Jim Wagner: Fly high, hear our stories

A. Marie Hamilton
Posted 11/11/22

TORRINGTON – Retired U.S. Air Force Veteran Jim Wagner, who served in Vietnam, said Veterans Day means more than just celebrating a holiday, it means appreciating the service of veterans, the sacrifices veterans made and still make as well as honoring what they fought for.

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Jim Wagner: Fly high, hear our stories


TORRINGTON – Retired U.S. Air Force Veteran Jim Wagner, who served in Vietnam, said Veterans Day means more than just celebrating a holiday, it means appreciating the service of veterans, the sacrifices veterans made and still make as well as honoring what they fought for.

“I had no desire to serve in the military until someone told me I could work as an air traffic control controller,” Wagner explained. “I worked in air traffic control for the Air Force for nine years and then I went to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) for nine more years and then (Ronald) Reagan fired us.”

Following his initial 18 years, “within two or three days of Reagan firing us, I had a DoD (Department of Defense) contract supporting air traffic control overseas – and I went and did three years in Afghanistan. I also did one year in the Air Force air traffic control during and in Vietnam.”

Wagner explained how his career took him to places like Guantanamo Bay and Ascension Island among other European conflict theatres and countries.

The Florida-native said he had always had his eye on the skies and dreamed of one day being involved with flying but didn’t know that dream would come true as an air traffic controller.

“I’m too big to be a pilot, but I really loved everything about flying and just being around aircraft. I knew that’s what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how exactly, then I had someone say, ‘Hey Jim, why not try air traffic control?’ so it sort of happened and I ended up loving my career. I worked hard for it too and studied to rank up.”

Wagner said service during the wars and after made him who he is.
“I was a smart mouthed kid – ya know? Like really thought I knew it all, and I loved having fun with my friends – we did, well, you know, 60s and 70s things and experimented, drank and had a good time, nothing wrong with that until you had to take a pee test,” Wagner explained. “But, I remember sitting in an air traffic control class to advance and kept thinking, man I want to do this, I love this, I have to pass – so, almost instantly, I grew up. I stopped partying, I stopped drinking and I spent all of my free time studying - everything we needed to know about air traffic control and aircraft, I studied until my eyes bled.”

It was this instantaneously ‘ah-ha’ moment in which Wagner grew into the role he came to love with air traffic control.

“I was only one of a handful in my class that graduated,” Wagner said. “It’s no joke, but it is worth it.”

When asked what advice he would give youth seeking to join the military after high school, Wagner said, “You don’t know exactly what you want to do, just have some sort of idea about what field you want to go into. First start by talking to a real veteran, not the recruiters, a real veteran can tell you about the good jobs and about how to get there better. A recruiter is looking at numbers and saying ‘we need this or we need that’ so join for this job.”

“The best thing one of our kids thinking about joining the military can do is talk to us old-timers, we have the experience and the knowledge and we can better help them figure out where they want to go and how to get there,” Wagner added. “I wish I had some old vet help me earlier, but I got to where I wanted to be because of hard work.”

“That’s the other thing, our kids can’t go into the service thinking it’s a typical job or that it’s a walk over – no, they have to go in knowing it’s a service to our country and it’s not going to be easy and it will take time to get where they want to go,” Wagner further explained.

When asked what Veterans Day means to him, Wagner said, “Honor – no matter how we slice it, it’s about honor.”

“Whether that’s honoring all our veteran service members, or what they did for this country and probably, a lot still do, or what job they had – it’s all hard, all of it, none of it is easy – but Veterans Day means to honor our veterans for everything they did and that also includes all the sacrifices they made,” Wagner said.

“I don’t think a lot of civilians, unless maybe they are military dependents, know exactly the full scope of sacrifices we made and some still make,” Wagner stated.

When asked how community members and Americans can be better informed about the sacrifices military members have made, Wagner said, “Talk to us – I know that sounds so simple, but talk to us. We’re not going to bite you, we love talking about our service and it’s helpful for us to talk about the things we gave up – our sacrifices – in order to protect and serve our country. It’s so simple, just talk to us.”

Wagner remarked about a prior Telegram story in asking the community to sit down with a veteran and hear their story, “Knowing our stories, being able to pass those stories down, remembering those stories, I think is the easiest way – and best way – for our community and Americans to remember what we sacrificed and why we serve our country.”

Adding, “Veterans Day doesn’t have to be big and spectacular, but it should be honored and we should be listening more to our veterans – I am lucky, but I still battle – some of my friends aren’t lucky enough to be able to work through their PTSD or demons. I see it a lot with our younger veterans these days.”

Wagner said a simple gesture, like sitting with a veteran during a meal at a restaurant, or offering to buy them a drink and chat with them while they sit can go a long way in honoring veterans as well as helping a veteran who might be experiencing a hardship or trauma.

“Sometimes, we just need our stories to be heard, to know we aren’t – you know, crazy or something – but to just listen to our stories without judgment and acknowledge our service was difficult at times and for a lot, very traumatic,” Wagner said.

When asked what advice he would give to other veterans experiencing a low point in their civilian life, Wagner said, “Hey buddy, or gal – we have wonderful women in our services today, sit and talk with someone. It can be your dog or cat, or kid or some random person in town, but sit and talk with someone. You aren’t alone, you don’t have to do this alone and there are kind people who are willing to listen. We can stop this 22-a-day thing if we stop and listen to vets and if vets know they can reach out to anyone at any time.”

Wagner also spent much of his combined services traveling the world and the various airports and bases in the U.S. However, he explained how he kept telling his superiors how he eventually wanted to be stationed back home in Florida.

“Every couple of years or so – they would say, ‘Hey Jim, where do you want to go next?’ and of course I would respond, ‘Florida of course’ because that’s home – but would you know it, everytime I would put in for Florida, they sent me practically as far away as Florida as I could get,” Wagner said chuckling. “I have to say, I learned new things at each post and I enjoyed it all the same, but I just thought it was funny because one time, I thought to myself and said, ‘If I don’t say Florida, they might send me to Florida’ – so I picked somewhere else, as far from Florida as I could think, and when the orders came in, it still wasn’t Florida.”

When asked why he chose Wyoming to retire in, Wagner said, “This felt like home with my former wife, and it is a good place for a family to be raised in.”

“I love Wyoming, I love Goshen County and Torrington, it’s home and it’s a perfect place for retirement too,” Wagner added.

Wagner said as much as he loves Florida and misses where he came from, Wyoming is home and he loves his small town life.

When asked if there was anything else he wanted to let the community know about veterans, Wagner said, “Just be kind to them – a lot of us Vietnam veterans came home to no fanfare, to being spit in our faces, we were disgraced according to the American people – and I see it in some of the eyes of this new generation of veterans as they come home from the Middle East – but be kind to us, we simply did a job.”

Wagner said one of the most difficult things he has had to overcome is his transition back from Vietnam.

“War changes a person, it doesn’t matter what job you did – war will change you – and it can be very difficult to come back from that ledge, especially if you witnessed the hardest parts of war, like watching friends die,” Wagner explained. “All it takes is a little kindness and understanding, and I think that’s the message I want our community to be aware of. Is to be kind to our veterans, because many don’t know their stories or what they’ve been through. A lot of veterans have very difficult times transitioning back home or back into civilian life.”

When asked what’s the biggest obstacle veterans face today, Wagner said, “The VA (Veterans Affairs Administration), sure, it’s rough when the American people turn their backs on us, but that we can work through, but when the VA and our government turns their backs on us – that’s far more difficult to overcome.”

Wagner explained the multitude of issues, concerns and challenges veterans face or encounter with the VA upon transitioning out of the service and years after. Wagner further explained how it often takes lengthy time periods to get needed medical treatments and how some veterans can’t wait it out.

“If there is one thing Americans can help us vets with and help us fight for – it’s better services with the VA – but also better staffing so we don’t have to wait so long for the medical services we need,” Wagner further explained. “It’s this sort of thing that could also go a long way in honoring veterans and what we’ve done for this country.”

“Fly high – I know we shouldn’t tell people to put their heads in the clouds, unless you want to be a pilot or in air traffic control, but as the saying goes, fly high and work hard to obtain your goals, but remember the sacrifices made to get there,” Wagner said.

Today, Wagner is fully retired and partially disabled, however, he is currently working with Goshen County Sheriff’s Office to fill a vacant detention controller position at the local jail in Torrington.

“Serving and the desire to serve, that never leaves you after your military career ends,” Wagner added. “What better way to continue to serve my country and my community than by filling a need with our local sheriff’s department? That’s the untold story of us veterans, our service never truly ends.”

It’s that service-minded heart that Wagner said he wants Goshen County to keep in mind every time they see a veteran so they can better honor veterans on Veterans Day.