Little Details (11/19/09)

Ready … or not

Nov. 19, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“With my mom in and out of the State Hospital, it was like we were living a little like gypsies because different people were always taking care of us,” Ed Ball remembers.

Ed grew up in Montpelier. His dad died when he was 9. His mother, struggling with mental illness, was left to care for him and his younger sister. The family moved to an apartment in northern Vermont.

Lamoille County Mental Health soon stepped in and moved the entire family into a foster home. The goal was to keep the family intact while providing additional support. Ed’s mother moved to a group home after one year. The children remained.

“I liked the stability my foster parents provided,” Ed reflects. “They gave me a solid foundation to grow from, and I still keep in touch with them because of all the things they did for me.”

Ed earned a high school diploma and hatched a plan to move to California.

“At 18, I drove as far as Illinois and then chickened out. At 19, I made it to Nebraska before turning around,” Ed laughs.

“When I was 24, I left Vermont with a buddy in an ’87 Honda Prelude. We broke down in Green River, Utah. A guy named Virgil picked us up in a wrecker, and helped us out,” he recalls.

Car repaired, they returned to the road, arriving in sunny Mission Viejo, Calif.

“I slept in a garage for a month and then got an apartment with friends,” Ed remembers. “I spent five years in California working lots of different jobs.”

He was a salesperson at a pool supply store, an assistant to an entrepreneur and a shipping clerk.

“The shipping clerk job was really mundane,” he says.

A friend picked up on Ed’s broader aspirations and gently nudged, “You need to go to college. You should think about joining the Army to pay for it.”

College was something he never thought he’d do. He just wasn’t quite sure how to make the numbers work.

At age 29, Ed found himself signing on the dotted line in a Los Angeles recruitment office. He committed to two years, noting something in the fine print about the Individual Ready Reserve, and reported to Fort Knox, Ky. for four months of basic training to be a Calvary Scout (19D).

“Most of my fellow soldiers were younger than me, kids out of high school or married people looking for a way to support their families,” Ed recalls.

Basic training was about discipline, push-ups and heeding this warning from his drill sergeant: “If you embarrass me in front of my peers, I will @#&% crush you in front of yours.” Ed made a mental note while keeping his room spic and span and his locker reflecting the standard.

Ed shipped out to the 4th Squadron 7th Calvary Regiment at Camp Gary Owen near Sonyuri, South Korea. A mere six kilometers separated Ed and his comrades from the communist regime of Kim Jong-Il. Close proximity and strained relations would require an elaborately choreographed military response in the event North Korea violated the border.

Although trained as a cavalry scout, Ed became a commander’s driver after about seven months on post. It was a privileged job.

“People stopped messing with me,” Ed laughs.

When you’re low soldier on the totem pole, folks who outrank you sometimes use their position to “inspect” your room or “require” push-ups. Ed drove around South Korea in a HMMWV, military-speak for a Humvee.

Ed’s contract with the United States Army concluded two years later. He walked away with $32,000 and immediately enrolled in a Vermont state college. He studies hard and works long shifts on weekends performing patient intake at a Vermont hospital.

A letter arrived last February, threatening to disrupt his college career. The Army called him up through the Individual Ready Reserve, acting on the fine print of his enlistment papers. He was ordered to report to Fort Jackson, S.C.

“I didn’t really know what to do,” Ed recalls. “I called to explain I was in college with one semester left.”

Ed carefully followed instructions to seek a deferment. He sent the Army a copy of his transcript indicating strong grades. One of his professors wrote a letter stating it would be detrimental to his education to interrupt his studies. The Army listened.

Ed earns a bachelor’s degree in Business Management in December. Four weeks later, he reports for duty. The Army owns him for 400 more days.

“I’m going to show up with a duffle bag and a toothbrush and I’m just going to hang on,” Ed laughs.

He’ll pack a book on Zen philosophy and, in his free time, make plans to backpack through Europe and earn his MBA.

“No matter what happens, if you’ve got a good attitude, it makes life easier.”

Well said, Ed. Anticipating his job search at the conclusion of his studies, I raised the question of why someone should hire him: “That’s easy,” Ed says with a smile, “I’m a hard worker. I’ve a sense of humor. I like a challenge. I’ve lots of experience working at many jobs.”

Oh, yeah, and he’s a veteran too.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or