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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Our "Telling the Navy League Story" series takes a look at what makes our members so passionate to volunteer their time and support the sea services. 

Name: Bobby Ferguson
Navy League Council: Glenview Council
Council Location: Glenview, Illinois
Years a Member: 30

What’s your personal connection to the sea services before you became a Navy League member?

I did serve in the Navy for three years. But I didn't get active in the Navy League until my son joined the Navy. He enlisted, and I felt if people were going to welcome him back from a cruise when he came back to the dock, slap him on the back, thank him, give him a beer, I ought to do the same thing for people who send their kids to [Naval Station] Great Lakes.

How did you first learn about the Navy League, and how did you end up joining?

My boss found out I had been in the Navy and he said, “Ferguson, you will join the Navy League.” So I did it, you know, out of sort of an obligation to him to shut him up. But to choose to get actively involved was more of a personal decision that I made, because I saw the value and the worth of what the Navy League does, and that motivated me to jump in and do what I could to help the cause.

I was working for the federal government, and he was a presidential appointee. I worked directly for him. It was a little small agency, totally nothing to do with defense, a little small agency in Chicago.

Can you tell me about a time or event you recall where you felt like your work as a volunteer made a real difference?

There are so many. There are so many. I remember we were not supporting the Coast Guard up in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, as we should. There are three units up there, and so as region president I went up there one time to see how we could help them out, how we could support them. One of the things that all three of the units suggested was, “Do something for our spouses,” because they're up there away from any military structure, you know, the advantages to have a PX [post exchange], medical, things like that. They had none of that. They just had to live off the local economy.

I met some amazing women who, you know, they don't get a lot of money, they don't have a big income, they've got small children, they have challenges like we cannot even imagine. I met one particular woman who was deaf. She could not speak, she could not hear. She had two small children. And she's a Coast Guard wife, and she's got these two small children, which means her husband was gone a lot of the time. I couldn't figure out how in the world she raised two children, not being able to communicate. But she explained to me, and her friends were helping out, but they bonded, they helped each other out, and she explained to me how they just ... rudimentary signals with her hands and things like that ... she was able to communicate with her children. But there was such a bond between her and that child. And I thought, the challenges I face as an individual are nothing compared to what a lot of these women have to face. I knew it was the right thing to do for us to support them.

How have you personally been affected by your work through the Navy League?

I think it's given me a lot of purpose in my life. I retired relatively early, working for the federal government, and I could retire at age 55. I chose to do so. But I knew I had to do something with my time and my efforts or else I would get in trouble. So, I got more and more involved. As I said, when my son joined the Navy, and I got to meet some incredible people, some of the best people you could ever meet.

I can remember working with the Coast Guard helicopter detachment up in Waukegan, Illinois. These people are willing to jump out of a perfectly good helicopter to save my life. Those are the kind of people I decided I wanted to hang with. You know, I could go downtown Chicago and meet orange hairs and piercings and tattoos and all this kind of stuff, and that's fine for them, but they're not the people I wanted to hang out with. I wanted to hang out with people who served a purpose bigger than themselves, who wanted to do good, who wanted to save lives, and were willing to take the risk and subject themselves and their families to the rigors of military life. I decided that's the kind of people who deserve my attention and my effort.

If someone's not a Navy League member why should they join?

A lot of people get involved in a lot of volunteer activities. A lot of times it's a result of things that happen to us. For example, I have friends who are very involved with the [National] MS [Multiple Sclerosis] Society, and it’s because they or a family member had MS.

I salute them because obviously that's a cause that's very worthy and it needs it. There are also people who ... have a connection to the sea services, and for that reason maybe they get involved.

But somebody who has no connection to anything and are looking for a way to add meaning to their life, to do something worthwhile, to feel good about themselves because of what they're doing, the feedback you get from these military families is just incredible. I get more out of it than I ever give to them. And so it adds meaning to my life, it adds depth and value to my life, and I feel like I'm doing something that I should be doing. You know, I could go out and carouse and go to bars or whatever, things like that, or I could sit home and watch TV and just wither away. But it has kept me alive; it's kept me young.

And dealing with the military people, again, it's people who just want to give. They are willing to make sacrifices. They want to give. And those are, again, the people that I want to be with and the people that I want to help. I think that's an argument for somebody else to say. If you're looking for a place to apply your efforts, your skills, your caring, give it to these folks who make such sacrifices.

I have a very vivid memory of going down to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and going to a joint task force down there where they hold the detainees that they collected from the battlefields. It's a visual that drove home to me what the Navy, Marine Corps, the Coast Guard do for us. It was this: They took me into one of the camps, and this was a camp where people were compliant, they didn't break the rules, and they behaved themselves generally. But they were being held in a pod of 12 people like themselves, and they took me ... walking around a circle, and these pods were on the outside.

It's one-way glass, so I can see them, [but] they couldn't see me. But between me and that pod was what they call a sally gate, and it's about six feet by eight feet. Inside that sally gate was a Sailor or Marine or a Soldier. I'm sitting there and I'm looking, and I can see the bad guy across the way there, and he was maybe 30, 40 feet away from me. And I said, “There's the bad guy, and here I am. The only thing standing between me and that bad guy is that Sailor, that Marine, that Soldier standing in that sally gate.”

I applied that across the scale of the world. Over in the Mideast there were some bad guys. I mean, there's bad guys everywhere, but there were specifically people in the Middle East who were bad guys, and I'm here, and they want to stop me from living the way I live and take away the goodness I have, and the only thing stopping them from being able to come across and get me is that guy in the sally gate, that Soldier, that Sailor, that Marine, that is out there for us between the bad guys and me, keeping me safe. And it was just a visual of what we as the Navy League do that we support those guys who protect and defend us. 

I tell the story sometimes when I'm talking in front of a group, is that when I hear a Soldier or Sailor, a Marine take the oath of office, they raise their right hand, and they swear to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. Well, that's what they say. What my ear hears is that, "I do solemnly swear to defend and uphold Bobby Ferguson." I take it personally. They're taking that oath because they're gonna defend me. They're willing to defend me.

It seems to me, I might be wrong, but it seems to me that if somebody is willing to put their life on the line to protect me, I think I owe them something. I think I owe them something.