OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Bryant Culpepper was born in Salinas, California, but after a visit to Florida when his grandfather was dying, his mother saw the beach and fell in love with it, he said. They went back home, packed up and moved to Florida. Commissioner Culpepper’s great-grandfather originally came to Belle Glade in 1909 from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. According to family legend, he was the first farmer on Tory Island, but because records don’t go back that far, Commissioner Culpepper has never been able to verify that.
The family moved to West Palm, and he went to school there. Because his father, grandfather and uncles had all been in the Navy, that was what Commissioner Culpepper planned to do with his life too. It was a family tradition, he said. He wanted to serve his country in whatever way they needed him to.
You go where they tell you to go. He decided to join early because he knew what he wanted to do, and he felt if he went ahead and joined the reserves during high school, he could get basic training out of the way ahead of time. He did his boot camp over the summer in Great Lakes, Illinois, and then as soon as he graduated, he went straight into the Navy.
Before he went into the Navy, he said he met a wonderful woman — his wife of 50 years, and they got married. He found out that when you go in the military, you don’t go where you want to go. When he got his orders to ship out, he was sent to Naples, Italy. The ironic thing was, he said, every morning there was a list put out called “Ports of Call.” It’s a list of where each person is going to go, he said. The list came out, and the 24 names above him were going to Vietnam. The 25 names below him were going to Vietnam. He was going to Naples, Italy. He had no clue why. The only thing he could think of was because he had a brother who was very sick. He had a congenital lung disease. Maybe they didn’t want his mother to have the potential to lose both her sons, he thought. “Maybe divine intervention; Call it whatever you want to call it, but that’s what happened,” he said.
When he originally got his orders to Naples, he couldn’t take his wife. His job was in the Fleet Mail Center. He handled all the registered mail for the Army Post Office (APO) and Fleet Post Office (FPO.) Once he got established and got an apartment, his wife was able to join him, but the hours of the job made it impossible for them to have much of a life together, he said. He worked mostly nights.
Because he wasn’t paid much — $237 a month, he worked weekends at the base hobby/auto shop. For that job, he had to learn Italian in order to buy the parts, and he picked the language up pretty quickly, he said. This skill was to come in very handy in an unexpected way.
The day came when Mr. Sunglow, a Filipino gentleman who worked for the captain, was retiring, and they put in a billet for anyone who wanted to be the administrator’s assistant. Commissioner Culpepper thought, “Boy, that would be nice — Monday through Friday — off every day at 3:30 — You don’t have to stand any watches. I’m all about that!”
The captain walked in and said, “Okay, who can speak Italian?” Commissioner Culpepper immediately raised his hand and began speaking to him in Italian, and the captain told him he was it. All the other guys were like, “What? What just happened?”
So, he got the job, and it was wonderful, he said. On weekends, he and his wife went to Rome and Florence. It was a wonderful education. Living in a foreign country does two things, he said. It educates you about things that happened hundreds of years ago, but it also makes you appreciate where you came from. It made him appreciate America all the more. His parents were able to come over and spend three months with them, and that was very special for him. It was a dream for his mom, and it meant a lot to him to be able to help her fulfill that dream.
When he came home, he went to work for the fire department and worked there for almost 23 years before retiring.
Because he didn’t serve in a combat zone, he never felt like he had the right to wear hats or shirts that said he was a veteran. After all, he didn’t risk his life. His biggest fear was getting run over by a Fiat crossing the road to get a pizza. That was the biggest danger he faced. So when he came back he didn’t feel like he deserved to be called a veteran.
He always makes a point of thanking other veterans, especially Vietnam veterans because they didn’t get that when they came back, he said. So one day, when he was talking to a veteran, the man asked him about his service, and he told him he worked in the fleet mail center during the war. He explained that he doesn’t wear a hat or paraphernalia because he doesn’t think he deserves it, and the man said “let me tell you something, do you know how important it was for us, especially those of us who were serving in combat zones to get that mail from home? That’s big! Don’t sell yourself short.”
So for the first time, he went out and bought a hat. That was only in the last year or so, and he was blown away by how many people stick out their hand and say thank you for your service. He still believes he’s not fit to carry the undershorts of a combat veteran, but he’s glad to know his services mattered in some way. You can’t choose where you go. “I did what I was told to do just like my father, grandfather and everyone before me, he said.