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Earning his stripes in military service

Olcott resident David Wohleben nearly abandoned his military career because he disliked strict codes, including the one about how to trim his mustache.

Instead, he turned that career into something extraordinary.

Last month, Wohleben was promoted from chief master sergeant to command chief master sergeant of the 107th Airlift Wing at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, and a second star was added to the stripes of his chevron. He is now the highest-ranked enlisted airman in the 800-member National Guard unit, fulfilling an ambition first sparked by a talk with his older brother as Wohleben was graduating from Starpoint High School in 1981.

He wasn't considering the military, but he was interested in electronics. His father worked at a factory making medical instruments. It was his brother Michael, eight years his senior, who suggested he join the Air Force because it would help him learn a trade.

"I don't know what made him decide to talk to me about that," Wohleben said of his brother, who made a career as a serviceman with New York State Electric & Gas Co. "He also had a friend that was here in the National Guard unit. I think he thought it would be something that he would have liked."

After four years in the Air Force, he finished his service, thinking the military was not for him. Once he was back home, he got a job in the trade he trained for. Yet, as a civilian working at a factory that made regulators for electric circuitry, he realized he missed the order and discipline of military life.

So within months, he applied for, and got, a job at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

"I'm a type A personality. I look and I say, 'I want to go as high as I can. I want to do as much as I can,' " said Wohleben.

"This is where I landed."

One of his early assignments in the National Guard was working with testing equipment and fixing problems on planes.

If something was wrong with a missile guidance system, for example, "it would tell what was wrong with the aircraft so we could fix it," he said.

Now his job is more managerial. He serves as the top enlisted adviser to Col. Jim McCready, the 107th Airlift Wing commander, and is responsible for training, discipline and career development of the enlisted force.

"If I see problems in any of those areas," he said, "I bring it to his attention."

>How would you describe your career?

It's kind of a funny career path. I did my four years of active duty. Then I decided that military life was not for me. I was very low-ranking then. I used to call it "The flavor of the quarter: This month we'll concentrate on haircuts and mustaches." You used to be harassed about haircuts and mustaches. I thought we didn't concentrate on the important things, we concentrated on the minutia. It turned me off.

I guess I thought, "Why are you harassing me about this when I'm working a 12-hour shift? We're deploying a unit. You seem to be more concerned about those things than the actual mission that we're doing."

>What was going on in the military in the early 1980s? What were you working on?

Ronald Reagan was president. We had the big military buildup. The Cold War was still going on.

>What are the rules about mustaches? You let yours grow beyond the limits? What happened?

They cannot go past the corner of your mouth, and they have to be trimmed above your lip. I wasn't the most-disciplined individual.

It was a little bit of being rebellious. I didn't think it was important to concentrate on. You were disciplined right on the spot: Go back to barracks shave it off.

I had to shave it off a couple times.

>How did leaving the military and working at a local factory lead you to return to the service and sign up for the National Guard? How did you do during your four years in the Air Force?

When you transition from military life to civilian, I guess it's a bit of culture shock. I missed the discipline, the structure and the way the military did things.

You go to a civilian company, it made me realize what a great life the military was. It's my personality. It's my type A personality. I went through all that training. I lived the life for four years.

Maybe that military world is a better fit for me. I did well. I thrived in the military world. I did well in school. I was very good at my job. I made rank in minimum time. You went from being an airman to a sergeant and you cross that plateau.

I liked having more responsibility.

>Can you describe one of your more interesting National Guard assignments? You say you were in charge of refueling planes in midair using a special tube with wings on it that went from the plane you were in, into the one that needed fuel. What was that like?

I became a boom operator. That's the guy that lies in the belly of the aircraft. I am the guy that refuels. You fly the tube to the other aircraft.

Then we pump fuel from our airplane to their airplane. That's the job I probably enjoyed the most. It was the most exciting. Just the flying portion. Flying so close to other airplanes. Forty feet away, 50 feet way.

We would take a lot of unit members to a lot of different parts of the world.

>Your opinion about mustache rules changed. When you joined the National Guard, you had to supervise four Guardsmen. How did that affect your thinking?

When you move from a worker bee to management, I think you realize the value of discipline.

Now I was the boss, and I was telling them, "You know what? Your hair is too long."

You grow and you mature, and you come to realize what discipline really means. In the military, when somebody tells you to do something you have to do it without question.

Part of my job is to enforce the standards. If one guy's mustache is long before you know it, his uniform is wrinkled. Now we look like hobos. You can't let that one person go, because it will snowball.

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Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Scott Scanlon, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or e-mail niagaranews@buffnews.com