Joining the U.S. Navy just might have been one of the best choices Neil Bixler ever made in his life.
Not only did he see much of the world, but the Navy set him on a course toward his career in computer science.
Bixler, 68, lives in a comfortable home in a rural development where he can take in the surrounding countryside from his back deck and perhaps contemplate his life journey, which included his two years of active duty in the Navy.
“I think things worked out well,” he said. “I have no regrets.”
Bixler, a Williamsport native, joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, when young men were being drafted into the military.
“I had a low draft number,” he said.
Because of that number, Bixler feared he might indeed find himself thousands of miles away from his home fighting what had become an unpopular war.
He was working part-time at Brodart and finishing a two-year year degree in computer science at the former Williamsport Area Community College when he decided to join the Navy.
“I didn’t like the idea of wearing a green uniform and being in the trenches in Vietnam,” he recalled. “Everyone was trying to get in the Navy or the Air Force.”
It turned out he was a good fit for the Navy, which was looking for people trained in computer science.
And so, Bixler went off to Great Lakes, Illinois, for boot camp and later for fire control training.
He learned not to become a firefighter but rather about computer systems connected to guns and radar on ships.
Assigned to the U.S.S. Little Rock, he spent just one day in Newport, Rhode Island, before setting sail for the Mediterranean Sea.
He was understandably excited.
“That was a big deal for me, a kid from Williamsport who’d never been anywhere near water but the Jersey shore,” he said.
In the Mediterranean, he and his shipmates kept an eye on enemy vessels, while tuning their skills.
Soviet and U.S. boats, he recalled, took turns keeping a close watch and chasing each other around the Mediterranean.
“It was all about the Cold War,” he said. “We had nuclear capabilities. We were well armed.”
No shots were ever fired but occasionally Soviet and U.S. ships came in close contact men from each vessel would wave.
“One of the guys I served with was Ukrainian. He would talk to the Russians,” Bixler said.
On any typical day, Bixler might find himself performing tests with the weapons and radar systems to ensure everything was properly working.
Sometimes, it involved shooting practice, often at any number of islands in the area.
“I actually got to shoot a turret one day,” he said. “That was a lot of fun.”
After five months at sea, Bixler’s ship was called back to the states to Norfolk, Virginia, in the midst of the Hurricane Agnes storm in June 1972.
Bixler was in Norfolk several months before boarding the U.S.S. Little Rock for the North Atlantic. He saw quite a bit of Europe during those last months of his service time, visiting England, France, Norway and other countries.
When his two-year full-time military commitment was coming to an end in 1973, he thought long and hard about reenlisting and perhaps making the Navy a career. His father, for one, thought it might be a good idea.
But Bixler figured he might be able to put his computer skills to civilian use.
With his release from the military, he went to work for Sprout, Waldron & Co., Muncy as a computer programmer.
He later took a job with Wise Potato Chips in Berwick, first as a computer programmer and eventually rising through the ranks to become director of information technology.
He and his wife, Donna, have four children and eight grandchildren.
In addition to his two years of full-time duty in the Navy, he put in eight years of reserve time.
Looking back, Bixler said he didn’t appreciate his time in the service until later.
He saw foreign nations and learned discipline.
“I grew up,” he said.
He said he believes the military can be a good choice for any young man or woman undecided about a career.
He’s sure it was a good choice for him.
These days, he works as a consultant and sells computer hardware and software part-time. He continues to meet with Navy buddies at reunions.
“You build a family in the Navy. I made lifelong friends,” he said.