War vet talks to students about sacrifice

LANGLEY — Navy Master Chief Robert Zimmerman is not a character from the video game Halo.

No, he’s the real deal, a 22-year combat veteran who has served his country with high honor, including tours of duty as an explosives expert in the first Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Zimmerman, 40, came to South Whidbey High School Monday to talk to students about the importance of Veterans Day.

He had some things he wanted share with them about the day and what it meant to him.

Zimmerman enlisted in the Navy in 1986, inspired by his family’s long history of naval service.

“My grandfather survived the seas after his ship was destroyed by a Japanese kamikaze plane,” he said. “His was one of the last ships sunk in the Pacific Theater. My dad served in Vietnam. I always felt a sense of pride in the legacy of their sacrifices.”

That legacy will continue. In two days, Zimmerman’s oldest son will graduate from Navy boot camp.

As the years went by, Zimmerman steadily rose through the enlisted ranks while qualifying in just about every aspect of diving operations, with an emphasis on underwater demolitions.

Shortly after his transfer to the salvage ship USS McKee, he was promoted and deployed to the Persian Gulf for the first Gulf War in 1990.

In January 2004, he deployed on his first tour of duty in support of the war in Iraq. Following his second deployment, he was transferred to a training command as the leading enlisted man and promoted to the rank of master chief petty officer.

Today, he’s the leading chief petty officer for the Navy’s bomb squad at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor.

Zimmerman explained what his unit does, in some detail.

“Our basic mission is to render explosive devices safe,” he said. “All kinds; nuclear warheads, underwater limpet mines attached to ships’ hulls and roadside explosives which have become the weapon of choice for terrorists in Iraq.”

He added that, since the Secret Service has no bomb squad, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, team members regularly are tasked to protect the president, the vice president and their families.

Zimmerman said that EOD personnel are uniquely prepared to dive to great depths or parachute from high altitudes — as high as 30,000 feet — to carry out their missions.

“And we routinely engage in humanitarian missions, too,” he said. “We teach people in other countries how to defuse explosives so their citizens are protected.”

Zimmerman has qualified as a master EOD bomb and mine technician, a freefall parachutist, a demolition-and-burn operations supervisor and a scuba diving supervisor.

His personal awards include two Bronze Stars, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals.

The master chief asked students to remember the nature of the sacrifices veterans have made over the years.

“Serving one’s country can be accomplished in many ways; the mind-numbing loneliness of a midnight watch, the possibility of a sniper’s bullet or improvised explosive device on a dusty road, a long haul driving a truck in stifling desert heat and the difficult months away from loved ones,” he said. “Remembering these people is a lot more than just a day off from school.”

Zimmerman said that, due to the nature of their work, he views veterans as the foundation of society, the cornerstone of America.

He said students have derived many benefits from men and women serving their country.

“The freedom to be safe, to drive or take the school bus this morning without any fear that something bad would happen,” he said. “I know wars are unpopular, and they should be, but Tuesday is the day to honor those who have served.”

He made a point of the fact that in the plast seven months, 10 percent of his unit has been killed in action.

“Proportionately, that would be 60 students in this school over the same time frame; three missing buddies in homeroom every morning,” he noted. “Think about it. How you would deal with this constant loss of friends in your daily life?”

After he finished, the audience rose for a standing ovation and student body members presented bouquets of red, white and blue flowers to school staff members who had served their country in uniform.

Later, junior Hunter Rawls said he had a clear impression that the sailor’s remarks made an impact.

“He helped to give us a better idea of what these people do for us and why we should honor them,” Rawls said. “He’s the real thing, that’s for sure.”

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