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Phoenix Forward magazine

Instructor had a bird’s-eye view of history

Raymond Shelton, faculty member, served as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than 30 years, during which he flew a helicopter for President Ronald Reagan's administration.

For Raymond Shelton, service to both his country and others has been a driving force in everything he’s done, from his long military career to his decade-plus of teaching at University of Phoenix.

“I try to put a human perspective on history from a guy who has been there,” says Shelton, an instructor of humanities courses at the New Mexico Campus. “I was involved in [many] of the major events at the end of the 20th century … It’s been amazing.”

Shelton’s journey began shortly after he graduated from high school in 1967, when he saw an advertisement in a military newspaper offering to teach U.S. Army enlistees how to fly helicopters. After a year of training and then flight work in Vietnam, he was hooked on whirlybirds.

“I was 20 when I came home, and I knew how to fly a helicopter,” he says. “I didn’t even have my driver’s license.”

We were to make sure the president remained safe and provide evacuation [in case of emergency].

That training kicked off a 32-year military career, most of which Shelton spent in the U.S. Marine Corps — he was honorably discharged from the Army, graduated from the University of North Texas and then joined the Marines.

He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and served tours during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, Operation Desert Shield in 1990, Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, which lasted from 1992 to 1994.

One of his most interesting jobs, Shelton says, began in July 1982 when he was assigned to Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) — the president’s helicopter — becoming a White House liaison officer when Ronald Reagan was president. Shelton worked closely with the U.S. Secret Service to coordinate the president’s travel schedule, visit sites in advance and ensure that hangars and fuel to be used by the helicopter were secure, in addition to flying the president around the world.

“It was a really good job and one of the highlights of my life,” Shelton says. “We were to make sure the president remained safe and provide evacuation [in case of emergency]. We didn’t interact much with the president. But when I did have a personal encounter with [Reagan] at Camp David, he struck me as being a very genuine individual. He appeared to be interested in what you had to say.”

Shelton’s life took a dramatic turn in 1992 when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the result, he says, of exposure to Agent Orange herbicide in Vietnam. But since he still wanted to fly, Shelton underwent a battery of medical tests at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute in Pensacola, Florida, to prove that his cancer was in remission so he could regain his flight status.

“Getting back in the cockpit, that’s what I was trained to do,” Shelton says. “This is what the people of America invested money in. I was one of the best pilots there was, and I needed to return that investment.”

Shelton retired from the Marines in 2000 and, while working as a defense contractor, he decided to try teaching.

He considered teaching in public schools but ultimately decided that instructing adults was a better fit for him. “My wife had been a University of Phoenix® student, so I knew how it worked. I try to teach my students the ‘why’ of history. That’s what’s important, not the exact date something occurred.”

He notes that he enjoys teaching U.S. history and the Constitution.

“Everything in [students’] lives and community all emanates from the Constitution and how we are governed,” he says. “I try to take my military background and give them some idea of what war is like. War is nasty, but I give them a sense of what soldiers go through when they are out there serving.”

Looking back, Shelton remains proud of his accomplishments. And looking forward, he’s excited about teaching students interested in making a difference not only for themselves, but also for their communities.

“You can learn what not to do but also what to do by studying history,” he says, noting that you can take the lessons learned from prior generations and apply them to current situations to guide your decisions. “If we know our history, it helps to lift the veil on making a correct decision.”

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