Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Richards wants the Ottawa youth to know a small-town Kansas kid can accomplish great things.
Richards was the main speaker Thursday afternoon at the Ottawa Middle School’s Veterans Day assembly. Richards, who grew up in Chanute, a town similar to Ottawa, but slightly smaller, was able to be part of American history because of his service in the Air Force, he said.
“Even as a kid from small-town Kansas, you can go on and see the world, witness things firsthand and be a part of history,” Richards said. “Make an impact. Sometimes they look at ‘I am from Ottawa and I can’t go do this.’ I was part of history, you can be too.”
Richards served in the 1990s when Desert Storm began. He spent time in Korea and Kuwait during his Air Force career.
“I grew up as a regular kid,” Richards told the students. “I went to school. Everything that I did growing up as a kid and as a student is all building blocks. It served me well when I did enter the military. Everything you guys are doing now, it may seem like it is ridiculous as you have to learn to do this or that, but it is all building blocks. Whatever your goals are, what you are doing now, is preparing you for what you may have to do a year from now.”
Richards used those building blocks for a successful military life, which led to him being sheriff. Richards said right before entering the military, he spent time working as a reserve and part-time deputy in Chanute.
“That helped me succeed in my law enforcement career in the Air Force,” Richards said. “Because of that I was selected for that special assignment with the Korean national police. That helped me get a special assignment in Colorado as well. While I was there, I got promoted three times.”
Richards, who comes from a military family background, said it was a natural thing for him to serve. He entered the Air Force in 1991.
He told the students his training included law enforcement school, machine gunner school, air base ground defense, which is advanced combat.
“You get to go out and crawl through the mud and blow stuff up,” he said. “It was a blast.”
That led to his assignment in the Air Force Presidential Honor Guard where he was assigned to the White House, Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery.
“Arlington Cemetery is the most well-known of the national cemeteries,” Richards said.
“That is where the tomb of the unknown [soldier] is located. A lot of ceremonies happen there. I spent three years doing the final honors for military veterans that we buried in that cemetery.”
He told of how he was part of the inauguration welcoming committee when Bill Clinton became president. He participated in a funeral for Gen. Billy Mitchell.
“I got to do some special things,” he said. “I was just a kid from small-town Kansas just like you guys are. I paid attention and I applied myself and I was able to go on and do some of those things. Each of you will have some of the same opportunities, if you take advantage of them.”
Richards became a SWAT team member after he was assigned to Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri.
“It is just as cool as it looks like in the movies,” he said. “I got to repel down buildings. I got to climb up the side of buildings and throw hand grenades into windows. It was a great time.”
He ended his military career at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and spent time in Kuwait.
“While I was in Kuwait, I got to use some of the experiences I had in other places,” Richards said. “I say unfortunately because my first assignment was the Air Force Honor Guard doing military honor funerals. Everybody in the military says I am willing to make that sacrifice. A couple of guys that I deployed with did. I was the sergeant in charge of their detail. We sent those guys home in a flag-draped box. Not how you want to leave Kuwait. Because of the experiences, I was able to send them home with honors and dignity.”
Richards said because of those life experiences, Veterans Day has a special meaning.
“Veterans Day to me is a time to reflect on the memories I have of the people that I served with,” he said. “Those two guys [I deployed with] come to the top for me because they made the ultimate sacrifice. Until somebody shares their personal story, they don’t realize it is a personal sacrifice.”