While just four years of Kenneth J. Asam Jr.’s life were spent in the U.S. Air Force, those four years made a major impact.
He remembers his first day at technical instructor school when he had to give a speech.
“My knees were literally knocking together,” he said, chuckling.
Since then, he’s used his experience as an instructor, among others, to benefit himself and his community, such as at last week’s Veteran Ceremony at the Bella Vida senior center.
“There were more than 350 people there, and I didn’t even think about it — I just got up there and talked,” he said.
This ceremony honored veterans for the recent holiday, and Asam was proud to participate.
Asam was born on Oct. 9, 1942, in Detroit. After the war, his family moved to St. Claire, Michigan, for his father’s work, and then a few years later to Jordan, New York, where he grew up.
He was the oldest of six, and though he hardly remembers his youngest brother growing up due to the 16-year difference between them, he and his siblings were close.
In the summertime, his family would go camping. “Where we camped, you had to take a boat to get to the campsite.”
In the winter, he and his brother would go skiing.
“I remember one time being in school, and the girls getting upset, asking where I got my tan in the middle of winter,” he said, chuckling.
Asam enjoyed high school as he was involved in a lot of things, such as being class photographer for the yearbook and as student manager in the cafeteria. He even received an outstanding citizenship award in his senior year.
He attended Paul Smith’s College, which he graduated from with a degree in hotel and restaurant management.
“In the fall, I got a job with a profit company that was out of Detroit,” he said. “So, I worked for them for about two and a half years, and guess what — I get a letter from my favorite draft board.”
Asam went to visit the recruiters for each branch of service, ultimately deciding on the Air Force.
Asam scored high on the Air Force’s aptitude test, so he had his choice of career fields and could’ve chosen to stick with food services, but decided he wanted to try something new.
“I said, ‘If I have to start all over with something, I want to start all over with something I don’t know anything about,’” he said, adding, “and that is one of the smartest things I ever said.”
He picked “general” and was given a job as an electronic emissions analysis specialist, which was a classified position in security services.
In March 1964, Asam went to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for eight-week basic training, where he volunteered to be one of the leaders.
“The first thing they tell you is to never volunteer,” he said. “They said they were looking for tall volunteers and, like a dummy, I volunteered.”
After basic training, he was sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi for job-specific training.
While growing up, his brother was a ham radio operator and had his license by the sixth grade.
“Just by being in the same room with him, I guess I picked it up by osmosis,” he added, laughing.
He was then sent to Wakkanai Air Station, which is located at the northern end of Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, just miles from Russian island Sakhalin.
“It’s up where winter is winter,” he said, adding that they saw quite a bit of snow throughout the year.
This was the first time he was able to put his training into practice, and he said he quickly realized that the job really fit him. “I thought I was doing something important.”
He was attached to an electronic intelligence-gathering post, where he monitored all of the area’s communication.
“My experience was ahead of my age, so I was kind of frozen because I wasn’t old enough to move up the ladder,” he added. “It wasn’t knowledge or performance, it was age.”
He enjoyed Japan as he was able to continue his photography hobby with plenty of new subjects and scenery.
After 15 months in Japan, Asam returned to Keesler to attend technical instructor school, which he said was another great thing to happen to him.
“The way I saw it was the first three years were worth it — I learned something new every one of the first three years, and the fourth year was the price to pay for the first three,” he said, jokingly.
After a couple of years instructing students, Asam’s enlistment came to an end, and he was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in March 1968. “I was in the first group to make it to E-5 in under four years since the Korean War.”
A month before Asam left the service, he read an article in a trade journal about computer applications to the hotel industry. “It all comes together.”
“I sent out 66 resumes, which blanketed the hotel industry at that time,” he added.
He ended up taking a position at Ramada headquarters in Phoenix as an internal auditor auditing hotels across the country.
“I literally traveled all over the country,” he said, often driving more than 1,000 miles per week.
He remained with the company for more than 10 years, first working as an auditor, then helping with new hotel acquisitions and mergers, all while using many of the computer and instructional skills he had picked up while in the Air Force.
Through his work with Ramada, he was introduced to Old Hickory Furniture Co., located in Indianapolis, Indiana, and eventually, he was named the vice president and general manager of the company.
His family stayed in Indianapolis until he and his wife retired in 2010, which was when they decided to move to California to be closer to their children and grandchildren. “And then, within a week (of retiring), we were on the road out here.”
Almost three years ago, Asam suffered a retinal vein occlusion, which is commonly referred to as an “eye stroke,” and lost vision in his left eye. “I see some silhouettes, but not enough.”
While at the Veterans Health Administration, he found out about OrCam MyEye, a portable device that reads text and identifies objects through audio feedback.
“I think what really got it for me was that I told them that I can’t identify my wife sometimes,” he said, chuckling.
Upon receiving the device, he realized it came with a small manual, which was not visually impaired friendly.
“If you had 20/20 vision you couldn’t read it,” he said, adding that it didn’t include an explanation of the various settings. “Eventually, I figured it out myself. I listened to this thing repeatedly, copied down the different settings and the ranges they had for each one. So, I wrote my own lesson plan, which I learned how to do while I was in the service.”
Since then, the device has not only greatly improved his quality of life but has also gotten him involved in various organizations.
“Within a couple of months (of joining), I’m the vice president of the southern region for the Blinded Veterans Association,” he said, adding that he was once again able to use his military training to help him help others.
Now, Asam has returned to having a hand in quite a few organizations, including the Bella Vida SCV Senior Center’s visually impaired group as well as chairman of the center’s veterans committee.