OKEECHOBEE — Rex Erwin calls himself an Army brat, because his father was a Korea and Vietnam veteran, who did a total of three tours and retired as a sergeant major. He served in the Honduras 173rd Airborne Infantry Division. He was an LRRP (long-range reconnaissance patrol) member in Korea and also served in the 182nd Airborne Division twice in Vietnam.
Not only did Mr. Erwin grow up to serve in the military, but his older sister served in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Her husband also retired at the same rank. He was in the 182nd Airborne division which is where he met Mr. Erwin’s sister, when they were stationed in Panama. He did a couple of tours and was a ranger in Vietnam. When they reformed the rangers in 1975, he was one of the first sergeants they picked up there, and they brought him back to help train the new rangers.
Mr. Erwin is very proud of his family’s long history of service to the country. They inspired him to join the military. “He felt it was his duty to his country,” he said, “and he was happy to serve his time.”
Mr. Erwin has lived in Okeechobee since 1970 but was born in Fort Benning, Ga. His dad had a heart attack in Vietnam when he was only 39 years old, and they moved to North Carolina and then to Tampa where Mr. Erwin’s aunt and uncle lived, but they finally settled in Okeechobee where he had more family. Except for his stint in the military, college and a short period in Vero Beach, he has lived here ever since, he said.
He joined the military right out of high school. He was slated to go to college — had already been accepted at a couple of schools, but he turned 18 and decided to join. He did it without telling his mother. His dad had passed away earlier that year while he was a senior in high school, and he went to take the ASVAB. He just went home and said, “Hey mom, I joined the Army.” She wasn’t mad but was a little shocked, although he doesn’t know why since the entire family had been in the military. She should have guessed it was coming.
He went back to Fort Benning, for basic training, AIT and jump school. He was an 11Bravo, infantryman. He did a little time with a ranger battalion and then wound up going to 82nd Airborne Division.
He was part of Operation “Urgent Fury.” This was when they liberated the people of Grenada, he explained. “I was very fortunate. It only takes one shot, as Charlie Norris told me. Two people from my unit were killed there, and that was really tragic. One of them was shot in the back as we were leaving.” It was a fluke they even went, he said. At that time, the military was experimenting with cohort companies, which meant they put guys together from basic to AIT to jump school or wherever and they just took sergeants from there, and they did not consider them combat ready. Mr. Erwin’s company had just come off a Division Ready Force One, and they just happened to pick his company to go, because they had not completely stood down yet. He was with a bunch of buddies at a bar, and there was an announcement that they needed to report to post immediately. They should have been on what was the lowest level of readiness, and they wondered, “What the heck is going on!” They loaded them up, and they knew it was the real deal when they started passing out ammunition, he said.
It was a pleasure to serve and a pleasure to be a part of an organization that respects people for being people, which he thinks we could use a lot more of now in this country. One of the most important things he thinks he learned in the service is that it does not matter where a person is from or what he or she looks like, as long as they have your back, “your six.” He believes military people are the least prejudiced people out there because they have learned this lesson.
Mr. Erwin is active with the VFW, the Amvets and the American Legion. He is the judge advocate for the Amvets. With the VFW, he is the chief of staff for District 11. They were an All-American District this year and are hoping to do it again next year. Charlie Norris is their commander, and Mr. Erwin really likes him and thinks he is a great commander. “He is a hometown guy and does a lot for the community,” he said. “He is the one who got me involved with the VFW,” he said.
He was a big part of the veterans’ fishing tournament they had recently. He was able to get his wife’s company involved with it. Veterans are his real focus right now. “I love them, whether they are veterans of foreign wars or were just in the military at some point,” he said.
Mr. Erwin and his wife, Rachel, have been married for 33 years and have three wonderful children, two boys and one girl, who are all successful. One is a football coach at Sanford Seminole High School, one is a coach at a magnet school in Tampa and his daughter works for a huge company that does concessions for stadiums. She has about 200 employees who work for her. They move her around a lot, where they need her to be. He is very proud of his children. His wife is a Doctor of Nurse Practitioning now, he said, and he is so proud of her.
Mr. Erwin went into education and has been a special ed teacher at Seminole Elementary School for 26 or 27 years. It’s very unusual for someone to stay at one school for so long and to stay in special education for so long, but he truly loves his job, loves the kids and loves the challenge. People tell you not to bring your work home, but he does. He brings his work home every night, because he is always proud of at least one thing that happened that day — he made some kind of impact on a child that day. “If it’s just one kid, I’m fine with that,” he said.