Clarence “Charlie” Searchwell has worked with countless military kids who were looking to earn a few bucks bagging groceries at the commissary.
Many have gone on to become colonels and chiefs, he said, and one now wears four stars.
“I’ve been through so many kids,” said Searchwell, the graying but sprightly supervisor of the commissary’s legion of baggers for nearly five decades.
Searchwell, 79, started working at the commissary on Sept. 15, 1967, shortly after leaving the Air Force.
He’s held other jobs on Ramstein over the years, even as he kept on bagging.
He remembers one kid in particular, the one who now wears four stars.
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, bagged for Searchwell in the mid-1970s while he was a teenager living at Ramstein and attending Kaiserslautern High School.
“I remember him very well,” Searchwell said of Goldfein. “He was a very good worker.”
Searchwell also recalls Goldfein because he still sees him on occasion. Even as Goldfein’s career has taken him around the world, he stops to see his old boss any chance he gets.
Goldfein made time to see Searchwell Monday night, on his way back from a whirlwind tour of the Middle East with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, a trip that included stops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan.
A few shoppers looked on with surprise as the Air Force’s top officer gave Searchwell a big hug outside the commissary entrance.
“How did you do all this?” Searchwell asked Goldfein at one point, playfully gesturing toward the four stars on his uniform.
“Because I learned from the best,” Goldfein said. “I always tell people you taught me the three most important lessons: Be professional, be polite and don’t mix the meat with the soap, right? It hasn’t changed.”
Searchwell presented Goldfein the same German treats he always does, Happy Hippos and Ritter Sport chocolates, packaged in a commissary brown bag.
He told Goldfein he plans to keep working as long as his health allows him.
“You’ve got to raise the next generation of generals,” Goldfein said.
“I won’t be around then,” Searchwell replied, with a hearty laugh. “But if you’re going for president, I’ll vote for you. And watch those guys in Congress, OK?”
With the conversation heading towards political hot water, Goldfein said, “Oh, now we’ve got to be careful.”
Searchwell said he wouldn’t get into politics but told Goldfein to “please be careful. I’m amazed at what’s happening.”
Goldfein didn’t talk politics, either. But he said of his trip downrange that he has renewed optimism about the campaign in Iraq after seeing Iraqi security forces begin their offensive to take back the western city of Tal Afar from Islamic State militants.
Responding to a question from a reporter, Goldfein reiterated the message he and the other service chiefs tweeted last week after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., that the military is “stronger together.”
Then it was on into the commissary with Searchwell to work.
Remembering to ask “paper or plastic,” Goldfein bagged a few groceries for an unsuspecting Mitchell Trotter, an Army private first class who works at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
“That was crazy,” Trotter said when he found out who Goldfein was. “Any time you meet a four star ... that’s a great experience.”
Goldfein noticed that Trotter had loaded up on ramen noodles.
“He said when he was younger and he biked around Europe, he used to eat them, but he hasn’t eaten them since,” Trotter said with a laugh.
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