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Remembering 41: Decatur resident recalls days with late president

By Austin Jackson | Published Saturday, December 8, 2018
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Reflecting on 41

REFLECTING ON 41 – Retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Barry Wheeler and his wife Pat Wheeler spent multiple days with President George H.W. Bush at Camp Casey in South Korea in 2000. They honored the late president by lowering their flag to half staff. Messenger photo by Austin Jackson

After hearing the news of the death of George H.W. Bush, retired U.S. Army, Command Sgt. Maj. Barry Wheeler, a Decatur resident and Army veteran, stepped outside his home with a heavy heart and lowered his American flag to half staff, joining the worldwide remembrance of the 41st president of the United States.

It was an observance of loss, service and of memories he forged with the man who once held the most powerful office in the world.

Through his 35-year career in the U.S. military, Wheeler was one of many who got to look the president in the eye and shake his hand.

Back in 1973, Wheeler was just a kid from Kleberg, Texas, at the bottom of the totem pole, enlisting as Private E-1. Some 27 years later, the senior enlisted member of U.S. Forces Korea, 8th U.S. Army, the Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command said he couldn’t help but feel out of place while meeting one of the most powerful men in the world.

Whatever uneasiness Wheeler carried was swiftly ended thanks to a few disarming jokes from the president.

“First and foremost I was impressed by how big he was, he was a very tall man,” Wheeler recalled. “But then I was struck by just how down to earth he was, just very approachable. A genuinely nice man. He had a very dry wit. You would never know he was president. There was no air of superiority. He was just a person.”

The main thing that Wheeler recalls in his interactions from 18 years ago at Camp Casey, just a few miles away from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, was just how human and normal Bush proved to be.

In 2000, President George H.W. Bush visited Camp Casey, South Korea, to dedicate the Camp Casey USO in the name of his father, Prescott Bush ,who was a founding father of the USO. At the time, Wheeler was the Command Sergeant Major, the top enlisted member of the Second Infantry Division.

Wheeler and his wife, Pat, spent the day escorting former President George H.W. Bush on his tour of the camp and to the USO dedication.

“It wasn’t about him,” Wheeler said. “He was there to meet the troops and wanted to meet every one of them.”

Wheeler joined the military in 1973 and retired in 2008. He worked from the bottom rung of the U.S. Army to the upper echelons, being in command of thousands of men in South Korea.

His office at his home in Decatur is cased from wall to wall in those memories and accomplishments.

He can be seen with celebrities along with Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders who traveled to the base with the USO. He met actress Jessica Biel and singer Charlie Daniels. He taught Drew Carey how to throw a tomahawk, beating out fellow celebrity Wayne Newton and the general who taught him in a tomahawk throwing contest.

“Carey tore him up,” he joked.

He also met presidents George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

But one memory that stands out was his interactions with Bush over two days in South Korea. They cracked jokes over the dinner table and Bush made him feel like a friend.

“I wouldn’t mind having that guy as my next door neighbor,” Wheeler said. “To me that’s about as high a compliment you can give somebody. ”

In his office, Wheeler has a handwritten note from Bush. A habit that the president became known for, thoughtfully connecting with and interacting with both his political allies and enemies.

Over the past few days, as people have shared their memories of Bush through the funeral in Washington D.C. and Texas, Wheeler said his impressions have only been reaffirmed.

“To know a man like him is no longer with us, it’s emotional, it’s sad,” Wheeler said. “But it gave me a sense of pride that I knew him. I’m proud. The United States did the funeral right. They did it first class, for a first class man.”

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