JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
"A lifetime of dedication, a lifetime of experience and commitment to our nation."
With these words, Col. John Lamontagne, 437th Airlift Wing commander, summed up the 54-year career of Frank Metzger, a decades-long member of Team Charleston who has decided it's "Time to go."
Metzger, a Wing Plans program analyst, celebrated his retirement Feb. 23, 2016, during a ceremony at Joint Base Charleston, surrounded by family, friends and coworkers, past and present.
A 1959 graduate of Harper High School, Texas, Metzger joined the Aviation Cadet program that same year, where he trained to be a navigator.
Eleven months later, a newly-commissioned second lieutenant, Metzger began his first assignment with the 1608th Air Transport Wing at Charleston Air Force Base. He remembers his arrival at Charleston to this day.
"I proceeded to wing headquarters to sign in," Metzger said, "but once in the building I asked a master sergeant in the hallway where the sign-in book was located. He looked at me like he thought I might be playing hooky from high school and said, 'Boy, how old are you?' 'Twenty, sir,' I replied. I had just turned 20 the month before. That was my introduction to Charleston."
Metzger spent his first five years at Charleston navigating the C-124 Globemaster II, an unpressurized cargo plane that had to be flown low and in--rather than over--the weather.
"I used to tell people, 'You haven't lived until you've flown in the North Atlantic at 10,000 feet in the wintertime," he said.
He logged 3,500 flying hours in the C-124 and more than 11,000 flying hours in his career--most of them on the C-141 Starlifter.
It is a "phenomenal amount of flying that you don't see today," said Lt. Col. Mark Hollandsworth, 437 AW chief of wing plans.
Metzger retired from active duty in 1983, as a lieutenant colonel with 24 years of service. A year and a half later he rejoined the Air Force, this time as a civil servant, sharing his experience with Team Charleston for the next 30 years.
Now his supervisor, Hollandsworth first met Metzger as a young captain in the uncertain months following 9/11. The two men split 24-hour operations in the crisis action team, where they helped manage the base's response.
"[Frank] knew what was going on and what needed to happen," Hollandsworth said. "Everyone from the other execs to [the one-star general wing commander]--if anyone had a question and needed an answer, Frank had it. Very humbly, very quietly, he had the answer."
Treasuring the Past
More than half a century of service brings no shortage of life lessons. When asked which of these he learned to value most over his career, Metzger paused a while, then said:
"One of the things I didn't appreciate at the time was that when I got here, all my leadership was World War II veterans--and I'm talking captains on up....I am still quoting guys from then to my guys in the office now."
Metzger said he often takes the opportunity, any time someone declines to go to lunch, to share one of these insights from the past.
"A squadron commander sticks his head inside the [operations] officer's door and says, 'Ralph, let's go to lunch.' He says 'Sir, I don't know. The [Operational Readiness Inspection team] is in town; the inspectors are coming by the office this afternoon. I just don't think I have the time to go to lunch.' And [the commander] says, 'Well, gee whiz, Ralph, we went to lunch all during World War II. Is this more important?'"
Metzger spoke about a man he befriended later in life, another WWII veteran, who downplayed his contributions during the war. Yet, once Metzger pressed him, he learned that his friend had flown the lead during D-Day and Operation Market Garden, two significant and perilous missions.
"You don't appreciate it because they're all like that," he said, holding back tears.
When asked what message he would pass along to young service members today, he said:
"Everybody's got a story, and if you will take the time to find it out, you'd probably be amazed."
The Love that Kept Him Going
Few people choose to work as long--or as late in life--as Frank Metzger. As such, he often receives questions.
"Guys used to ask me why I was still working," he said. "I'd tell them, 'Because it's still fun.'"
Yet there is another reason--a deeper one--that kept Metzger working well past his peers: love for his late wife, Carolyn.
Married for more than five decades, Frank continued working because of his confidence in the health care his job provided for Carolyn, who fought declining health for 20 years.
"He felt a duty, as long as she was alive, that he would do whatever he could to make sure she was taken care of," said Janice Jones, Metzger's daughter.
"He always put her needs before his needs," she said. "He was just concerned about her care--about extended care--and he wanted to make sure that everything was in place so that there would never be a question of, 'Can we do this or not?' Every opportunity would be given to her, to take care of her--monetarily, time, energy, everything. He was fully committed."
Jones noted the role reversal that resulted with Carolyn's declining health.
"All this time while he flew and was in the Air Force, she was at home and was the anchor," she said. "So when she got sick, the roles reversed. I used to laugh and say that I wasn't sure my dad knew where the kitchen was, but then he was doing the cooking, the grocery shopping, taking care of everything--all of her medicine, all of the doctor's appointments."
"That in itself is a full-time job, plus a full-time job. Exhaustion [was] unbelievable," she said. "But he wouldn't have it any other way. "That's just what you do when you're committed, which he was."
Carolyn died in 2015, but not before she and Metzger renewed their wedding vows on their fiftieth anniversary, a year earlier, "In the same church [where they] married, on the same day, with the same maid of honor and same best man," Metzger said.
Upon leaving their wedding ceremony, he found a surprise gift from Carolyn in the parking lot: a 1959 Chevrolet Impala, two-door hardtop. It was the same year and model car he had been driving when they dated, all those decades before.
Metzger refers to this car, and a couple others, as his "projects"--his next activity, after a lifelong career.