Tinley Park man reflects on nearly four decades with Air Force Reserves
Ken Barnett wanted to be a Chicago police officer, and he thought serving his country would create the path for him.
Little did Barnett know that after he joined the Air Force, he would end up spending 39 years, 5 months and 9 days in it, including his time as a reserve.
Barnett, 60, of Tinley Park, retired from the Reserve in October as a master sergeant, ending a run he said he owed in part to friends.
“My friends were going into the military as well,” Barnett said of his decision to enlist in 1971. “Some of them were going into the Marine Corps, and I wanted to get more training and be able to pick a career field that I wanted that was open. That’s what I had to choose, and that’s what I did.”
Although he never did become a Chicago police office, Barnett spent nearly 40 years mirroring his goal.
“I went in the security/police field and spent most of my career there,” said Barnett, who for the last 24 years has been the director of security services for Ingalls Hospital in Harvey.
He said his last assignment in the Air Force was as a career advisor, but memories were plentiful along the way.
“Everything was memorable. I remember doing everything, from a lot of training with weapons to actually getting to go places and travel,” he said.
Barnett has seen a lot of the United States and Europe — he lived in England for about two years, and has been to Germany and Belgium — in addition to earning medals and certifications in several security operations.
“I’m certified as an instructor for suicide bombings,” he said. “I went to school for a week in New Mexico for prevention and response to suicide bombings, and I am also a certified instructor for incidence response to terrorist bombings.”
Barnett, who has lived in Tinley Park with his wife Janice for more than 26 years, grew up in Chicago and is a 1971 graduate of Kelly High School.
He said he “didn’t play any sports, didn’t want to go to college,” so he joined the service.
Why the Air Force?
“The education component of it,” Barnett said. “I think where the other branches are more physical, we are more technical. ... There is just more technical knowledge.”
After heading to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 1971 for basic training, he was living a dream at age 19.
“I was stationed in Las Vegas as security police for the Air Force. I had a great time,” he said.
During his career, Barnett also provided security for some VIPs.
“When the pope was here in 1979, I did security detail for him,” he said. “I did some security details up at O’Hare (Airport) for presidents coming in. What they did is that they always landed on the military side of O’Hare, so we helped whomever, he had his own detail, plus the Secret Service provide his own security with that. Reagan coming to town, that was memorable.”
After his active duty was up, joining the Reserve meant giving up one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year to continue serving.
Barnett said he eventually did receive the call he always wanted — from the Chicago police academy — but it was in 1982, he was married and had moved to the suburbs a couple of years earlier.
“We didn’t want to move back into the city,” Barnett said.
Despite not becoming a Chicago cop, Barnett put his background to work and took advantage of the military benefits, earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Moraine Valley in 1981 and a bachelor’s in liberal arts from Governors State University in 1985.
In addition to working at Ingalls, he once worked part time with the Harvey Police Department and as a private investigator for Counselors Investigations.
Barnett is enjoying his retirement from the Reserve. When he’s not spending time with his granddaughter, he keeps a hand in his past, serving as president of the Great Lakes Chapter of the Air Force Police Association and keeping busy with Tinley Park American Legion Riders.
“We meet once a month, still have the camaraderie,” he said. “I miss not going out and doing things.”
Barnett keeps up to date for professional reasons, too. He said he will undergo decontamination training in March.
“So I’m staying active,” he said.
His experience has been such that he recommends mandatory enlistment.
“I served my country and I had fun doing it. And I think we should be like Israel, where everyone needs to do some active time, male and female. I firmly believe that,” he said. “I think it’s good. I think it builds some camaraderie, it builds teamwork.”