WEST JEFFERSON-Ashe County’s James Edgell has witnessed firsthand some of the globe’s most beautiful garden spots courtesy of Uncle Sam.
The recently retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant has surveyed everything from Japan and Korea to Denmark, Germany, eastern Europe and the Middle East over a career stretching from 1995-2016.
“I guess I could honestly say that’s not bad for an old hillbilly from West Virginia,” Edgell said, grinning during a recent sit down with the Jefferson Post. He shared stories about his time in service on the verge of Veterans Day.
But the most memorable place he’s ever visited? Wake Island, a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean made famous during a stand by Marines, sailors and civilian contractors against Japanese forces in the early days of World War II.
Edgell said his service took him briefly to the island. He said much of the atoll looked as it did during the years following the war. A tsunami in recent years washed away much of that history.
“I’d call it a privilege to be there and to see Wake as it was,” Edgell said. “Just a lot of history.”
But for all the opportunity it turned out to offer him, Edgell said serving in the Marine Corps wasn’t always his plan.
As a young man, he said he’d been impressed enough by the way his uncle, a soldier, and his high school football coach, a Marine, carried themselves to consider enlisting, but it was a failed attempt to hire on at a local steel mill that convinced him his future lay with the Marine Corps.
“I guess with the steel mill that felt a little like a blow at the time, but it turned out to be so right for me,” Edgell said.
He said he later suffered and survived through 13 weeks of Marine Corps Boot Camp – he calls it the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life – and more than a year of follow-on combat training and rigorous avionics technician coursework.
While he ultimately earned a variety of certifications, Edgell said he learned the ins-and-outs of what it took to maintain the electrical systems on the cutting edge F/A-18, the Corp’s dual role fighter-attack workhorse.
“They taught me the skills to work on $40 million fighters,” Edgell said. “But I was lucky. The day I went down to talk to the recruiter I didn’t even know the Marine Corps had planes. I thought it was all infantry.”
He said he was likely lucky to be stationed for much of his career at Marine Corps Air Station-Beaufort, but like most Marines of his era, he was deployed a number of times. His unit supported operations in Kosovo in 1999, and he said he counted himself fortunate to serve on the USS Enterprise in 2007. The world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, “The Big E” was launched in 1962 and was finally retired in 2012.
But it was service in support of combat operations in 2005-2006 in Iraq that Edgell calls the defining moments of his career. He said aircraft from his squadron flew some 7,500 combat hours over the course of the deployment and dropped enough ordnance in support of American and allied forces to match.
“We were there during the first democratic elections in late 2005 and these were real world ops,” Edgell said. “It was 15 and 18 hour days in some cases, and you knew you were doing good work, the job you were sent there to do.”
That point was driven home for Edgell two years later at a dirt track race in Savannah, Ga, where he said he bumped into a Navy Seabee who’d been on the receiving end of those bomb drops.
“His guys had called in close air support, which over the course of this conversation turned out to be from our squadron, and he said we’d saved their butts a couple of times,” Edgell said. “That makes things real for everybody.”
He said he later served a stint on recruiting duty himself, capped his career with a couple of deployments to Japan before retiring from the Marine Corps earlier this year. Along the way, he met and married his wife Michelle, and the couple have a daughter, Ava, and a son, Preston.
“Michelle is an Ashe County girl and really I fell in love with this place, too,” Edgell said. “It’s a slower pace of life but really for the first time nobody is telling us where to live. So why not come back to the place you love?”
He said he’s adjusting to the civilian work-a-day world as a U.S. Postal Service employee in Warrensville and plugging himself into community events, like his church and the Marine Corps League.
He said the reintegration process – the move from military to the civilian life – is a difficult step for many service members and said despite his own ample support network, he’s sometimes struggled with the change himself.
“Just start with something along the way,” Edgell said. “My best friends in the world are Marines. You live on the same street with these guys, you’re as tight with them as your own biological family. Walking away from that, it’s hard.”
For him, connecting with fellow service members through the Marine Corps League has been key. He said he’d advise others to start with a simple introduction.
“I told a young man Friday, he just showed up over there for breakfast,” Edgell said. “I said ‘Listen, these guys may be a lot older than us, but we’ve all chewed the same dirt and had similar experiences. And if there is somebody to talk to – you should – because not everybody is going to move to a place like Ashe County that is so pro-military. If you have that option of talking to guys who have been there, I think you should. They might be able to walk you through things you didn’t even know you needed help with.”
And if you’re a young person looking for your next step? Edgell said you could do worse than considering a military career.
“The first tour? I won’t lie it was pretty tough,” Edgell said. “But even after all the blood, sweat and tears, I’d say I did ok. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.