OKEECHOBEE — Many years before he became a judge, Jerry Bryant became a Marine. Although his parents lived in Okeechobee, he was born in Jacksonville, because his mother wanted to be with her parents when she gave birth. He grew up in Okeechobee and graduated during the Vietnam War. At that time, if you did not go to college or have some other type of deferment, such as medical, you would most likely be drafted, so he went off to college. His older brother was a career Coast Guardsman and was stationed in Miami. Mr. Bryant went down to live with him and his wife and attend Miami-Dade Junior College.
He soon realized he was not ready for college, though, despite having done well in high school. He had scored second in his class on the senior placement test. After two semesters, he dropped out and went to work. He came back to Okeechobee, and it wasn’t long before he received papers instructing him to go for a physical. He knew what was coming next and did not want to be drafted into the Army, so he went down to the recruiters’ office in Fort Pierce and talked to the Air Force recruiter. He was hoping for a delayed enlistment, because he had some things he wanted to finish up. The Air Force recruiter told him he could give him 90 days, and Mr. Bryant signed up, but a week later, he got a letter to report.
So he called the recruiter, who said, “It wasn’t a guarantee.” He went to talk to the Marine recruiter, who told him if he had not been sworn in, he could back out, so that is what he did. Then, he signed up for the Marine Corps with an aviation guarantee.
A little over three months later, he was in Parris Island, S.C., and spent nine weeks there. From there, he went to infantry training. All Marines are trained riflemen and basic infantry, he explained. He did his infantry training at Camp Lejeune and then was sent to a naval station in Memphis. Back then, the Marines were part of the Navy. He went there for aviation-related training, and because of his test scores, he was put in avionics which is the highest level of aviation MOS (military occupational specialty code). He finished the first part of the school three weeks ahead of schedule, so they put him in a second, more advanced class.
When he completed his training, he was sent to Buford, S.C., and they left him there for the next three years. He was an avionics technician, but he was also a radar technician on F-4 Phantom jets and A-4 Sky Hawks. There were two HAMs (headquarters and maintenance squadrons) on the base. The people who worked on the aircrafts in the field did what was called line level maintenance, so if a radar unit quit working, and they couldn’t fix it, they would send it back to HAMs, an intermediate level. All the electronics are in black boxes in a compartment in the aircraft, and they would pull the box out, and send it back to them to be fixed.
While he was stationed there, he spent his lunch hour working out in the weight room, and one day as he was walking back and passed the HAMs’ hangers, he saw two jets rise above the trees like a helicopter would. The jets moved to the left and then to the right, turned around in a circle and took off. He went back and told his gunnery sergeant what he had seen, and they went to see what was going on. It turned out to be a new jet they were demonstrating for VIPs. The jets had ports on the sides which could be aimed out the back or turned downward. When they turned down, the jets could lift straight up in the air. “It was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” he said.In order to get those, they needed a squadron, and that meant they had to get rid of one of the squadrons they already had, which was an A-4 squadron. They moved it somewhere else and left the Phantom squadrons and the new Harrier squadron. There were still a bunch of guys who were A-4 radar techs on the base, but there were no A-4 squadrons anymore. He and his friends thought that because there were no A-4 squadrons located there, the Marine Corps never thought to look there for A-4 MOSs to send anywhere else, and that was why they were left there for their entire tours. “There were probably 20 of us who stayed there the whole time,” he said.
They had them do other things, and Mr. Bryant was moved to test equipment. This was the equipment used to test the box and figure out what needed to be done to repair it. He was the recordkeeper, who made sure every piece of equipment was calibrated properly. He also was responsible to fly to Cherry Point, N.C., to bring the equipment that needed repairs to the people who worked on them and pick up the equipment that was ready and bring it back every Tuesday.
A couple months before he enlisted, a very close friend, Jim Goolsby, was killed in Vietnam just a few days before he would have left Vietnam to come home. The idea of going to Vietnam did not thrill Mr. Bryant, but, he said, they would not have sent him anyway, because a Marine in aviation would have gone out on an aircraft carrier or would have gone to Japan or Okinawa. They would not be out in the middle of the jungle. “I wasn’t afraid to go to Vietnam, but I didn’t have any desire to go,” he said.
“Marine Corps was probably one of the better things that ever happened to me. It was good for discipline and taught me not to panic in emergencies. I feel like I keep a cool head when something is going on, and I respond quickly.”
One of his favorite things about the military was being able to do a lot of shooting. He was high shooter in his platoon the day before qualifying, but the next day, someone beat his score. “I got to shoot whenever I wanted, and they paid for the bullets,” he laughed.
He has always made it a practice to give everything he does his very best effort. “I heard it said one time, if you aren’t the lead dog on the sled, your view never changes. I like to move my way up to the front.” He was a squad leader and was at the front of his column throughout boot camp. He received meritorious promotions. He got his commanding officer’s commendation for work he did. “I worked hard to get those things,” he said. “If you’re going to be there, you might as well try to do the best you can. I do that with everything ,really.”
He served four years, and then came home. By then, he was ready for college. He went to Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce and, about six months later, met his wife, Carol. Later, he went to Stetson University for law school. He worked as a lawyer from 1982 until he became a judge in 2007.