Written by Spc. Kadina Baldwin
1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs
Fort Campbell, KY – At just over 6 feet tall, a soldier from a long line of war veterans walks with a unique swagger. He has the voice of a natural leader that only comes with time. His stern facial expression might throw some people off from his truly motivating and positive attitude, but it’s his teddy bear attraction that might draw a person in.
He’s been honorably in and out of the military for the past four decades, has served in three wars and is currently assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).Raised on a small farm in Watsontown, PA, Staff Sgt. Robert W. Middleswarth is the youngest of two sons. Since childhood, he has been facsinated by the war stories he’s heard about: his great grandfather who chased Poncho Villa through the Rio Grande; his grandfather, a WWI veteran who walked alongside Gen. John J. Pershing; his father who fought in WWII; and many other relatives in his lineage who served in the U.S. military throughout American history.
By the time he graduated high school in 1968 at age 17, he said he was chomping at the bit to follow in the footsteps of the brave men from generations before him—Middleswarth wanted to go to war.
He joined the Marine Corps in March 1968, despite objections from his father who thought the Marine Corps would be too hard for him, he said.
Living far from the nearest recruiting station and having no car to drive didn’t stop his determination to join. He said he marched over 30 miles to Lewisburg, PA, and when he got there, the recruiter drove him home so that his father could sign him over to the Corps.
“I introduced him to my father and they go through this list of stuff, then he asked me if I was a conscientious objector,” said Middleswarth. “I didn’t know what it was, so I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he gave me this odd look and asked me if I knew what that was. When I said, ‘No,’ my father laughed. The recruiter told me it was someone who didn’t want to go to war and kill people, and I said, ‘Well, that’s not me,’” Middleswarth said with a hearty laugh at the memory.
When Middleswarth went to swear in, he said the people who volunteered to go to Vietnam were treated different from the people who had to be drafted to go. He explained how the volunteers were lined up shoulder to shoulder along one wall, while the draftees were lined up on the wall across from him. He said he remembers a guy walking in front of each draftee, sizing him up at a glance and deciding what branch of military each would be assigned to.
“At the end of the line was this long-haired, hippy-looking kid who, when they got to him, they said, ‘Marine Corps!’ and this guy just fainted right there on the spot,” Middleswarth chuckled.
“I was tall and skinny back then, unlike I am now, but that was one of the funniest things,” said Middleswarth laughing out loud again.
After Middleswarth shipped off to boot camp and school, he did his first tour, which ended up being a double tour in Vietnam that lasted 13 months between the end of 1968 through early 1971.
One story that sticks in his mind about his time as a new recruit is one that still puts a sly smirk on his face. It’s a story about a young lieutenant that he can’t tell without inevitably laughing out loud—a laugh that highlights the lines on his now-mature face.
“My first week in country there was a mine found under a bridge that needed to be dismembered, and I was asked to do it,” said Middleswarth. “I was an E2 (private) right out of boot camp and school, but I was like, ‘Sure, I can do that.’
“It was a rock mine filled with flake TNT, which was holding about 200 pounds of explosives,” he continued. “As I’m looking for the wires, I look up and see this lieutenant standing on the bridge. I said to him, ‘Sir, you know if this blows, it’s going to take you out as well,’ and before I know it, he is at least 400 yards down the road!”
After a few idle years of not deploying, Middleswarth got out of the Marine Corps in 1974. Soon after, he got a job working for the Washington, D.C., police, but his civilian life was short lived. In 1978, he went back into the Marine Corps because he had heard another war might be forthcoming. That war never came, and he got out again.
In the past four decades, Middleswarth has done a double tour in Vietnam, a yearlong tour in the Gulf War and two tours in Iraq. He’s served in the Marine Corps, the Army Reserves and the Regular Army. At 61, Middleswarth is not shy to admit he is only one of two Vietnam veterans to be still serving on active duty on Fort Campbell.
“I know a lot of people that went to war, and I felt it was always my place to go,” he admitted.
Throughout the course of his military career, Middleswarth has spent 22 years on active duty. He’s no spring chicken at 61, and he knows his time serving his country is rapidly drawing to a bittersweet close. Despite being fit and physically capable of continuing duty, he knows he is required to lay down his rifle and hang up his dog tags at 62—an age he will reach in December.
But this tough guy won’t stray far from his military boots. He said he has already applied for a position as a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instructor at a local high school in the Statesboro, GA, area, close to where he owns property outside of Fort Stewart.
And like father, like daughter, Nina Ross, who also joined the military at 17, spent five years in the Active Duty Army and thinks her father, Middleswarth, would make a good JROTC instructor.
“He has a vast knowledge about the military evolution from weapons, to integration of women and taking care of people,” said Ross admiringly as she recalls the love of the military they share.
No matter what path this war veteran chooses, he knows he’s still got years left in him—and it’s hard to stop a moving train.