Rawls recalls military service

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 26, 2005

AULANDER – Retired Navy Commander Robert Sherwood Rawls, 71, has the rolling gait of a man who has spent a lifetime at sea.

Rawls, who grew up on a farm in Aulander, enlisted in 1950 as a deck seaman aboard the heavy cruiser USS Albany.

Since he first set foot on the ship, he has given a total of 43 years of his life to continuous active duty in the service of his country.

And in a sense, so did his wife, Rebecca, who, said Rawls, &uot;has picked up and moved for with me more times than I can remember.&uot;

&uot;She’s been the perfect Navy wife,&uot; he said, &uot;taking care of everything along the way.&uot;

Taking care of everything meant running the household and taking care of all aspects of day to day to life, including paying the bills, making household repairs and caring for their only child, Robert, while Rawls was sent out to sea for weeks, sometimes months, at the time.

&uot;It becomes a way of life,&uot; said Rebecca, &uot;but you grow to love it and it makes it difficult to settle down into normal civilian life.&uot;

But settling down in Aulander is just what the couple has done since Rawls finally retired in 2000 after a working for seven years as a Naval Science Instructor of the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program at Nottoway High School in Blackstone, Va.

He had planned to retire in 1993.

Prior to that, in 1990, he received his Master of Arts degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and served as an Operations Officer for three years.

&uot;At that time, we talked about him retiring,&uot; said Rebecca, &uot;but he was so used to wearing that uniform, he just wasn’t ready to take it off.&uot;

Rawls’ uniforms have changed over the years as he moved up through the ranks; picking up every enlisted, warrant, and commissioned rank there was until he became a commander.

Some of his more memorable years were in the early 60’s when he served in Vietnam on one of the newly formed Navy SEALs teams.

He also recalls the very early days of his career when he earned 57 dollars a month.

&uot;That wasn’t so bad in those days,&uot; he said with a smile.

Since returning to Aulander five years ago, Rawls has finally put the uniform away, but not the memories.

But it is the memories of life before the Navy that drew them back to their hometown.

&uot;We both grew up here,&uot; he said, &uot;and it just seemed right for us to come back to Bertie County to the only permanent home we ever knew.&uot;

The couple moved into a house built by Rebecca’s grandfather and remodeled it.

They now spend their days traveling to visit their son, now a retired Commander teaching ROTC in Virginia, and their grandson, Robert Alexander, who will graduate with honors this year.

They do still travel – but these deployments are shorter stints to visit their Navy friends all over the United States.

And unlike the past, when Rawls packed his bags and headed out alone, he and wife go together, hand-in-hand.

&uot;I spent so much of my time for so many years away from my wife,&uot; he said, &uot;and now it is important that I am with her as much as I can be.&uot;

Do they miss the world of the military?

&uot;Of course,&uot; said Rebecca.

&uot;It was truly a lifetime for us.

And it has its own particular troubles and concerns that are so different from civilian life.

But we’ve adjusted just fine.

We love Aulander and we love finally being able to be together.&uot;

Rawls is a strong supporter of veterans, rights and benefits and to show that support, he spoke on Saturday, May 21 during the &uot;Salute to the Soldiers&uot; event held at Historic Hope Plantation.

The event was sponsored by the Bertie County Arts Council.

&uot;I think this type of celebration is important,&uot; said Rawls.

&uot;I don’t think that we can ever do too much to support the veterans who sacrificed their lives for the freedoms that we enjoy.&uot;