Three decades in the U.S. Army — ‘but I wouldn’t complain’
U.S. Army CW5 Curtis Bell is caught on camera while deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year.
He’s living the life he always wanted to, but it’s come at a price.
“I knew, actually, when I was 5 that I wanted to be an Army pilot,” recalled 31-year U.S. Army veteran CW5 Curtis Bell.
He and his wife, Vonda, were enjoying a back-yard barbecue July 5 in honor of veterans, hosted by their next-door neighbors, retired U.S. Marine Jim White and his son-in-law, retired Texas Rangers chief Hank Whitman, and their families.
Curtis is like a son to White and his wife, Louise, who virtually “adopted” the couple and their family when they moved to Texas from Germany in 2010.
It was Vonda’s job as a civilian analyst for the Army that brought them to Texas. She’s originally from Gainesville, Ga.
“The service member isn’t the only one who serves,” Curtis said, underlining the supporting roles his wife and family have played. “She’s followed me around forever and the kids are constantly moving. The worst thing is the separation from family. But I wouldn’t complain; I’ve done it 31 years of my own free will.”
The two held hands throughout the conversation, glancing constantly at each other to affirm a point or offer encouragement.
Curtis, a native of Maryville, Tenn., joined the Army in 1983. Since then, the family -- the couple have three sons and two daughters -- have lived a number of places, including 11 years in Europe. Curtis has often deployed -- serving in every U.S. engagement since 1983, except Panama, he said. The worst was Somalia, he said, where he flew medical evacuation missions. Curtis also deployed to Iraq for 15 months, as well as nine months in Afghanistan.
As his brigade’s safety officer and chief warrant officer, he mentors warrant officers and helps them manage their careers. The job is satisfying, Curtis said, but the time away takes its toll on the whole family.
The worst thing about being apart “is the time you can’t get back,” said Vonda. “We’ve maybe celebrated five anniversaries and one birthday together.”
Both offer encouragement to other service families.
“Keep in touch!” Curtis said. “Stay engaged. It’s the best thing you can do for the service member and for your family.”
“We can’t keep in touch on our time,” Vonda said. “Nothing is on our time; it’s all at the whim of the department of the Army. ... Have understanding and patience. We can’t change their lives or fate. We have to have faith that everything will be OK.”
And things have been OK.
Curtis treasures that he’s been able to positively impact others, work to set the conditions for them to succeed, and pass on lessons learned, whether from his own service or that of others.
“I’ve worked with the finest people in the world,” he said.
His mentors in his early years in the Army were Vietnam veterans.
“We have a commonality, a bridge, of shared experience,” Curtis said.
That includes the sorrow of losing friends in strife; Curtis lost some good friends while serving in Afghanistan.
However, some deployments have revealed positive aspects, Curtis said. He saw great changes in Iraq.
When he first went, he was setting up a landing zone under maximum security. The place was desolate, Curtis said -- no one around, the parks deserted. When he returned 14 months later for an assessment, “I saw families in the park, playing and holding hands,” he recalled. “I played soccer in the park with Iraqi kids! That’s the difference I saw.”
The deployments brought challenges for his family, especially in 2008 for Vonda.
“The girls were getting ready to leave home,” she said. “I had two toddlers and a new baby.”
“And I was gone 15 months to Baghdad,” Curtis added.
“I had my church family,” Vonda said, referencing their Baptist congregation in Germany. “That’s how we made it.”
They survived, and continue to serve, with Curtis, Vonda, and the boys -- Nathaniel, 15, Joshua, 13, and Alexander, 7 -- living near Floresville. They’re active with Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and the Young Marines in San Antonio. Daughter Melinda, 27, has followed in her mother’s footsteps; her husband, Brandon, is in the Army. Amanda, 25, serves in the U.S. Air Force, as does her husband, Travis. Curtis and Vonda have two grandchildren, as well.
And the Bells have made a new family connection in Wilson County, with the Whites and Whitmans.
“Having the Whites and Whitmans as neighbors has been a blessing,” Curtis said. “And what they do for the community. This event [the July 5 barbecue for veterans] is Texas.”
“There’s no place like Texas,” Vonda said, a tinge of wonder in her voice. “And we’ve been everywhere!”
Curtis will retire from the Army in November, and he has no regrets about his family’s life of service.
“Understand,” he said. “It’s very rewarding. There are some frustrations. You’re not going to get rich. But you’re going to get a chance to take care of somebody.
“I do it so no one else has to.”