Hal Bullock sits on the porch of his home in south Columbus — where he’s known for greeting or waving to people who walk by on the sidewalk — on Sunday afternoon. Bullock spent 30 years in the United States Air Force working as a communications officer, a career that included everything from helping program software at NASA to setting up communications systems in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
January 21, 2019 11:09:39 AM
When Hal Bullock was three days into a mission on a Navy vessel in the Pacific in the mid-1990s, China began firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait -- turning what had been a training mission into planning a potential war.
At the time, Bullock was a joint task force training officer who taught the staffs of three-star generals and admirals how to fight wars using forces from multiple military branches -- Air Force, Naval forces and Marines.
On this particular mission, the admiral whose staff he was teaching interrupted the training.
"He said, 'Ok, it's been a good training exercise. Training's over. We're doing this for real,'" Bullock said. "...So for the next 30 days, we planned how to fight the Chinese."
Though the war thankfully didn't happen, it was the only time Bullock ever remembered calling his wife, Pam, from a ship to tell her he didn't know when he was going to be home. It was also the only time a plan he helped create ended up as part of a briefing before a U.S. president -- something he didn't find out until after the briefing had already happened.
A world career
Now a resident of Columbus for more than half a decade, Hal says he's known around town as the guy who sits on the porch of his Fifth Avenue South home and waves to people on the sidewalk -- to the point where strangers in Walmart have approached him and told him they see him there all the time. Most of them probably have no idea he's full of such stories from a 30-year Air Force career, which included everything from helping program software at NASA in the early 1980s to helping set up communications systems in Afghanistan in the years following Sept. 11.
It was an unusual career for someone in the Air Force, he says. He was not a pilot, and he spent many assignments working with the Navy, Army and Marines, where his specialty was computer science.
"When I started, the computer world was still using punch cards," Hal said. "When I finished, we were heavily into artificial intelligence and linked systems across the internet. ... Airplanes had IP addresses. It was quite a change over 30 years."
Hal and Pam lived in more than 10 different homes around the world, raising their two daughters in places like Hawaii and Germany and giving the whole family the opportunity to travel all over the world -- something the two girls didn't realize was special until they were in high school, Pam said.
She and Hal recalled one note from their younger daughter's high school geography teacher.
"She said, 'Every time we talk about a place, Rebecca claims to have been there,'" Hal said. "Has she really seen the pyramids? Has she seen the Eiffel Tower?'"
It annoyed Pam, who felt the teacher was questioning her daughter's character.
"I said, 'Do you want her to bring pictures in?'" she said. "She can do some show and tell.'"
Though neither of Hal's daughters went into the military, they both retain some of the habits of military families, Hal and Pam said. Rebecca in particular travels all over the world and is currently a teacher in South Korea.
Hal retired for about one month in 2011 before taking a job as an IT director at Mississippi State, where he said he's blessed to still be working in the rapidly changing computer field. But he still loves the military and appreciates the people he worked with over the years -- people he compared to those who work with Doctors Without Borders or other relief organizations staffed with compassionate, often poorly paid people who want to serve others.
"It's a calling," he said. "It's not a job. ... A lot of young people who join the military still feel that way. 'It is something I do because the country deserves people to take care of it and to take care of the other people who don't feel called to do it.'"
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