During World War II, Terry Toler's father deployed overseas as a combat engineer but was later recruited to become a member of an elite special operations force known as the Army Rangers. Decades later, the younger Toler would unexpectedly continue the proud military tradition begun by his father when he was selected to attend Ranger training.
Growing up in Baldwin City, Kansas, Toler graduated high school in 1966 and enrolled at the University of Kansas in nearby Lawrence. As a sophomore, he won a two-year U.S. Army scholarship that paid all of his educational expenses. Following his junior year, he attended summer camp at Fort Riley, Kansas, and married his fiancée.
"I participated in the ROTC program, and when I graduated with my bachelor's degree in June of 1970, I was offered a Regular Army commission as a second lieutenant since I was the 'Distinguished Military Graduate,'" he explained.
Slated to become an officer in field artillery, Toler was surprised when he received orders to report to his first duty assignment — the U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"That was bewildering because the tradition was to attend three weeks of airborne school to build up your body and then go to Ranger School to tear it back down, but they got it backwards with me," he chuckled.
For the next eight weeks, the new officer underwent three phases of intense training that included classes on small unit leadership, navigation, the use of various types of weapons and guerrilla warfare. His training group also trained in the mountains of northern Georgia, learning to tie knots, mountaineering, rock climbing and conducting patrols. From there, they were trucked to the Florida Panhandle to conduct patrols in the swamp in addition to amphibious assault operations.
When the training was finished in August 1970, they returned to Fort Benning for graduation, receiving the coveted "Ranger Tab" that was then sewn on the shoulders of their uniforms. From there, he reported to the three-week airborne course at the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning.
"That's where we made five parachute jumps from a plane," he said. "When that training was over, I received orders for U.S. Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to attend the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course."
The next few months provided Toler with an introduction to all aspects of serving as an officer in a field artillery battery — bestowing knowledge on the different weapons systems, types of ammunition used, calculating trajectories and fire direction control.
"One of the highlights during that period of training," he recalled, "was learning to adjust artillery fire from an airplane. From the orientation and perspective in the skies above the artillery impact area, it is more of a challenge."
Returning home for Christmas of 1970, Toler enjoyed a few weeks of leave before traveling to his next duty assignment at Augsburg, Germany, accompanied by his wife. Upon his arrival, he was assigned to Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery, and was soon on his way to Grafenwoehr, Germany, where the three firing batteries conducted live fire exercises.
"My battalion consisted of 18 155mm self-propelled howitzers that looked similar to a tank," the veteran recalled. "I began my assignment as a forward observer and when my battery would fire into the impact zone, I made the adjustments of my battery to hit the target coordinates."
The battery, Toler further explained, was authorized a strength of approximately 100 soldiers, but since manpower was diverted for the Vietnam War, the battery possessed an actual complement of 60-70 soldiers who worked tirelessly to perform their mission.
He remained with Battery A after moving to Neu-Ulm in late 1971. After receiving a promotion to first lieutenant in June 1971, he became the battery's Fire Direction Officer. Continuing to participate in training maneuvers and alerts, Toler then became his battery's executive officer. He acknowledged the battery's and the 1st Infantry Division's primary purpose was to defend Europe if the Soviet Union attacked from East Germany.
"Once a year, we were part of a major military training exercise called 'REFORGER,'" he said. "Thousands of U.S. and Allied troops participated in this exercise to demonstrate our military capabilities to the Soviets and show our support of NATO."
When his overseas assignment ended in January 1974, Toler and his family, which had grown in size with the addition of a daughter, returned to the United States. Assigned to Fort Sill, the officer became part of an evaluation team engaged in the development of computerized artillery firing. In June 1974, he received promotion to captain.
"I made the decision to resign my commission in August 1974 because with the military lifestyle comes multiple moves, and I did not wish to put my family through all of that."
As the years passed, Toler's family again grew in size with the addition of two sons. The veteran was employed 28 years in manufacturing and later worked for the State Emergency Management Agency, retiring from state employment in 2013.
Now living in Jefferson City with his wife, Donna, Toler enjoys reflecting on his past military experiences. His military journey, he noted, not only carried him on a path similar to that of his father but also demonstrated how to manage the delicate balance between accomplishing the Army mission while having faith in those under one's command.
"Toward the beginning of my career, when they sent me to Ranger School, I realized that if my dad could be a Ranger, then I could, too." He jokingly added, "But I did him one better — I went to airborne school."
"Later, while I was serving in Germany, we were severely undermanned because of Vietnam, but that didn't give us any excuses — we were still required to accomplish our task of firing and maintaining the weapons," he said. "We managed to get this done but only through the efforts of the great crew chiefs and staff sergeants that supported me in the battery."
Jeremy P. mick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.