From Southeast to Southwest Asia; Civil Engineering Airman Career Spans 5 decades

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot
  • 185th ARW Wing PA
Long time unit member Senior Master Sgt. Norm Plantenberg, a mainstay in the 185th Civil Engineering Squadron, retired after nearly thirty years in the military as one of the last remaining Vietnam era veterans in the Iowa National Guard.

As a senior in high school in the early 1970's Norm Plantenberg, along with many young men in his graduating class, were not anticipating graduation with the same exuberance one might expect from a graduate today. Unless they had plans to attend college, a graduate at that time put little thought into what they were going to do after graduation. Foremost on their mind was the war in Vietnam. Plantenberg along with the rest of his class knew they would likely be drafted and possibly sent to the war.

Plantenberg had a distinct advantage of having an older brother in the Army, who had firsthand experience in what life was like in the Army, if he waited to be drafted. "My brother said, 'if you want to shoot guns and dig ditches join the army. If I wanted a career join the Air Force," Plantenberg said. After graduation, acting on the advice of an older brother, Plantenberg sought out an Air Force recruiter. Eventually he made the military into a career.

As often happens however, the path for Plantenberg, was not always clear and straight. After being a part of the last graduating class of 1971 from Riverside High School in Sioux City, Iowa, Plantenberg joined the Air Force and was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to Southeast Asia. Although history would record the official end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam in August of 1973, Plantenberg found himself in Thailand in the summer of 1974. While the war in Vietnam continued to rage without the U.S. Military, many who were stationed in Thailand at the time still had no guarantee they would not be going back to Vietnam.

A year later, after the fall of Saigon in April of 1975, Plantenberg returned to Ellsworth for his final year in the Air Force. Then in 1976 he returned to "real life" a term returning veterans used when returning to civilian life.

Fast forward ten years and Plantenberg found himself once again talking to a recruiter, only this time he was interested in volunteering to join his home town Air National Guard unit. Like many in the National Guard, his initial interest was financial and focused on how the extra income would help at home with his young family. In 1986 he joined the 185th Fighter Group of the Iowa Air National Guard in his home town of Sioux City, Iowa.

For the first few years, Plantenberg worked as a traditional Guardsman, attending unit training one weekend a month and two weeks of annual training each summer. He decided he liked it and he was good at it, so a few years later in 1990 at age 37, he applied and was accepted for a full time position working for the Iowa National Guard as a Power Production Specialist in the Civil Engineering squadron. This would be his job for the majority of the time he spent in the Air Guard.

During his tenure, Plantenberg achieved the rank Senior Master Sgt. and deployed overseas a half dozen more times. His most recent deployment was in 2010 to Kirkuk Iraq where he acted as a power production specialist working with electrical generators and aircraft arresting systems on the runway during the Iraq war.

While much has changed since Plantenberg joined the Air Force in the 1970s some things like hard work are timeless. According to Plantenberg giving 110% has paid dividends throughout the years. When asked about the some of the good things about his experience in the military Senior Master Sgt. Plantenberg said, "The best part: it has never been boring, you're always going different places doing different things." He went on to talk about his key to dealing with people through the years, "praise people in public, criticize in private. If I have a problem with someone I take them aside and see if we can work it out, and we usually can."

As he moves in to retirement, Plantenberg will take a wealth of experience with him. Lt Col Gary Prescott, 185th Civil Engineering Commander said, "It will be difficult to replace Senior Master Sgt. Plantenberg because he understands the ins and outs of his trade. There is no training that can replace that kind of experience."

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