Those who served: Mahomet veteran Gary Reid 'proud' of 22-year military career

Heroes are ordinary people who do the extraordinary. The definition is one Denise Reid of Mahomet feels best suits husband Gary Reid, who served more than 22 years in the military.

But the Navy, Army Reserves and Army National Guard veteran rejects the title.

"I'm just an average guy," Gary Reid said. "I'm no different than anybody else."

"He's not an average guy," Denise Reid contested. "I couldn't do what he did."

Meet Gary Reid.

He may appear as just an average guy serving as a bus driver and a bus driver trainer for Champaign-Urbana's Mass Transit District. He lives a quiet life with his wife in Mahomet. Denise's daughter Andrea House and three grandsons, Dylan, 14, Chris, 9, and Austin, 5, live in neighboring Seymour.

But what many may not know about Gary Reid is that he spent two combat tours with the Army National Guard — one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.

"I finished up as an E-7 sergeant first class," Reid said.

The Port Huron, Mich., native started his military career in 1983 in the Navy stationed in Little Creek, Va. He served seven years, working sea duty for four years before spending the remaining time on shore duty.

"It was a magical time," Reid said. "It was a different military back then — way different than it is now, no matter what branch you're in."

Reid's father, Amos Reid, was his "biggest influence" for him joining the military. Amos Reid was a medical corpsman in the Navy from 1958 to 1962.

Reid's enlisting was also the fulfillment of a longstanding family tradition — one that goes back to the Civil War.

"His (Amos Reid) mom's great-great-grandfather was in the Union Army, and ever since then, within the Reid family structure, there's always been one male who has served at least four years with a branch of the military."

Reid's career may have begun during the Cold War, but the first leg of his journey was spent with "nothing actually going on."

Despite having no conflict, Reid's 1973 Spruance LST was sent all over the world.

"We were on a UNITAS (a naval exercise) cruise where we went from New York all the way to Florida," Reid said. "I went to St. Thomas, Cuba, Columbia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Zaire, Zimbabwe, and that was all within six months."

The conditions weren't of a typical cruise. Reid recalls the living experience as tight corridors with 30 to 40 bunks easily filling a small space.

He ran the naval warship with a crew of 600, including Marines, sailors and a SEAL team, who ranged from 18 to 23 years old.

"We were just young kids, and we ran that man of warship with all of those aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates," Reid said.

"The whole vibe back then, even though there was no war going on, we knew we were part of something really great."

Reid will never forget the feeling of knowing just how small the world is despite his vast travels. In 1984 in Zimbabwe, he was onboard the ship painting away when he heard someone call out "Gary," which was uncommon since everyone referred to each other by their last name.

"I thought, 'Who the heck?' " Reid said. "I look over and it was a guy from high school — Ted Baker. I looked over and said, 'Ted? What are you doing in Zimbabwe?'"

As luck had it, Baker's father was a communications expert at the U.S. embassy. Baker invited Reid to join the family for dinner.

"I laughed and said, 'I don't know if you know how my world works but I just can't say, 'Hey, I'm going to dinner at Ted's.'" he joked.

But Baker's father pulled a few strings, and Reid's captain informed him he had the weekend off.

"It was my first lesson in understanding government officials outrank military officials," Reid said, while laughing. "So I went to his place and had dinner. It was great."

Reid was a hard worker, eventually becoming a cook serving three meals a day and even had the opportunity to get an associate's degree in culinary arts and management from Johnson & Wales University.

"I had dreams of being a big chef — the guy with the big white hat," Reid said, "but I never totally accomplished that goal."

But Reid never stopped looking onward and upward. He went on to work in logistics, helping load supplies to helicopters. He even tried out for the Navy SEALs.

"I only lasted three weeks," Reid said, "but it was three weeks that I stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the best people on the planet.

"For me, it's a life lesson, even though I didn't make it, I still tried. I ventured where most men fear to go. I will always know where I stand with that position. I try to apply that to everything I do in life."

In 1990, Reid got an itch for civilian life and decided to leave the Navy when he quickly realized just how much he "missed it."

"So I went over to the Army Reserves (for three years) and then I got disinterested again," he said.

Two years later, in 2000, he joined the Army National Guard, where he served two combat tours.

The first was a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Once in Iraq, he went on to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In 2009, Reid served a 12-month tour in Afghanistan.

"At first, I didn't want to go overseas," Reid said. "I was content not doing much until the guys started coming back from the first part of the war, and then it felt like two different militaries. It was like, 'Oh my God, those guys are the real deal. I'm just here sweeping floors on weekends at the Armory.'"

"I think for me it was more of a calling," he added. "I think that it was for a lot of us who were in."

While in Afghanistan, Reid spent Christmas Day in a watch tower directly across from the Queen's Palace just outside Kabul.

"I was up there 12 hours a day," he said. "We were encased with a concrete wall that had a chain-link fence and every 10 feet there was post with a Y on top with wire — that was my view every day."

But times weren't always that simple.

The hardest part?

Enduring enemy attacks — mainly on civilian contractors.

"The enemy would attack these unarmed civilian contractors often in a caravan by driving a vehicle up in the caravan filled with explosives," Reid said.

Reid and his crew were tasked with the unthinkable — taking care of matters following such a horrific event.

"I'll never forget that," he said, pausing to rest his face in his hands.

He'll also never forget the smell of his camp in Afghanistan.

"The sand, the heat ..." he said.

"You hear a lot of veterans say you can't wait to go back home, but it never leaves you," he added. "There are certain sounds or smells that just bring back certain events that happened or certain jobs that I gladly did, but I carry it with me."

As Veterans Day approaches, Reid said he will spend time honoring those who served.

"It's honoring my father back to the start, my friends and mentors," he said. "It's remembering that everyone in the service, whether they make it a career or not, at least they stood up and can say they were part of history. That's what it means to me."

Though he now leads the quiet life of a civilian, Reid enjoys connecting with fellow veterans and continues to do so with Mahomet's American Legion Post 1015 members.

"I'm not able to go to all of the meetings I'd like because of my work," Reid said, "but for me it's a privilege to go and hang out with those guys.

"I'm hanging out with guys who served in Vietnam. It's incredible some of the amazing things they've accomplished — they're mild-mannered men, they're kind hearted, they're just phenomenal people. I wish the community would get to know those guys more."

But more than anything, Reid is "proud" to have worn the uniform, something he considers an adventure of a lifetime.

"I'm very proud of having the privilege to serve my country at multiple levels and at multiple times," he said. "It's a privilege to volunteer for this country."

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