EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
A Soldier in an Air Force world, Dr. Charles “Doc” Merkel lost “quite a few pizzas” while maintaining his first loyalty to the Army.
The West Point, Class of 1967, honorary graduate enjoyed a running bet with fellow 53rd Wing members when the cadets took on the other service schools in college football, and sometimes it cost him.
“We’ve had a lot of fun with it,” said Merkel. “Having had a career in the Army, my first loyalty is the Army, and it’s cost me some pizzas but that’s alright. It’s been a great ride. It’s awesome being in a military unit, to have the camaraderie.”
After a combined 49 years in active duty, contractor, and civil service, Merkel retired Aug. 30, in a ceremony at the Air Force Armament Museum here. He served as the 53rd Wing historian from 2007-2016.
“Duty, honor, country,” are the words he used to describe his career. “Those are the things instilled in me, and if I had to describe it in three words, it would probably be duty, honor, country.”
History was always an interest of Merkel’s, and when he retired from the Army in 1987, he pursued a Master’s degree then PhD-level program. The opportunity to work as historian for the 53rd Wing allowed Merkel the chance to serve the military once more.
“It’s been awesome to utilize some of the education I pursued in an environment like this,” said the historian, who deployed twice while with the wing.
His dedication to preserving and documenting history at the 53rd Wing allowed current members to see the contributions of earlier generations in the service.
“History is a continuous thread, it’s not a bunch of compartments,” he said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of the people who went before us.”
Merkel maintained a steadfast commitment to the local community during his career, through volunteerism and various speaking engagements in the Emerald Coast. He worked diligently to share the experiences and accomplishments of veterans, especially his fellow Vietnam veterans.
“Sometimes people look at Vietnam veterans differently… but the efforts by the individual soldiers were awesome,” he said. “A lot of hard work and a lot of effort and a lot of good things were done.”
The Vietnam generation of veterans is often remembered as one that received lackluster support from the American people during the war, but Merkel said it was “immaterial.”
“It didn’t really matter to us when we were overseas, because we were in combat, and we were working for the person on our left and our right,” he said. “We were dependent on one another, and some of the closest friends I have in the whole world are those people I served with all those years ago.”
Merkel recalled a special memory when he returned from a deployment to Afghanistan at the Baltimore airport. Rounding the corner, they heard a lot of commotion, and during Vietnam it was commonplace to hear protestors. This time it was a crowd of people with “Welcome Home” signs, clapping and celebrating.
“It turned out that people who were holding the signs to welcome home the troops, were Vietnam veterans.”
It was a compelling full circle moment. And after nearly 50 years of service to his country, who will Doc miss the most? “The people, of course.”