Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

December 23, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: The colonel lays it all out

Col. Colin Chauret was a fighter pilot who served his country in three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He grew up in Bay City, where he spent his high school years daydreaming about being a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain.

He graduated, enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and never looked back.

"I'm proud I made full colonel without a college degree. You couldn't do that today," he told me from San Antonio, where he lives today. He has a Bronze Star and a chest full of medals, many from the 100 combat missions he flew as a fighter pilot in Korea.

Though he has lived in Texas since he retired from the Air Force, he keeps a close eye on what's happening in his native Michigan. He also has strong political opinions, and for the last two decades, has stopped being shy about expressing them.

But they aren't what you might think.

"Gov. Rick Snyder? You ask what I think of him? Lower than the belly of a snake. 'Right to work,' as Snyder proposes, should be called 'right to be fired without cause.' Does he really hate the common man this much?

"You know, I hate to say it, but since the second Bush, there's really been a neo-fascist element in the Republican Party."

The colonel fumed. "It makes me wonder why I and other military have risked what we have, including those that made the supreme sacrifice, fought for, when one of our states is taken over by a little dictator. This is not short of criminal, it is criminal."

We aren't accustomed to thinking of career military men as liberals, but the colonel, a devoutly religious man who believes God saved him from a 1949 plane crash, doesn't shy away from that designation, either.

"I am a liberal and damn proud of it," he said. "After all, Jesus was the greatest liberal of all, and that is good enough for me."

The colonel, who turns 90 years young next month, didn't always feel this way.

Forty years ago, he was a self-described "Goldwater Republican."

But after he retired in 1973, he decided to get the college education he'd missed.

Like many military men, he started out studying engineering. "But that was too technical, too narrow." So he instead earned two bachelor's degrees — one in psychology and one in sociology.

But he read a lot of economics too, and that led him to the political cause he most cares about: Our national debt.

He wrote his first political letter to the first President Bush in 1990, expressing concern about it.

Back then, it was about $3.2 trillion. He wrote to the president, and then kept writing. He also is angry that Congress has been borrowing ("their word for stealing") from the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Today, the national debt is $16 trillion.

The colonel shares the view of many Republicans that this will ruin our nation.

But he differs strongly in what caused the exploding debt — and on the solution.

"It all started with President Ronald Reagan, under whose administration the rich stopped paying their fair share," he told me, fuming.

"Look," he said, showing me complex chats and graphs. "He took the top tax bracket, which had not been below 70 percent since 1936, down to 28 percent, and promptly escalated the Cold War, borrowing to pay for it."

"Then President Clinton raised the top bracket to 39.6 percent, kept us out of war, and balanced the budget. Yes, he was a rapscallion in about every way," he chuckled. "but an excellent president. But then we got Bush Two, who lowered the top bracket, started two wars, and ballooned the debt."

The colonel knows the deficit has been at record proportions under President Obama, but he believes that was necessary to stave off depression.

Today, he spends his mornings sending mass e-mails to office holders, and then keeps himself trim by walking for miles in a local shopping mall with his second wife, Kittye.

He is still a proud and patriotic Air Force man, and whenever he sees a wounded veteran he stops, shakes his hand, and thanks him for his service.

He raised nine children, several of whom have gone on to distinguished military careers themselves. He thinks, however, that the Pentagon budget can be cut, and he'd like to see many of our forces brought home and used to help rebuild America here.

Chauret knows he is one of the fast-dwindling members of the "Greatest Generation."

"I've had a good life, no question. I just want to make sure our grandchildren do too," he said. "You know, my wife thinks I don't know when to shut up, and maybe it's time to hang up the jock strap, live a little.

"But I feel what little I was able to accomplish helped in President Obama being here for eight years. With the help, that is, of the Good Lord."

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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