James "Jim" Sterling
James "Jim" Sterling

James "Jim" Sterling

The military life of James Marion Sterling

By Dan Ellis | AFRH-G Resident

          James M. Sterling was born on November 19, 1938 in Horton, Alabama to Joe and Lois Sterling. Jim completed his grade school classes in Blountsville, Alabama and graduated from Susan Moore High School in Oneonta, Alabama.

          Jim’s interest in the military began at an early age upon seeing relatives in uniform during the World War II era.  Adding to his zest was a soldier’s suit given to him by one of his aunts. In February of 1958 Jim enlisted in the U.S. Army and completed his basic training at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas. He also completed specialized training at Ft. Gordon, Georgia before being shipped out to Karlsruhe, Germany.

          On November 12, 1960, Jim was promoted to Sgt. E-5 and reassigned to the 525th Signal Co.  He was sent to Verdun, France during the 2nd Berlin Crisis in 1961, and in 1962 he deployed to Eglin AFB for the Cuban missile crisis.

          In 1964, at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona Jim was assigned as a career counselor to the 509th Signal Battalion and was promoted to staff sergeant. While stationed there, he met and married his wife Emily in 1965.

          In April 1966, he was assigned to C Co. 121st Signal Battalion, 1st Infantry Division in Dĩ An, Vietnam. The “Big Red One” treated all unit members as infantrymen despite a soldier’s job assignment. Therefore, in addition to communication duties, Jim was sent on recon and ambush patrols during his tour, which included operations at Quan Loi, Dau Tieng, Lai Khe and Mihn Than. For his time in Vietnam he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, and the Bronze Star for combat operations.

          At the end of his Vietnam tour he was promoted to SFC E-7 in 1967 and was then assigned to Ft. Gordon, Georgia as an instructor of the area communications course.

          In November of 1969 Jim served as the Intelligence NCO and was later appointed operations sergeant for the 51st Signal Battalion in Ouijunbu, Korea, which provided communications for I Corps. Upon completion of his Korean tour in 1970, Jim was transferred Ft. Bragg, North Carolina as operations sergeant in the 35th Signal Group, which provided communications for the 18th Airborne Corps.

          In response to President Richard M. Nixon’s request to the DoD to eliminate the draft and create an all-volunteer force, Project VOLAR (Volunteer Army) was implemented in April 1971. The Army needed more recruiters to meet that directive and Jim responded by becoming station commander of the Williamsport, Pennsylvania recruiting station and later was appointed area commander of the State College, Pennsylvania supervising seven recruiting stations and 18 recruiters. In 1973, he was promoted to MSgt E-8.

          In 1976 MSgt Sterling was moved to the Carlisle, Pennsylvania recruiting area to improve on an underperforming area, which had nine stations and 26 recruiters. This area became the top recruiting area in the Harrisburg Recruiting District in 1977. Jim’s recruiters from both areas were responsible for at least 4,000 new soldiers entering the U.S. Army during that time.

          On March 1, 1978 Jim retired from the U.S. Army after 20 years and 13 days and received the Legion of Merit award.  He then moved with his family back to his hometown at Snead, Alabama.  In his words, “back to the farm where I spent 20 years trying to get away from it!” By the end of the following month, he was working with the Alabama Power Company in merchandise marketing.

          During evenings, Jim applied the GI Bill to enroll at Gadsden State Community College majoring in retail management and marketing and graduated in 1981. He continued his education at the University of Alabama Gadsden Center, where he completed four years of college in marketing.

          In 1994, he retired from Alabama Power and moved his family to Gulf Shores, Alabama. In 2007, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama and in 2014, his wife of 49 years passed away.

          Jim decided to move to Gulfport, Mississippi on September 10, 2019 and became a resident of the Armed Forces Retirement Home where in his words, “the residents have spent most of their young lives defending the United States of America so that this nation can live in peace.”

          Like many of the AFRH residents, Jim Sterling is proud of his military service and commented about his time in Vietnam, “Even though this was a very unpopular war and those that made it home (58,000 of my fellow soldiers did not), on our return, we were not treated like heroes. I am very proud of my service in Vietnam and my 20 years of service to my country and I would not take back anything.”

          Jim recalled an incident of kindness that occurred during his flight home from San Francisco. “The flight captain of the airplane had the flight attendant move another soldier and I to first class. We were told that we could have any food or drink we desired.  I had filet mignon and the best bottle of French wine aboard. By the time we deplaned at O’Hare, I was a happy camper. The captain was an Air Force veteran, who had flown missions in Vietnam.  He dedicated the flight to us “returnees” which I will never forget!”