Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.
By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot and Review
Bernie Knippel, 81, of Wausau
Q: You’re from Wausau, and you live here now. Did you ever move around?
A: I spent 22 years in the military so I went to a lot of places. I spent three years in Okinawa, two tours in Korea, a year in Vietnam, three years in England, and I was in France for awhile.
How did you decide to join the Air Force?
I was 17 and didn’t like school and decided to go. I got in and felt like staying so I re-enlisted.
How did you become involved in the Man of Honor Society?
It’s what I’ve always done. I helped a lot of people out when in the military; I was a First Sergeant and had a lot of opportunities to help people. I joined the Man of Honor because of the way things are run. We don’t have any politics, dues, and no one gets paid for anything; it’s all about people helping people. Helping people is who I am.
What do your duties entail as Secretary?
Everything; I am the secretary, but we all do the jobs together. We have bylaws that all individuals of the Man of Honor Society are equals. We are all the boss in this outfit and it works well. I’ve done a lot of things in the past that we now do here. I’ve been an officer for nine years. All the officers work very closely together.
How many officers are there?
Five. We have a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and sergeant at arms.
How did your experiences in the Air Force shape you into who you are today?
I have done many things, it’s unbelievable, but it made me who I am today. That’s a tough question to answer. The military was my life. I went in when I was 17 and got out when I was 43 so that’s really all I knew.
Was it a difficult transition leaving the military?
No, I was very happy to get out because it was time for me to go. I wanted to go to college so I went for four years and completed a degree in Criminal Justice. I was in Minot, North Dakota at the time.
How long were you in North Dakota?
I retired there and stayed after I got stationed there. I stayed there for 17 years and moved back to Wisconsin because my folks were here. They were getting old and in bad shape so I came back to take care of them.
What were positive or negative aspects of being in the military?
Positives are that you grow up fast in the military. You learn to be a man real quick, learn respect for others, respect what others do, and that it takes teamwork to get things done.
What was one of the most memorable moments during that time?
I have had so many memorable times. When I was going to Vietnam, we were supposed to land at the base, but they were under fire. It caught my attention as to what we were looking forward to. Vietnam was tough and coming back was tough, but I was in a lot of tough places; Korea was the toughest. The first time I was there was hard and the second time was when they took the Pueblo in 1968 and we deployed up to Korea. It was pretty rough going up there with no quarters or anything and it being five below zero; you survive…you get by. You survive by holding the other guy’s hand to keep warm and do what you have to do to get it done.
If you had to give advice to anyone, what would it be?
I give advice every day. Make sure you have respect for others and try to help people when you can; be a good person.
What are hobbies you enjoy?
I don’t do a lot anymore. I try to play golf, but have a bad back. I spend a lot of time here at the Man of Honor Society.
What are favorite memories from living in Wausau?
I left when I was 17 so there wasn’t much from those days. As a kid, we didn’t have anything. We weren’t the rich family in town. My granddaughter always talks to me about when we were kids and I would tell her that we would walk to the grocery store and she wondered why we didn’t take a car. We didn’t have a car and she couldn’t understand it. The Man of Honor means a lot to me, so I spend a great deal of time here talking to others.
What was one moment that has changed you?
When you get married and find the right person, it is a wonderful thing. I have a great wife who is involved in the Man of Honor. She is an associate member and is our check-in gal when you come in the door. She does a wonderful job, a lot of work, puts up with me, and that’s not easy. We have a great outfit here. We had a 9-year-old boy that donated $109 to us. He saved for a year and I arranged for him to come down here and we had a meeting and made him an associate member; we gave him a shirt and a hat. I wrote a nice letter for him that he will have the rest of his life. It doesn’t matter if it’s $10 or $10,000, but it’s the thought behind everything.
What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote is from General MacArthur. He said: “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
The memories are never gone until you’re dead. Some people have a lot of memories; some good ones too.