20 years, 2 men & 3 ceremonies on Okinawa

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20 years, 2 men & 3 ceremonies on Okinawa

by: Shoji Kudaka | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: January 06, 2017

Been there. Done that.

For Master Sgt. Thundercloud Hirajeta, this ceremony was not unlike the previous ones he had taken part in.

Spread 20 years apart, Hirajeta was once again shaking the hand of retired Marine Major John Glenn.

This was the third time with his former JROTC instructor.

The difference with this ceremony – it will be his final.

Glenn presided over Hirajeta’s enlistment ceremony in 1996, as well as his reenlistment in 2009.

“It’s not too often that people have the same person to reenlist them into the military,” said Hirajeta, looking back at how the bond started when he was a student of Glenn at Kubasaki High School. “It’s my third time on Okinawa. He has been here for the whole time.”

On the afternoon of Dec. 2, the cozy canteen of the American Legion Post 28 outside of Camp Foster was filled with more than 30 relatives, friends, and coworkers. Everyone in attendance smiled as they witnessed Hirajeta being reenlisted by the exact same person who guided him to the U.S. military 20 years ago.

“[Glenn] is a leader that stands by his convictions and always does what is right,” said Hirajeta, a non-commissioned officer in charge of planning for the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron. “He was a mentor that molded our future soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and he is still that as a DODDs teacher. He didn’t just prepare me just for serving in the military and all that entails, but he prepared me and many others like me for life.”

It is not uncommon for service members to express appreciation for mentors who helped guide them along the way. But the more-than-20-year-old mentorship that marks the first and the last term of one’s military career is something special.

“He is like a son to me. That’s the way I’ve always felt. He made so many impressions on me when he was a high school student,” Glenn said. “I knew he was going to be successful. And I tried to get him in the Marine Corps, but he knew right away he was going to the Air Force.”

Although he may not have followed his mentor’s lead in choosing a branch of services, Hirajeta’s achievement and personality still impressed his teacher.

“He is determined, hard-headed, nothing is going to change his mind,” Glenn said. “He is a role model. He is a mentor to all these young Air Force guys. Something I would never have been able to do in my career, but I consider him so.”

Technical Sgt. Alexander Blanco, who currently works under Hirajeta, agrees with Glenn’s assessment.

“[Hirajeta] definitely likes to mentor people, likes to share experience with everybody,” Blanco said. “I value him as a NCO, senior NCO, and his opinion, because of his experience and how he is as a person. I can definitely see that mentorship passed down from Maj. Glenn.”

The tough-minded personality that Hirajeta has in common with Glenn inspires the young service member.    

“He is honest,” Blanco said. “Even if it’s something you don’t want to hear, he puts you in a light, to see where you might be right, might be wrong. He definitely guides you in the right direction.”

It’s been over 20 years since their first meeting, but when asked if he see changes in the “kid,” Glenn says: “None whatsoever. He looks the same, he acts the same. The same personality. He’s not going to change.”

Q & A with Thundercloud Hirajeta

Please tell us about your friendship with John Glenn.  How did you first meet?
Hirajeta: I met Maj. Glenn on my first day of school during JROTC orientation at Kubasaki High School in 1995.  He was my JROTC instructor for the year.

How have you stay connected with him all these years?
Hirajeta: My father was stationed on Okinawa and stayed here for five years after I joined the Air Force. My dad would see him from time to time and he would inquire about me. He was also my younger brother’s JROTC instructor after I joined the Air Force. In 2005, I was stationed at Kadena Air Base, and while in-processing, I saw Maj. Glenn jogging. I ran into him one day and struck up a conversation like there was no time lost between us. After I returned from a deployment to Iraq in 2008, I asked if he would reenlist me. He was excited to, and we did it in front of the entire JROTC company at Kubasaki High School.   

Why did you choose him for your two reenlistment ceremonies? How did he help shape who you are?
Hirajeta: To me, Maj. Glenn is what I look up to when you think of what a commissioned officer is supposed to be.  A leader that stands by his convictions and always does what is right.  He was hard-nosed and didn’t take any flak from anyone, but was always respectful and treated you with dignity and respect. He was a mentor that molded our future soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. He is still that as a DODDs teacher. He didn’t just prepare me for serving in the military and all that entails, but he prepared me and many others like me for life. That’s why I chose him to do my reenlistments.  I couldn’t think of a better officer that I would want to do it for me.   

Do you have any good stories or memorable episodes about you and Maj. Glenn?
Hirajeta: Ha! None that I can tell. Something small that I use all the time, and it always reminds me of him, is when I have to use the alphabet phonetically to spell something out. I know the entire alphabet phonetically because he taught us during a radio course in JROTC. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, etc. ... It’s the small things that keep us connected.

Please tell us about your background.  
Hirajeta: I am married to my High School Sweetheart, April.  We started dating in North Carolina before I moved to Okinawa for my last year of high school. We married after she graduated high school - shortly after I joined the Air Force - and have been married for 19 years now. We have one daughter named Autumn and she is 11. April has been with me my entire career. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for her love and support.  
 
What does it mean to you to be a military brat and and have one of your own?
Hirajeta: My dad was a paratrooper in the Army and my brother was a Marine. When you are a kid, you don’t think much of it. Looking back, I’m very proud of my dad’s service and what that provided for our family. Coming from a military family, I always looked up to my dad.  He retired from the Army after 21 years. It’s crazy to think in four years, I’ll be retiring, too.