FENTON, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- Fenton native John Waldmann was inspired to join the U.S. Navy while watching his older brother graduate Navy Basic Training. But he was surprised and disappointed when a Navy doctor disqualified him due to bad knees.
Waldmann believed his service dream was over until a chance meeting with a recruiter. The recruiter convinced him to give the Army a shot. He passed his physical and went to basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Now, 25 years later, Waldman said enlisting in the Army was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“The pride of wearing that uniform and knowing what I was representing," Waldmann said. “[Would do it again] in a heartbeat, without question.”
Waldmann would eventually become a driver and loader in M1A1 Abrams tanks. He chose tanks for a very practical reason.
“It had a $7,000 bonus," Waldmann said jokingly.
Waldmann’s eight years of active duty took him across the country and across the world.
He said serving in Bosnia in 1996 was his most significant and impactful assignment. It was a time when that area of Europe had been ripped apart by war and ethnic cleansing. He rolled in as part of NATO's first peacekeeping forces in Operation Joint Endeavor.
He found himself on the brink of armed confrontation on several occasions.
“Many scary nights,” Waldmann said.
Waldmann saw and heard heartbreaking stories in his nine month deployment. He slept on cots in tents in both frigid and sweltering temperatures. But the heartfelt thanks he and his fellow soldiers received from locals made it worth it.
"You would have literally everyday 200 to 300 people on each sides of the checkpoint with signs saying ‘thank you U.S.A.,’” Waldmann said.
Waldmann left active duty after eight years so he could return stateside to take care of his son. He spent three more years in the reserves and he chose his current south St. Louis neighborhood because of its Bosnian immigrant population.
"I could walk out of my house and leave these doors open and I’ll be fine,” Waldmann said.
Waldmann’s pride in his service history is unmistakable. In addition to his brother, his great uncle also served. And he said if any of his three children choose to serve in uniform, he would encourage them to do so.