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Veteran recalls service in Panama
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Veteran recalls service in Panama

Shelby County, Mo., farmer Brad Blaise

Shelby County, Mo., farmer Brad Blaise says his work with the Navy Seabees instilled in him the importance of not giving up, which he says helped in building his farming operation. 

LEONARD, Mo. — In a quiet, mostly flat area of Shelby County, Missouri, Brad Blaise prepared to resume corn harvest as soon as fields dried out after the latest October rain. A chilly wind scurried across the farm, stirring two American flags attached to the combine. Blaise glanced up at the patches of red, white and blue dancing in the autumn breeze. He had traveled great distances in service of that flag during his time in the U.S. Navy.

“I’m very proud of my service to my country,” he says. “I’m proud to be an American farmer.”

Blaise graduated from high school just down the road in 1987. He joined the Navy right after graduating, and those years in the service would shape who he is and support his career in farming. Blaise’s parents did not farm, but he worked on area farms as a hired hand in high school and helped on his uncle’s farm. That was his ultimate career goal.

“I knew I wanted to farm,” he says. “I knew it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how, but I was going to get there.”

While in the military, Blaise served in the Navy Seabees, the construction battalion. One of the Seabees’ mottos is “Can do,” and he says that mindset served him well building his farming operation from the ground up.

“The military kind of instilled in me ‘never give up,’” Blaise says.

He reported to boot camp in July 1987, beginning his three years of active duty. Blaise says it was an eight-year commitment, with three years of active reserves and two years of inactive reserves after active duty, although his reserve time got canceled because of Operation Desert Storm.

Blaise was first deployed to Okinawa, Japan, for six months in 1988. After that he was stationed in Port Hueneme, in southern California. He also got to see Alaska, Hawaii and the Wake Islands, refueling at each of those.

Then came perhaps the most memorable part of his time in the Navy, when he was sent to Panama in late 1989 as part of the U.S. military effort to remove military dictator Manuel Noriega from power.

“Those people weren’t free,” Blaise says. “The mission was to take him out and restore democracy.”

The mission was a success, and 30 years later Blaise and his wife, Lorie, returned to Panama to take a cruise on the Panama Canal. He says it was a powerful thing to see the free Panamanian people.

“I got to see the end result,” he says. “… I didn’t realize at the time the difference we were making.”

Blaise also saw the cost of military action while serving in Panama, which he described with emotion in his voice.

“We lost some people in Panama,” he says, pausing briefly before continuing. “Freedom’s not free.”

Blaise says his farming background gave his officers’ confidence in him to work with machinery as part of his construction work.

“Once they found out I was from a farm, they let me on some equipment,” he says.

He ended his active duty as a 3rd Class Petty Officer. He recently got invited to a reunion that included some of the people he served with, and he says it has been a nice opportunity to reflect on his time in the Navy.

After his time in the service, Blaise gradually built his farming operation. He and Lorie bought 40 acres in 1992 to get started, also raising hogs to help pay for the land.

Blaise worked some jobs off the farm, and Lorie ran a daycare out of their home. This December will mark 34 years of marriage for the couple, and Blaise says he couldn’t have done what he has without her.

“She’s went through the thick and the thin with me,” he says.

Today, they own 300 acres, and row crop around 600 acres including rental ground, and they also have a cow-calf operation and some hogs. Their two kids, Brittany and Brian, both live close by, and Blaise says he’s been blessed with four grandchildren, calling it a highlight of his life.

Blaise says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who was born into a family farming operation, but he is grateful he has been able to start one for himself.

“This is where I wanted to be,” he says. “I haven’t had anything given to me, but I’ve had some good help. … I love what I do.”

Still, Blaise says he is not finished, and he tells his kids he doesn’t call his experience a success story yet, in the sense that he wants to continue developing his operation and making improvements. But he does call it a dream come true.

“I feel like I’ve lived the American dream,” he says. “Anything’s possible.”

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Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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