Cole County sheriff served more than 31 years in Air Force, National Guard

By Jeremy Amick

Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler jovially remarked he would like to admit his law enforcement career path is the result of some grand plan. Instead, it has been a mixture of being in the right place at the right time while being prepared for the next career step.

A native of the small southeastern Missouri community of Risco, Wheeler realized he wanted to become a law enforcement officer at a very young age. Following his graduation from high school in 1984, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force in pursuit of this goal.

“I wasn’t 21 years old yet, so I thought it would be a good idea to join the Air Force and get some experience first,” Wheeler said. Grinning, he added, “I had to wait until I turned 18 to enlist because my mother wouldn’t sign for me. She was terrified because I was the first (of seven children) to join the military.”

In April 1985, the young enlistee traveled to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to complete several weeks of initial military training. From there, he was sent to Wichita Falls, Texas, to complete training as a tactical aircraft maintenance specialist.

During the training, Wheeler was introduced to technical aspects of aircraft such as the A-10 Thunderbolt (Warthog), learning the maintenance procedures to troubleshoot and repair any mechanical issues that arose in the aircraft.

“My first duty assignment was with the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing — the ‘Flying Tigers,’ we were called — at England Air Force Base (Louisiana),” Wheeler said. “That’s where I met my wife, Janine. She was in the Air Force and stationed at England as an administrative specialist.”

In addition to marrying during the three years he was stationed at England, Wheeler noted he spent many nights away from his wife and newborn daughter while completing brief tours of duty at bases throughout the United States in support of the A-10 mission.

In 1988, he was transferred five hours away to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi to undergo nine months of training as an aviation guidance control specialist. While in Mississippi, his wife remained on active duty at England Air Force Base and raised their family, which had grown in size to two daughters.

“After completing the school at Keesler, I was stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, and was trained to work on transport aircraft such as the C-141s,” Wheeler said. “My family joined me at McGuire (where his third daughter was born), and that’s where I stayed until leaving the service in 1992.”

Following his discharge from active duty, he moved his family to Clarkton, Missouri, and joined an Air National Guard unit in St. Louis. He continued his part-time military career by enlisting in an Army National Guard unit in 1993 and embarked upon a full-time career in law enforcement when the Sikeston Department of Public Safety hired him the same year.

Seeking better opportunities for his family, Wheeler applied with the Jefferson City Police Department and was hired in 1997, serving in several capacities to include a DARE officer for the Jefferson City Public Schools. Shortly after his transfer to Jefferson City, he joined a local Army National Guard unit.

“I truly enjoyed being with my unit here in Jefferson City,” Wheeler said. “I had the opportunity to train and serve as a helicopter mechanic and was a flying crew chief for the Huey, Bell Jet Ranger, Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters.”

While Wheeler continued full-time duties with the JCPD, he took a leave of absence in 2004 when he was called to serve his nation in a full-time capacity.

“I left my position as a school resource officer for a while when I was mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom and deployed with my unit from here in Jefferson City,” Wheeler said. “During my time overseas, I served as a flying crew chief and door gunner for the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.”

He returned home after four months of service because of a medical emergency involving one of his daughters.

Shortly after his return from Iraq, Wheeler was offered the position of chief deputy for the Cole County Sheriff’s Department by the newly elected sheriff, Greg White. For 12 years, Wheeler served the county in this capacity until he assumed duties as sheriff earlier this year.

The veteran has dedicated his life to protecting his community, state and nation while wearing uniforms ranging from an airman to a soldier to a city police officer and, most recently, a county sheriff. Despite the many commendations he has received for his public service, Wheeler recognizes important lessons gleaned from his military service, many of which he has used as a leader in local law enforcement.

“The military gave me structure and balance that I needed early in life,” Wheeler explained. “I would like to say that my entire career was all part of some grand plan, but that wouldn’t be accurate; however, my time in the service always prepared me with the background I would need to make the next career step.”

He added, “The military also promoted and stressed training, training, training — train as you fight and fight as you train. And I must admit that this focus on training is one lesson I continue to use here at the sheriff’s department to prepare our deputies to meet any uncertainties they might encounter in their daily duties.”

Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.