Air Force second lieutenant.

“I was what we call an air battle manager. I fly on AWACS (airborne warning and control system) and Joint Stars aircraft. When my kids ask me ‘What do you do?’ I tell them it’s like playing three-dimensional chess with air assets, making sure that all the parts and pieces are where they need to be based on the overall plan,” he said.

He did that for 25 years.

“We’ve lived in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Okinawa, Germany. And I spent a year in the Middle East,” he said.

It was while Campbell was stationed in the Middle East that he and his wife moved back to Dalton.

“We knew that my retirement was coming up. So she found a house, and over the last couple of years we’ve been part-time residents,” he said.

Elaine Campbell grew up in Michigan, but her sister was a teacher at Northwest. So she would come to Dalton during the summers and during holidays. That’s how the Campbells met.

“Dalton was like home to me, too,” she said. “And it was home for our children, too. Whenever we said we were going home for Christmas or home for vacation they knew we were talking about Dalton.”

Bob Campbell said there was little question they’d be coming back to Dalton.

“When you retire from the military, you either chase a job or chase a location. And we decided to chase a location. This was always home for us,” he said.

Campbell may have retired from the Air Force but he says he isn’t ready to sit back and rest just yet.

“I’m going to go to (the University of Georgia) full time and get a master’s and take care of all my teacher certification requirements. I hope to come home to teach high school science,” he said.