By Shelby Reynolds
Flint Hills Media Project
When Col. William J. Clark retired from the U.S. Army on July 18, 2013, it wasn’t because of his age — he is only 47. And it wasn’t because he’d had enough of the Army — serving for 30 years was, he said, a privilege. It was because, the colonel said, he was leaving it in good hands.
“I walk away from the Army after 30 years, and the future of our Army is very bright. And here’s why. Because of the people sitting across from you,” he said, motioning toward one of his sons and his daughter sitting across the table.
Holly, who just finished a six-month deployment to Iraq, and Jordan, who just joined his father’s branch, are both in the Army.
“It’s time to pass the baton. You know when you see your son marching in a ceremony, and you’re sitting in the stands watching him, it’s like, ‘Hmm, maybe it’s time.’”
A new military family
Col. Clark met his wife, Andrea, when they were both 16. The two were high school sweethearts. Two years later, they married, and he enlisted in the Army. It was March 1984.
“I was looking for something new and exciting to do,” he said, “so I met with a recruiter, and he said, ‘Hey, here’s this great job.’”
By age 20, Andrea and Col. Clark had two children, Holly and Ryan. The colonel trained to become a linguist, and he and his family were sent to Korea for four years with the 751st Military Intelligence Battalion. Following assignments brought the family back to the United States to Fort Benning, Ga., and then Fort Knox, Ky.
Their second son, Jordan, was born in a Fort Riley hospital in 1991 as the colonel joined the 1st Infantry Division.
And, after that, travel became an everyday routine.
Growing up on the go
“Pick a place,” Jordan said about where he and his siblings grew up.
Virginia, Washington, California, Texas, Kentucky and the list goes on. Of all the locations, the Clark family most remembers Germany.
In 1995, the family — now six strong with the addition of Austin, born in 1993 — was transferred to Heidelberg, Germany, and then to Vilseck, Germany, with the 1st Infantry Division.
Often, civilians comment how difficult traveling must be for military children, but the Clark family said this wasn’t the case for them.
“I think we had a way better childhood than most people,” Jordan said. “The whole block was kids our age. There were like 20 of us running around every day … And when we were in Germany, we could go anywhere: We went to Italy, France, England, Scotland, Poland, Spain.”
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Well, you don’t have any, like, lifelong friends or a home to call home.’ I don’t feel like I’m missing anything,” Holly said. “I enjoyed moving. I enjoyed getting to go see things and do things that a lot of kids don’t get to do at that age.”
A father in combat
Col. Clark served on four different deployments, his first being to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 1990s with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, under Operation Joint Guard.
The family returned to Vilseck, Germany, where the colonel deployed with the 3rd Brigade to Kosovo in eastern Europe with Task Force Falcon.
Next, Col. Clark commanded the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team Cavalry Squadron in Afghanistan in July 2009. The unit secured the Pakistani border to create a safe entryway for American troops into Afghanistan.
What was it like? “Intense,” the colonel said in one word.
For a year, Col. Clark commanded his unit in high combat areas of Afghanistan.
“But when you look back at it,” he said, “it’s probably the moment I’m most proud of in my career. I brought home every soldier I left with, and that to me is the most important. There were ups and downs with significant injuries, but everyone survived.”
Col. Clark said he looks back on his experience in Afghanistan as a privilege.
“You see people who are truly destitute — kids who have no clothes, no food, they’ve lived in a war-torn land in Afghanistan for 30 years,” he said. “We’re very fortunate, the United States.”
After all the things he has seen, the colonel says he is proud to have served his country.
“You know, when you get to lead soldiers and do what our country asks, it’s a great honor.”
In 2011, a year after returning from Afghanistan, Col. Clark took up garrison command at Fort Riley after serving as Deputy Garrison Commander at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Throughout all of Col. Clark’s deployments, being gone for months at a time, keeping a stable home for the children was especially important. That’s where Andrea’s role became vital.
“Her name should be ‘Awesome,’” Col. Clark said of his wife.
“She keeps everything in balance,” he said. “There were times that she had to be mom and dad simultaneously … and my kids will tell you the same thing: There’s not a better person who you’ll ever meet than Andrea. Very humble, very giving. She makes me look good.”
And his children do agree.
“You really don’t see your dad,” Jordan said. “I mean, he’s gone, but she takes care of everything … There’s always dinner on the table when you come home from school or you get done playing all day.”
The decision was made early on that Andrea would stay home and keep the house stable, but throughout the past 30 years, the duties were always equal, Col. Clark said.
“Her commitment is as strong as mine to the Army,” the colonel said.
Following in dad’s footsteps
Holly, the oldest sibling, was the first to enlist in the military. Holly graduated from high school while the family was stationed in Germany the second time. She stayed there for four more years before enlisting in the Army in 2007.
A year later, Jordan also enlisted in the Army just before his senior year of high school in Seattle. For a year, Jordan was in the Reserves training to be a medic, but he couldn’t be in the Reserves and go to college at Seattle University at the same time. Instead, he graduated from the ROTC program at SU in June 2012.
Ryan, the second child, joined the Army, as well, but found the Air Force to be his calling. With the Air Force, Ryan, now 27, spent six months on a deployment to Oman in 2010. Now, Ryan is an air traffic controller and serves in the Air National Guard.
“We call him the quitter of the family,” Col. Clark said with a laugh. “Even though we give him a hard time, he’s made sacrifices to leave his family and go overseas. But he originally joined the Army; that’s why we still allow him to come back once in awhile.”
The youngest, Austin, 20, tried his hand at ROTC, the colonel said, but learned it wasn’t for him. Now he’s studying to become a kinesiologist at K-State.
“We’ve allowed them to do whatever they want to do,” Col. Clark said. “Of our four, three of them are tied to the military … but really it’s just about letting them figure out what they want to do with their lives.”
A large role
Holly served as a military intelligence analyst in Iraq, intercepting enemy communications, but she won’t offer many details about her duties in the Middle East.
“Holly’s pretty humble about the things she did in Iraq,” Col. Clark said.
One reason Holly won’t reveal her duties, though, is because she can’t.
“Holly played a very key role in the capture of one of these big wigs you heard about in the paper,” her dad said.
With a little probing from her father, Holly continued.
“We would get tasks from people like my dad out on the ground saying that ‘hey, we want to know more about this guy.’ So I spent three months targeting an individual I was told to watch,” she said.
Holly followed the individual’s cell phone, trying to figure his daily routine and location. And after those three months, the “people like her dad” returned, and she informed them where she thought the individual might be.
“So then the next week they went out, and that’s where he was,” Holly said.
And that’s all she could say.
As for Jordan, he said he’s also ready to go do what he’s been training to do.
“I joined the same branch as he did,” Jordan said with a motion toward his dad, “because that’s what I want to be doing out there on the frontline: taking care of soldiers and getting the job done.”
For years, Col. Clark has spoken about retiring. Each time, his children never thought it would happen.
But now, the Clark family can have their Friday night dinner with most of the family together. With Jordan and Holly stationed at Fort Riley and Austin attending Kansas State University, all they’re missing is one: Ryan in Idaho.
“I noticed that my food bill is as high as it was when they were growing up,” the colonel joked.
The children are practicing the same family traditions at their own homes.
“When I come home,” Jordan said, “my wife usually already has dinner on the table, so we all sit down and eat. It’s at 6 o’clock.”
“Six?” the colonel asked. “Boy, you aren’t working hard enough.”
Now, the family can start to settle down again.
“It’s actually kind of funny, you know, because for 30 years I went where the Army has told me where to go, and my wife has said, ‘Okay, let’s go,’” the colonel said. “So as we get ready to retire, I said, ‘You can choose wherever you want to live,’ and she has found a house in Abilene that she likes.”
And why Abilene? Because that’s what Andrea wanted. It has gardening space, and it’s within seven minutes of a golf course, at Col. Clark’s request.
The Clark family doesn’t know where they’ll be in 10 years, or even three. Soon, Holly and Jordan will be sent off somewhere else, and the same may be for Ryan. As for the colonel, it’s likely he will continue to work with the Army.
“I want to be in a position where I’m still contributing to our country,” he said. “I enjoy helping people, making a difference for the organization that I’m in … I will keep working in some capacity.”
Coming from nothing
It’s obvious that keeping a stable household is important to the Clark family. And to some, moving a family around as often as the Army requires might not seem as if it would provide that stability. The colonel would disagree.
What’s not obvious, is that William J. Clark never had the same luxury — a stable household — growing up.
Clark was born in South Dakota, but it wasn’t long before everything was packed up and the family was out the door. He lived in South Dakota, Kansas and every state in between.
“My family worked in the sales arena,” he said. “Whether it be automobiles or motor homes or whatever it may be, so we moved where the jobs took us.”
The colonel moved 23 times before he even graduated high school.
“I come from a broken home,” he said. “Clark is my third last name. My mom was married and divorced five times. I came to the Army at 18. I’m married by the time I’m 20. I have two kids. I’m a private.”
That’s a story the colonel doesn’t tell very often, if in fact, at all. But the reason he told it is to provide perspective, he said. Because it’s the Army that allowed him to be where he is today and has helped him raise four children he is incredibly proud of. And that’s a story he loves to tell.
“The Army’s the only organization in the world that you can come into with nothing,” Col. Clark said. “And we will train you to do whatever you want to do if you’re just willing to give the effort.”
It’s because of the Army that he earned a master’s degree, led troops into Afghanistan and finished his career leading a city of 57,000 people at Fort Riley.
“My kids, they’re just great Americans. When you can look at your kids, when they’re that young, and tell them how proud you are of them, that’s the Army who has set those conditions for me.”
The colonel can leave the Army knowing it is in good hands: the hands he and the Army created.
“I owe the Army a great debt for allowing me to serve 30 years,” he said, “and so I look back at what I contributed to the Army for those 30 years. It’s not what I’ve done; it’s what I’m leaving. And this is what I’m leaving,” he said looking at his children.