Bill Medinger walked past the long line of customers at the Luke Air Force Base commissary and greeted each one. He stopped to greet a small child and entertain them with a joke or two. The jovial commissary bagger learned the valuable lesson of fostering relationships with customers early on in his Army career.
Medinger arrived in Vietnam in 1968, nearly a year after enlisting in the Army. He had just earned the rank of corporal and volunteered for this assignment.
“I got tired of listening to everybody run their mouths about Vietnam, so I decided to give them something to complain about,” Medinger said with a laugh.
Medinger’s military occupation specialty at the time was food service. He was promoted to mess sergeant six months after his arrival and quickly changed how business was done in his dining facility.
“I made some changes because the guy they relieved was one of those ‘If you’re five minutes late, you don’t get to eat’ types, and I didn’t like that,” Medinger said. “So I changed it to if you come in from a flight, you’re gonna eat; I don’t care what time it is.” He was talking about the door gunners.
Medinger built a reputation for himself among the troops because of a valuable lesson he learned. On one of his supply trips, Medinger talked with Sailors who wanted to have a small gathering and blow off some steam. Medinger quickly learned for the price of a small favor, the Sailors would give him extra food for his mess hall. This relationship benefited all troops in Vietnam as Medinger would pay it forward and give extra helpings to Soldiers coming through his chow line.
“I had it to the point where they could take what they wanted, but the rule was ‘If you take it, you eat it,” he said.
Medinger formed close bonds with many of his customers. One Soldier in particular wanted Medinger to visit as soon as he returned to the United States. Sadly, an attack on an area nicknamed “Impact Alley” claimed the young man and prevented a future reunion between the two.
“When that happened, I kinda lost it and decided I wanted to be a door gunner, so I volunteered to help,” Medinger said.
He visited his commanding officer on a daily basis asking for the opportunity to be a door gunner, but each time his requests were rejected. Medinger’s CO finally offered a compromise and made him a light operator, flying night missions to seek out the enemy.
“After about six flights of that I started bugging the CO again about being a door gunner,” he said. “Finally he said, ‘If we do it, it’s never going to be on your records, and I said I didn’t care about that.”
Thus began Medinger’s secret unofficial life as a door gunner flying above the sweltering jungles of Vietnam. Officially, he was still the mess sergeant, feeding his beloved troops.
“The guys liked it because I’m out there helping them out with that plus we had midnight meals and stuff like that,” he said. “I was single at the time, no girlfriend, and here are these guys with kids and all back home. That really shook me up.”
For his service while in Vietnam, Medinger was awarded the Army Commendation Medal twice and he left the area of responsibility as a staff sergeant, two promotions within his three-year tour there.
Today, Medinger is content working as a commissary bagger and sharing his experience and wisdom with those around him. American holidays hold a deeper meaning for him than for some of his acquaintances.
“The Fourth of July is a big one for me because the real reason for that holiday is our freedom,” Medinger said. “On Veteran’s Day, I think about the one who didn’t make it home.”
The Army has changed since his years in Vietnam, but Medinger has a small piece of advice for today’s military member.
“No matter what branch you’re in, we’re here for one reason and that’s to protect the United States,” he said. “Treat each other right, and enjoy it while you can.”