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Earl Vining: Filling in holes

It was the winter of 1950. Earl Vining had only been in Korea for a few months, and already he’d been wounded twice.

“When they sent me back again, I knew I was going to get killed,” Vining, now 78, said.

Then, one day, a lieutenant popped his head into the hospital tent and asked the question that Vining credits with saving his life:

“Does anybody know how to run a bulldozer?”

No one raised a hand, so Vining did.

“I didn’t know a bulldozer from a farm tractor,” he recalled. “But I figured it couldn’t move fast enough to be kept at the front.”

Vining the infantryman suddenly became Vining the engineer, part of a crew whose job was to repair cratered runways so American pilots could keep bombing the North Koreans and Chinese.

Filling in holes was better than being shot at, so much better that Vining kept on doing it for the rest of his 30-year military career — six years in the U.S. Army and 24 in the U.S. Air Force.

The son of a brigadier general, Vining said it was only natural that he wound up in the service.

“The military teaches you how to deal with adversity,” he said. “If you can stand regimentation and somebody younger than you telling you what to do, then you can make it in the military.”

Vining’s unit was known as the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers, aka “Red Horse.” His work took him around the globe, maintaining air bases and other military infrastructure in places like Spain, Guam, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“I never turned down an assignment,” Vining said.

Sometimes known back then as “old what’s-his-name” to his kids, Vining said that when he finally retired in 1981, the Air Force presented his wife, Donna, with a plaque too — thanking her for enduring 30 years of service.

“It was apropos,” he said.

The home where the couple now lives near Four Corners is the 13th they have owned, and they are happy to say they’ve been there for a record 12 years straight.

When Vining isn’t remodeling his home or moving their exotic mahogany furniture around — souvenirs from more than a few deployments — he finds time for the American Legion and commands his VFW post. He also sings with the Chord Rustlers and hawks Tater Pigs at the Sweet Pea Festival.

Despite some difficult periods and the constant moving and upheaval, Donna said the military was always good to their family, and her husband loved it there.

“If they would have allowed him to stay until he was 65, he would have,” she said.

Do you do something, know something, own something or love something unusual or off-the-beaten-path? Send your story ideas to Michael Becker at or call 582-2657. You can also read his blog.