As a high school senior in 1978, Mike Smothers knew his next step after graduation: Join the Army.
Smothers answered the call after a friend showed him photos of his recent tour of duty in what was then West Germany. “It was an opportunity to go to Europe and see other places,” said Smothers, operations team leader at Plant Gorgas, which the company recently retired. “I also felt the need to serve my country and do my part.”
It was during the latter years of the Cold War, when tensions were increasing between the major international powers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Cold War, which began after World War II and lasted nearly four decades, was marked by a struggle for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union as the two countries raced to build their nuclear weapon stockpiles.
The Vietnam War had ended in 1975, and relative peace reigned around the world. But many U.S. troops were stationed in West Germany, standing ready to combat any threat that might arise from the Soviet Union, which controlled neighboring East Germany. Nevertheless, with no immediate conflicts on the horizon, soldiers had more freedom to use their leave days to travel.
After graduating from Oakman High School, Smothers headed to Fort Sill, a U.S. Army post in Comanche County, Oklahoma, in July 1978 for boot camp. There, he trained to become a field artillery surveyor.
“The hardest part was going through the training right in the middle of summer,” said Smothers, who, at the time, weighed about 125 pounds. “Exercising and running in the heat was hard, but I had been given advice just to do what you’re told. It was hard, but I pulled through it. If you want to do something, you will do it.”
When his training ended that November, Smothers was deployed to Germany, his chosen assignment. Because the Army recruitment numbers were low, soldiers were allowed to apply for their preferred duty station, Smothers said.
Smothers served in the Third Infantry Division, 76th Field Artillery Battalion, at Larson Barracks in Kitzingen, West Germany. His unit conducted “dry missions,” where they would make runs to the border to find the best places to set up the artillery if war erupted. Smothers and his comrades would relay the coordinates to Fire Direction Control, which would use the information to help gunners position weapons.
Smothers said these missions sometimes ran from dawn to midnight. At times, his unit was in the field on training missions for up to 30 days without a break.
‘In the Army Now’ as a star
There was one highlight from his Army days that brings him special pride. About a year after he was dispatched to Germany, the Army sent a professional film crew to the base to produce a “Be All You Can Be” recruitment commercial.
Smothers and another soldier were chosen from among all the service members on the base to star in the commercial. It featured Smothers and his comrade firing an artillery gun on a mission and later, enjoying the sites in the walled city of Rothenberg. The goal: Build enlistment ranks by spotlighting all the advantages of serving in the Army.
“The guys kidded me saying, ‘You’re going to get all these guys to join the Army, and they will be disappointed,’” Smothers recalled.
Smothers said the crew spent two days filming, often shooting a scene 20 times or more. “Later, people kept telling me back home, ‘Hey, we saw you in this Army commercial on TV.’ But it was not until 10 years later that I got a copy of it,” he said.
A world away from Alabama
Smothers said the biggest shock when he arrived in Germany was the extremely cold winters, which were unlike anything he had experienced back home in Alabama. The temperatures often dropped into the teens and the snow piled to more than 1 foot.
“They had one of those ’50-year’ winter storms my first year there,” said Smothers. “I remember they had to shut down the autobahn. But just because it was cold and snowing, the training didn’t stop.”
When he was not in the field training, Smothers toured Germany and surrounding countries. Along with traveling to London and Paris, he visited various well-known German sites, such as Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the structures that inspired Walt Disney’s creation of Cinderella’s Castle, and Dachau, the first concentration camp built by German Nazis during World War II.
His most moving memory actually took place during his flight home after serving for 32 months overseas.
“When I flew home, it was the Fourth of July,” Smothers said. “The stewardess came over the intercom and said, ‘You’ve just entered U.S. airspace.’ Somebody on the plane started singing, ‘God Bless America,’ and then, everybody started singing. I don’t think there was a dry eye on the plane. It sent chills up my spine.”
After returning home in 1981, Smothers worked for a short time in Jasper as a surveyor at two local companies, Perc Engineering and Matthew and Hyre Engineering. Then, in 1983, he landed a job at Alabama Power as a laborer at Gorgas Steam Plant.
Except for six months at Plant Miller, Smothers has worked at Gorgas throughout his 39-year career, moving up the ranks in Operations until taking the reins as the department’s team leader.
“I learned to be a leader in the military, which has prepared me for my leadership role now,” Smothers said. “I learned patience, problem-solving and how to interact with different people in different situations.”
Gorgas hosts an annual celebration recognizing employees who have served in the military. For the past few years, except during the pandemic, Smothers has coordinated the event, which takes place before Veterans Day.
“When I was in Germany, I realized the seriousness of it,” Smothers said. “We were over there for a reason. It wasn’t just to have a good time. We were there holding the line for the United States in case war broke out between Warsaw Pact and NATO members.”
Alabama NewsCenter is profiling Alabama Power employees who served in the Armed Forces in honor of Veterans Day. This story originally appeared in Powergrams, the company’s magazine for employees and retirees.