Until he was 18 and graduated from Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Fla. in 1974 Bill Gomes spent most of his time in the saddle punching cows on ranches in Charlotte and De Soto counties. He was a “Florida Cracker,” better known as a cowboy. He wasn’t much interested in his education.
Gomes view of himself and the world began to slowly change when he ended up in basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. The Army made him a new man by the time he got out of the service and went on with his life 20 years later.
“Because I scored high on a series of tests they gave me at Jackson I was put into Military Intelligence. I was sent to a small naval intelligence school in Pensacola called Corry Station Naval Communication Center,” the 57-year-old local resident explained. “I began by learning various kinds of code. I was also taught to figure out what the bad guys were doing.”
“This was all new to me. I had come from a dysfunctional home. My father had been married eight times and my mother four times. I found the military something I hadn’t seen before. It gave me bearing and filled a void. All those college courses I took in the Army allowed me to become a school teacher later in life,” he said.
After nine months at Corry Station learning the basics of military intelligence, Gomes was reassigned to Fort Devens, Mass., headquarters for Army Intelligence. He took additional intelligence training there.
“Then I was assigned to Augsburg, Germany. It was a field station for the Army. Before we had the sophisticated satellites we have today we had field stations. They were defendable bases as close to the targeted area as possible that made it easy to pick up Soviet communications.”
Gomes doesn’t talk about what he did for the Army at Augsburg. It’s still classified.
“After going through several intelligence analysis schools I found out the Army would teach me a language. This was after I had served several tours overseas and was back at Fort Devens.
“I requested Spanish language school. However, the Army assigned me to the Russian language school,” Gomes said. “I was sent to Monterey, Calif. headquarters for the Army’s foreign language school. After a year of intensive Russian language training I could speak, read and write the language,” he said.
The fact he was fluent in Russian is the basis for his favorite war story. It was 1993, near the end of his military career, and the Soviets were touring the world trying to sell military hardware to whomever would buy it.
“The Soviets were going through hard times in ’93. They were financially bankrupt,” Gomes said. “To off set their loses they tried to sell as much military technology as possible on an air show circuit that spanned the globe. They brought their air show to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska
“I was serving as a Sgt. First Class in the 106th Military Intelligence Battalion in Alaska when the Russians showed up at Elmendorf with their air show. I was the top guy in charge of our Russian linguist when the Soviets arrived.
“I was told before the Soviets showed up that I would be escorting a KGB agent around the base. He was a guy in his mid-50s that didn’t look like a movie star. He was quiet, reserved and very disciplined. He was used to staying in the shadows.
“The Soviets had all kinds of aircraft they wanted to sell. They had fighters, transports and commercial airplanes,” Gomes said. “I was amazed at how shabby their aircraft looked. The Soviet Union had no idea how to market the products they were selling.
“Many of their aircraft only had primer paint on them instead of being painted up nice. I went through an airliner they were selling. It smelled like it had been filled with chickens and other barnyard animals.”
His main job was not to worry about the airplanes, but to take the KGB agent on a tour of the Army base.
“We met on the tarmac a couple of ‘Cold War Warriors.’ We shook hands and stood there and talked a little bit to begin with. He was in his mid-50s and I was in my mid-30s.
“I asked him where he wanted to go and what he wanted to see. He told me he wanted to go to the post exchange. He wanted to buy some trinkets he could take home and sell on the Russian black market,” Gomes said. “One of the things he wanted to buy were those little black ballpoint pens that had USA on them. I took him to get his pens.
“During the first couple of hours I was with him we broke down the ‘Cold War’ barriers. By the end of the day we were talking like a couple of old bureaucrats. At one point he asked me if I had children and a car. I told him I did. He said he too had a couple of grown kids and a car.
“At one point I told him I was thinking about getting out of the service. He cautioned me that I shouldn’t do that because I should think about the retirement pay I’d be giving up if I got out.
“During our conversations our personalities had come through. Outside our occupations we were just two human being speaking to each other. In a situation like this you find out how small the world really is,” Gomes said.
Gomes did get out of the Army that year, came home to Punta Gorda and went to work for the post office for a while. Then he decided to become a licensed general contractor after Hurricane Charley. When the building business slowed down, during the recession, he changed his occupation completely and became a substitute school teacher.
“I started teaching in Arcadia. I was teaching high school algebra and geometry out there for a while,” Gomes said.
“Then I became a teacher at Charlotte High, the school I had graduated from. I teach a behavioral unit at Charlotte, primarily science and math to a group of at risk students.”
How does a cowboy who professed not to be very good in school when he graduated 35 years earlier end up teaching high school math at the same high school he graduated from?
“Like most everything I did in life, I learned the mathematics in the service. There was always someone in the Army willing to help you learn. During the five years I’ve been teaching I’ve earned seven teaching certificates. It all goes back to what I learned in the Army.
“I got a lot out of my Army training and I would like to think the Army got their money’s worth out of me,” Gomes said with a smile.
He and his wife, Lillian, have four children: William III, Richard, Robert and Justine.
Name: William Leo Gomes, Jr.
D.O.B: 24 June 1956
Hometown: Long Beach, Calif.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 1975
Unit: 106th Military Intelligence Battalion
Commendations: Army Service Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon 3 Awards, NCO Professional Development Ribbon-3 awards, Army Good Conduct Medal 5th Award, Army Achievement Medal 3rd Oak Leaf Cluster Army Commendation Medal 1st Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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