Veterans earn benefits, but these benefits are not bestowed automatically. Veterans must apply for their benefits or miss the opportunity to be awarded for military service rendered. Often, dealing with the Veterans Administration requires the patience of the biblical figure Job, plus the experience has a tendency to test a veteran’s religion.
In fairness, the Veterans Administration is a massive government-run organization that mirrors the cumbersome inefficiency of most government-run programs and administrations. It has been said “that the last government project that worked was called World War II.”
To quote another proverb known to Georgia veterans: “The Veterans Administration is in the business to minimize and say ‘No.’ Whereas, the Georgia Department of Veterans Service is in the business to maximize and say, ‘Yes.’”
The Georgia Department of Veterans Service’s central office is located across from the State Capitol in the Floyd Veterans Memorial Building, Suite E-970, in Atlanta. Much like a mini-Pentagon, the GDVS Central Office oversees the massive job of assisting veterans with their benefits and/or difficulties with the VA.
For over a half century, the colorful, dedicated, and respected Brigadier General Pete Wheeler ran the GDVS “smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy,” to quote the lyrics from “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. Upon Commissioner Wheeler’s passing, a void existed to carry on the awesome responsibility plus fill a pair of mighty big shoes.
The man chosen to fill that void slipped on the shoes with ease and assumed the awesome responsibility effective July 1, 2015, as the head honcho of the central office, 42 field offices, and 19 satellite locations. His father, who served in South America, Germany, Korea, and Vietnam, retired from the U.S. Army as a sergeant major. His three brothers also served on active duty, and following in his father’s footsteps, Georgia’s newest GDVS commissioner also retired from the Army as a sergeant major. Collectively, his family spent 107 years in the military. His name is Mike Roby, and this is his story.
Of no big surprise, as Roby admitted, he was born “a military brat” in 1952 on Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Ala.
“I enjoyed being a military brat. We traveled the world following my father’s career. Dad was in the Korean War and Vietnam. My siblings included three brothers and a baby sister, and I guess it goes without saying that our baby sister (Debbie) was well-protected. All the men served in the military for a collective total of 107 years.”
“Little sister” was present for the interview. I asked, “And you, Debbie, did you serve in the military, too?”
My reply, “Well, you would have made a pretty flight nurse.”
A chuckle or two from all three of us, then Roby, as big brothers do, bragged on “little sister.”
“Debbie works in the same agency that I do. She was hired by Commissioner Pete Wheeler and serves as the administrative assistant to Deputy Commissioner Dan Holtz.”
(Deputy Commissioner Dan Holtz is a brother Vietnam veteran and fellow member of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association.)
“My father passed in October of 2018,” continued Roby. “He was very proud of his sons, all veterans. I truly believe that I was destined for the military. I was a typical young man in school, played sports, chased the girls, and after high school I applied for an ROTC scholarship. Then my father received orders for Vietnam. Being the oldest son still living at home, I considered it my duty to remain home and look after my mom and my other siblings. I attended Atlanta Tech for a short time to study heating and refrigeration, then, lo and behold, the draft notice arrived.”
Roby’s father advised him via telephone from Vietnam.
“My dad said, ‘Son, you have to do what you feel is right,’ so I looked at my life growing up, we always had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our back, my father provided; so I enlisted in the U.S. Army in November of 1971.”
Asked if he was sent to Vietnam, Roby replied, “I was loaded up to go to ‘Nam out of Fort Benning. We were sitting in the plane at the end of the runway at Lawson Field when the pilot told us over the intercom, ‘Gentlemen, this is your lucky day. Your trip to Vietnam has been canceled.’ So I didn’t have to go.”
On basic training at Fort Knox, Ky.:
“The night before I left I’d been on a date with my future wife, Terrie, then all of a sudden I’m at Fort Knox with a drill sergeant screaming in my face, and I’m thinking, ‘Is this real?’ Then I thought, ‘OK, big boy, here it is.’ Throughout my life I’ve always tried to do the very best at whatever I attempt, and that philosophy has served me well.”
“Basic training wasn’t difficult for me because I had the needed discipline from my days as a military child, plus I’d taken ROTC in high school. I even had short hair when most of the younger people were running around with long hair. After basic I signed up for Fort Benning, straight-leg infantry, 197th Infantry Brigade.”
“It was tough, but it was good. My father came home on his halfway tour of Vietnam during my AIT (Advanced Infantry Training). So my girlfriend, Terrie, and I decided to get hitched while my dad was home. Being married, we spent the last two weeks of my AIT living off base in a small trailer.”
“I stayed on with the infantry for about six months at Fort Benning. Then one day the first sergeant came up to say, ‘Roby, I want you to be my company clerk.’ So, along with my other duties, I became the company clerk. Then orders came down for Panama.
“Prior to that, the Army had come out and said regardless of your primary MOS, if you were serving as a company clerk you could change your primary MOS. Well, I’m thinking, ‘hot diggity dog,’ here’s my chance to get out of the infantry and get into Personnel. So that’s what I did. My wife was pregnant with our first child when I received my orders for Personnel at Fort McPherson, Ga. That assignment lasted 18 months, at which time the Army said ‘you’ve been stateside too long, Roby, it’s time for you to go overseas.’ So Terrie and I packed our bags and went to Germany.”
Stuttgart, Germany: “I was assigned Personnel work for the 29th Transportation Company, which later became the 394th Trans, an aviation outfit.”
Asked his thoughts on Germany, Roby said, “We loved it. Our son, Michael, was 18 months old, so it was a lot of growing up for us. When we were in Georgia, we had my mom and dad, her mom and dad, then we got to Germany and there wasn’t a mom and dad. We did everything ourselves, a growing up experience. But I had a great assignment. I flew on Hueys quite a bit, the economy was good, a great support base all round us…..”
Asked if he got used to warm beer, Roby replied, “No, believe it or not, I don’t drink nor smoke. People are always asking me, “Roby, how’d you make sergeant major, you don’t drink and you don’t smoke,’ and I just tell them, ‘I like to eat.’ But it’s true about warm beer. Germans don’t believe in ice. Cokes are even served at room temperature.”
Defense Nuclear Agency, Washington, D.C.:
“Every branch of service was there, and I enjoyed the exposure to the other branches of service. It was a tri-agency, working together on various projects, even a project attempting to eventually move the residents of Eniwetok Atoll back to their native island.
(Eniwetok Atoll was a test site for 43 nuclear detonations between 1948 and 1958. A hydrogen bomb in 1952 vaporized the islet of Elugelab. Many scientists believe the atoll will not be safe for human habitation until 2026-2027.)
“Terrie and I liked Washington, D.C., but the cost of living was a bit beyond my pay grade. I took a part-time job at a service station just to make ends meet. I was, however, moving up in rank.”
Department of Army Headquarters:
“Well, that department is a hop, skip, and jump from the Defense Nuclear Agency. I ended serving in that capacity for nine years. Then I was afforded the opportunity to go as first sergeant to Seoul, South Korea, plus take the family. We were in South Korea for two years, during the ‘88/’89 Olympics. We enjoyed the assignment and the South Korean people.
“I was with the 8th Army at Camp Yongsan. The North Koreans didn’t act up too much while we were there, but it was always a big worry that hostilities could break out at any moment. Thank the good Lord nothing happened. We had a daughter by that time, and the kids, and Terrie, enjoyed Korea, even the food. I wasn’t particularly fond of it.
“A U.S. soldier of American-Korean ancestry worked for me. He said, ‘Sergeant, remember there are no blonde-headed children in Korea, they all have black hair.’ My daughter was blonde, and the Koreans liked touching her hair. Children came first in Korea. They are really good people. The Katusa also worked with us, they are ROC’s (Korean soldiers) working with American soldiers. They were good soldiers, very intelligent.”
Back to Fort McPherson, Ga.:
“I worked as J-1 (Personnel) for Headquarters Forces Command starting in 1989. Then orders came out for me to attend the Sergeant Major Academy in El Paso, Texas, in 1991. Because of our kids’ schooling, Terrie and I made the decision for me to attend the Academy in El Paso by my lonesome. So, I threw my uniforms and a few other things in the back of my truck and drove to Camp Bliss in El Paso. I only came home twice, in June and December. The Sergeant Major Academy is tough, it’s the premier school for enlisted personnel.”
Asked to explain the school’s curriculum for the readers, Roby replied, “Basically, you’re taught the traits of how to deal with company commanders, how to groom young lieutenants, and how to get along with first sergeants. Dad and mom came out for a visit. Dad had been stationed at Fort Bliss during his Army career.”
After graduating from the six-month course at the Sergeant Major Academy, Roby returned to Fort McPherson. In 1994, the orders came down: back to Korea.
“For the first time in our marriage, Terrie said, ‘Mike, I don’t want to go.’ She had good reason. Our son was going to college, our daughter entering high school … it was decision time. I talked to my boss, a two-star general, and told him it was time for me to retire.” Mike Roby retired on June 30, 1994 as an Army sergeant major, having served 22½ years in the service of his country.
Having heard of an opening at the GDVS in Griffin, Roby interviewed for the job while still in the Army and was offered the position. He started his new career the summer he retired from the military. There was no time for moss to grow under Roby’s combat boots.
A list of Roby’s accomplishments at the GDVS:
♦ Manager of the Griffin Veterans Field Service Office from 1994 until 1998.
♦ Area II supervisor from 1998 until 2007.
♦ North Georgia regional director from 2007 until 2012.
♦ Assistant commissioner of Field Operations and Claims from 2012 until 2014.
♦ Beginning on Aug. 18, 2014, Roby served as the temporary assistant commissioner in charge while Commissioner Wheeler took medical leave.
♦ Interim commissioner following Wheeler’s passing on April 21, 2015.
♦ Selected as the commissioner of the Department of Veterans Service on July 1, 2015 and reappointed to a second term in 2019.
Roby said of his position, “I love my job. It has its demanding moments because I have responsibilities, but Terrie, being a military wife for over 22 years, understands the dedication.”
Commissioner Roby is a member of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs, served as vice president of the NASDVA Southeast District for four years, was appointed to the State Workforce Development Board, Governor Deal’s Census 2020 Complete Count Committee, and the University Advisory Council at Middle Georgia State University. He is the recipient of the 2016 Marvin Myers Leadership award and the recipient of the 2017 Eli White Trophy presented by the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard of Atlanta for his dedication and support of the military in the state of Georgia.
His closing statement:
“The younger generation will become our future leaders. If undecided upon high school graduation, the military offers young people an opportunity to get a good start in life. After three or four years, they come out matured and with solid working experience and skills. Other kids may be getting out of college at the same time, but they generally do not have the same discipline and maturity as a young military veteran. Some adversarial nation or dictator is always knocking on our door trying to stir up trouble. We need a strong military to answer the door with authority.”
My personal note: I’ve known Mike Roby for a lot of years. I’ve seen and heard his presentations, watched as he led meetings and delegated authority and responsibilities, and he does so as a professional tempered by experience along with compassion for his fellow man. Mike Roby is a good man, and he is a good commissioner. I feel privileged to be able to call this talented man “my friend.”