On Veterans Day, I’m taking a moment to honor Ricky Potter. Many years ago, when we were both in uniform, I was his boss, and he was my teacher.
Sergeant Ricky Potter grew up in the South, born into a black family with no privilege. His muscular frame and impeccable bearing exuded pride. An athlete in high school, but lacking grades for higher education, he joined the Army to find opportunity.
In January 1983, less than a year out of college, I met Sgt. Potter at my first duty station on Hardt Kaserne in Schwabisch Gmund, West Germany. As a brand new second lieutenant joining C Battery, 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery, one of the least glamorous jobs awaited me: Support platoon leader, the unit’s chief logistician – and whipping boy.
Sgt. Potter was maintenance shop foreman, the NCO directly supervising daily work on millions of dollars of equipment. It was a daunting task, and the times didn’t help. The Army’s professionalism had eroded during its 1970s transition to an all-volunteer force.
But by the time I served, the post-Vietnam party was over. Rigorous physical training was back. A high school diploma was the minimum standard for enlisted recruits. Crew cuts and spit and polish were on the way in. Drug testing started up. DUIs became career killers.
Sgt. Potter was in the middle of it.
Early on, he sensed my trepidation; even youthful bravado couldn’t hide it. One evening, he stopped by my office to reassure me: “Sir, you’ll be OK; I’ll take care of you.”
Spoken like a seasoned NCO to a rookie officer. Sgt. Potter was tireless. He helped the lesser performers. He rode the slackers. He gave me daily pointers, and admonished me when I made a fool of myself – which was often.
Importantly, he respected the gold bar on my collar, never showing me up in front of our troops.
Sgt. Potter also worked on self improvement. Long before online learning existed, he always packed a correspondence course book in his rucksack. He took classes, be they military or civilian – anything to earn promotion points and college credits. As he once said: “Sir, I got little kids now; what kind of example am I gonna be as they grow up?”
Ricky Potter’s promotion to Staff Sergeant was one of my proudest days in uniform.
Yet shortly thereafter, the unthinkable: In the fall of that first year, Sgt. Potter was struck by lupus. Everyone in the unit was shocked, but confident he could prevail. Initially out for a month, Sgt. Potter returned to light duty. Over time, we saw that spring in his step returning, and those books back on his desk.
That winter, I was promoted to first lieutenant. My motor pool purgatory ended when the higher-ups tapped me to lead a firing platoon, with its sharp troops and sexy combat mission.
My greatest regret – and yes, fear – in moving on was leaving Sgt. Potter behind. On my last day in the maintenance shop, though, he reminded me his job was done: “You don’t need me anymore, Sir. What you need is to believe in yourself.”
But just a month later, at 5:00 a.m. on February 29, 1984, everything changed.
That morning, I came to work and my commander, Captain Rick Grimes, pulled me aside and broke the news: Ricky Potter had died in his sleep.
There was no margin for shock or mourning.
The CO informed me that I would be the Potter family’s survivor assistance officer – a lieutenant’s most dreaded peacetime duty. He reasoned that my motor pool replacement was too new to the unit to accompany the deceased soldier’s family – to help settle legal affairs, pack up their home, make arrangements, and see them off to the States.
Finally, Capt. Grimes looked me in the eye and gave me a three-sentence leadership lesson that still echoes in my conscience: “You were Ricky Potter’s boss. He trained and respected you. You owe it to him.”
I was 23 years old; really, just a boy. Yet that weeklong crucible changed me forever. Being with Mrs. Potter and the kids officially ended my youth. Several times a day, she dropped her head on my shoulder in tears. Her infant daughter kept asking for Daddy, and little Ricky Jr. didn’t seem aware that anything was amiss.
Nothing in my training had remotely prepared me for any of those gut-wrenching moments.
Somehow, over the next week, I handled the family’s needs. When we drove to Frankfurt for their flight home, I promised Mrs. Potter I’d stop in Tennessee someday to visit Ricky wherever they laid him to rest.
It’s been 30 years, and despite good intentions, I’ve yet to make good on that pledge. I’ve driven through Tennessee a few times since then, but there was always somewhere to get to, and more miles to go – always an excuse, but never a good reason not to pay my respects to one of the finest Americans I’ve ever met.
Still, despite my failure, this is a new era: One of the first things Sgt. Potter taught me was that every day brought a chance to correct past mistakes, and learn from them.
Just last week, while researching another military-related story, I stumbled upon the unexpected: a record of Ricky Potter’s burial at Fort Donelson National Cemetery in Dover, Tenn., as well as a picture of his headstone.
It was then I knew I had to renew this tribute to him – with that photo.
I contacted the photographer, Lesa Kirksey, a volunteer researcher who helps document veterans’ graves online. The mother of a young sailor who served during the 9-11 period, she graciously allowed me to post her picture with this piece.
Ms. Kirksey’s is a labor of love, and I’m forever grateful she reunited me with Sgt. Potter – a generation after I escorted his flag-draped coffin on its final journey.
So on this Veterans Day, once again my salute goes his way, this time in the words I hope he can hear:
My commander was right: I owed it to Sgt. Potter.
In another lifetime, and in a land far away, two young American soldiers, a white officer and a black sergeant, sat together in the motor pool daily, as brothers, while eating their lunches. I helped him with his courses – the way to a better future. For his part, Ricky Potter took me under his wing and taught me things that college never could, lessons I rely on to this day.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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