VISION FOR THE FUTURE: Veteran reflects on time as Marine, direction it gave for life

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Dr. Robert Mackey served his country in the US Marine Corps for three years before serving his community as an optometrist for 50 years. Mackey served from the ages of 19 to 22 as a Korean War radio telegraph operator and though he never saw combat, Mackey said he learned many valuable lessons from his time serving. 

CORBIN — Though retired optometrist Dr. Robert Mackey served his community for 50 years to provide quality vision care for local community members, Mackey believes that his service to his country over 60 years ago is what helped to give him the life he has today.

When Mackey enlisted in the US Marine Corps at the age of 19, he wasn’t sure what direction his life was heading in.

“Back then, all able-bodied men were being drafted either into the Army or whatever,” he said. “If you graduated from high school, you were drafted as an enlisted man. If you graduated from college, you went in as an officer. I had a year of college, so I went in as an enlisted man, a private, at the age of 19 because my good buddy had received his draft notice and I knew that meant mine was not far behind.

“About that time, an outstanding recruiter in the Marine Corps talked to us and convinced us that that was the only way to go. We were young and ignorant, stupid and full of it, probably, so we joined the US Marine Corps to stay out of the Army—kind of like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Mackey served in the US Marine Corps as a Korean War radio telegraph operator and though he never saw combat, Mackey said he learned a lot from his three years of service where he spent day and night training for war.

“It was the best of times and it was the worst of times,” he said. “Really, I just wanted to go home to my mom. I thought I’d made a big mistake because they always pushed us as far as we thought we could go and then they pushed us further. They were always pushing us a little more than we thought we could do. It was excellent discipline that has stuck with me all my life—taught me some good habits and some bad habits, which I’ve hopefully overcome the bad ones by now. It was overall a good experience—got to see the world at a tender, young age.”

By the time Mackey had finished his training, the Korean War had ended and Mackey was honorably discharged from the US Marine Corps after three years of service.

Mackey, now 85, credits his time in the Marine Corps as the thing that gave his life direction and the drive he needed to pursue more out of life.

“We lived in tents a lot—I had no direction, no ambition at that point, just a kid running around and we were eight men to the tent but the officers had the same tent and they were only two men to the tent,” he said. “So I thought ‘man, what does it take to get two men to a tent?’ and was told that generally you had to have a college diploma and then you can go to officer school, come back and live two men to the tent and I thought that that was something. That was half of my ambition but that gave me direction to get a college education in something. Then, of course, I got out of the Marine Corps and I was thinking very strongly about getting a college diploma and going back in as an officer but then I found out that there may be better things out there than living two to the tent even.”

Once back in the United States, Mackey enrolled at Union College where he earned his Bachelor of Science and met his now wife, Dolores. He continued his education at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee, earning his Doctorate of Optometry. Once finished with school, Mackey returned to Corbin where he eventually opened his own practice, Mackey Vision Center.

Mackey, who retired in 2014, believes that without the Marine Corps he wouldn’t have learned this very valuable lesson.

“You don’t have to be brilliant to accomplish something, you just have to set a goal and go after it,” Mackey said. “Even if it’s difficult, stay with it. When you get discouraged, when you get down, when you have back sets, just stay with it, you’re going to be OK.”

And though he first thought he had made a huge mistake by enlisting in the Marine Corps at the young age of 19, Mackey now looks back on his service and realizes all that it gave him and believes that others would benefit from serving, as well.

“I think it would be good for every maybe male and female to serve a year or two out of high school,” he said. “It’s good discipline, good training for life.”

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