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Defenders of Freedom

Eugene Otterbein: “It was a lot of fun”

Eugene Otterbein has no regrets about how his military career played out.

The Picture Rocks resident can look back on a 20-year stint in the Air Force that brought him wonderful memories and lifelong friends.

Otterbein, 74, surely could not have predicted how things would turn out.

Like many young men who came of age during the Vietnam War, he was drafted into the service.

In his case, it was the Army in 1965.

I didn’t want to go into the Army,” he said. “So, I enlisted in the Air Force.”

At the time, Otterbein worked at a furniture store and took classes at Lycoming College.

The Air Force sent the Williamsport native and St. Mary’s High School graduate to Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, to learn how to become a radio operator.

“My first assignment was the Panama Canal,” he recalled.

At Albrook Air Force Base, he used his training to help maintain communications for military missions in the region. While there, he had a couple of temporary duty assignments — to Chile and Lima, Peru to perform backup communications for the Gemini 10 and 11 space missions.

One of his fondest memories from that time was driving with a buddy in his 1961 Corvette from Central America to Pennsylvania.

He later sold the car for $1,000.

“Now, it’s probably worth $80,000,” he said.

His next assignment as a radio operator was in Athens, Greece.

“We were assigned to the Turkish Logistics Command,” he said.

His job, as before, consisted of maintaining communications with military bases.

Otterbein said it was in Greece where he had a chance to do some scuba diving.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I got involved in scuba competitions.”

At one point, Otterbein joined in a search for a 10-year-old boy who went missing. Unfortunately, the boy was found dead.

Overall, he recalled Greece as a time of “wonderful friends and some fantastic food.”

Following his time there, Otterbein trained to become an air traffic controller and was assigned to Westover AFB in Massachusetts. He met his first wife there and started a family.

When his enlistment ended, he returned to Lycoming County with his family and took a job selling insurance and driving a truck before deciding he wanted to get back in the Air Force.

“I re-enlisted as a radio operator,” he said.

He spent two years at March Air Force Base in California, then went to Thailand before returning to March.

“I wanted to go back to March because my family was there,” he said.

While still in Thailand, Otterbein was flown back to California to appear on the Girl in My Life Show. He and other military personnel separated from their spouses and families, appeared on the program to be reunited with them in a surprise visit.

Subsequent assignments were to Laughlin Air Force Base, Del Rio, Texas, where he was reassigned to air traffic control and Japan.

In Japan he became lifelong friends with a Japanese man. Over the years, the two have crossed the globe to see each other and their families.

Unfortunately, it was in Japan where Otterbein’s first marriage ended and he became a single father raising his children.

After being assigned to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, he met his second and present wife, Jackie.

By this time, Otterbein had achieved the rank of master sergeant and was Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of plans and program for the Communications Squadron.

His final assignment was Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York where he managed the air traffic control tower for the airfield.

He returned home with his family and used his skills from the military to work at the Williamsport Regional Airport.

“They were just building the flight service station at the airport,” he said. “Our job was to brief pilots on the weather and other information.”

He stayed there more than 18 years before retiring.

Otterbein has remained active in his community, including many years as a Picture Rocks Borough Councilman and with the Church of Resurrection, Muncy, as a Eucharist minister.

He said if he was a young man he would definitely join the military again.

“I enjoyed every one of my assignments,” he said.