COPPERAS COVE — The message is simple: Staying in school is the easiest path to attaining goals in life.
At least, that is how it worked for Staff Sgt. Frederick Winkelman, the Texas Army National Guard recruiting and retention noncommissioned officer for Copperas Cove. Life had been difficult when he was a teen, and he ended up dropping out of Copperas Cove High School — twice.
“I was on the streets and I was like, if I couldn’t get enough sleep and couldn’t get up in the morning, I didn’t do it. I didn’t have the discipline,” he said. “After the first time I dropped out, they were like ‘hey, we’re going to take away all your credits,’ so I wrote an essay and got my credits back. Then I (dropped out) again and they said again they were going to take my credits away. I tried to appeal again, but it was denied.”
Winkelman, now 32, said he was a military brat whose father had retired from Fort Hood to Copperas Cove when he was 10. Because of his father, entering into the military was the last thing on his mind. After some difficulties with his family, he left home before he turned 17 and pretty much lived on the couches of friends whose parents would let him stay and feed him.
“One of them was a National Guard recruiter, Master Sgt. Mike Sharman,” he said. “I used to sleep on his couch and he’d ask me what I wanted to do with my life. I’d never really had anyone ask me that before. I wanted to fly — aviation — I had a passion for it. Then he asked me how I was going to get there.”
In 2001, Winkelman made the decision to join the Guard for what he said were purely selfish reasons — to get his education. Sharman pushed him to find a way to finish high school first, however, instead of getting a GED.
“I went over to the alternative learning center and they accepted me there, but I did the same thing. I had no discipline so I got kicked out,” he said. “I ended up at Richard Milburn Academy in Killeen, which was actually the last school that would allow me in.”
Winkelman was hanging out in the streets and the guys he was hanging out with are still on the streets, in and out of jail, and he was heading in the same direction as them, he said.
“Being on the streets, I had to ride my bike out to Killeen every day and come back, because the only real place I had a roof over my head was actually in Kempner,” Winkelman said. “My recruiter actually put a boot to me, saying, ‘You have all this to achieve in life, here’s all the tools. I can only show you the door, but you’re the one who has to do something about it.’ He gave me that motivation, that purpose and direction. That’s actually why I wanted to become a recruiter.”
Since then, Winkelman has deployed to combat and been activated for search and rescue, flood control and emergency evacuation missions with the Texas Army National Guard. He has a wife, three kids and is debt-free other than paying a mortgage.
“Coming from being a kid on the street to what I have now is amazing. Looking back, it all started because a recruiter came and talked to me and changed my life,” he said.
The recruiter now tries to help kids who may be struggling to find a better path, regardless of whether they want to enlist.
“I thought I was taking the easy road out, thinking about going and getting my GED. But my recruiter was like, ‘No, you want that high school diploma. Just stick with it and get it done, you’ll be better off,’” Winkelman said. “I thought I was smart, I was going to take the easy road, I could do this at any time because I was young, able, I can do whatever. It just set me back further. When I come and talk to students, I tell them that this (staying in school) is the easy road. Just stick it through, be done with it, then move on and achieve more things in your life.”
It’s all about the three ‘C’s’ — choice, chance and change, he said.
“You have to make a choice in order for you to take a chance for there to be any type of change,” Winkelman said. “Fifteen years ago, I made the choice to take a chance because I didn’t have anything to lose. It changed my life. So I like to tell everybody that you don’t know what there is to be gained unless you go through with it. Success is an option, but change is inevitable – there will always be changes, but it’s up to you to become successful.”
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