Norman’s Barry Roberts Spends Career Working With All Things Explosive
Very few people manage to have dual careers, especially if one of those careers involves service in the United States Armed Forces.
Barry Roberts isn’t your ordinary individual, however. By day he’s an appellate attorney, helping clients wend their way through Oklahoma’s higher court system. For nearly 35 years, he also served his country as both an active and reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force. While technically a Vietnam veteran, his has been a highly unusual path, with his combat-related service actually occurring decades later, in the wake of Operation Desert Storm.
Roberts’ journey began in the tiny town of Tribbey, Oklahoma, some 40 miles west of his current home in Norman, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Having just married his childhood sweetheart, Paula, right before Christmas of 1971, “I literally got my college degree and my draft notice in the same week in early January,” he said. “I got married, graduated and was drafted, all within a two-week period.”
With the Vietnam War well underway, Roberts never considered not answering the call. “For guys my age, the question wasn’t ‘Are you going?,’ it was ‘When are you going?” he said. “Since I had my degree, instead of serving two years in the Army I went down and enlisted in the Air Force. It was a good decision.”
After a stint at Officer Training School, Roberts emerged as a second lieutenant. A few lessons early on convinced him that “I was not cut out to fly,” leaving him with only four assignment options–being stationed at one of three isolated missile silos in Montana or becoming a munitions officer. Compared to the wilds of Montana, “bombs, bullets, missiles and things that blow up” sounded appealing, especially since the assignment would send him to Okinawa, Japan, rather than into combat.
The base personnel in Okinawa were quite welcoming, helping Roberts and his wife adjust to the substantial culture shock. Their daughter, Amanda, was born during this period. “The Air Force recognized that married men work harder and are a lot less trouble if they have their families with them,” he said. “This job wasn’t like the movie stereotypes; we basically worked our shift and went home to our family.”
After two-and-a-half years, Roberts went to San Antonio, where his job was to keep the flow of bombs, bullets, missiles and rockets moving smoothly to combat and non-combat areas around the world. “Working with munitions is primarily a logistics activity,” he said. “But storage and handling are also critical. Bombs require a surprising amount of care–they have to be repainted regularly or they will rust, and there are a lot of other issues.”
Now a captain, it was during his stint in San Antonio that Roberts became interested in the law. He was accepted at OU’s law school, and in 1976 he separated from the Air Force in order to attend and to be closer to his and Paula’s extended family. Several years later, while in practice with Norman attorney Harry Foreman, two recruiters from Tinker’s 507th Tactical Fighter Group Air Force Reserve unit came calling, to tell him they badly needed munitions officers.
“I told them I didn’t even have any uniforms any more, and they told me it would be a commitment of just one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, and I said ‘Ah, what the hell,’” Roberts said. “I had always been proud of being in the Air Force; it was cool. You got to do things you just don’t do in a two-man law office.”
Multiple assignments around the world followed, interspersed with his more routine law practice. In 1992, Roberts returned to active duty, volunteering to go to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Operation Desert Storm. “The shooting was over, but they had a desert full of bullets, bombs and missiles,” he said. “There were literally acres of unused bombs that we had to prep for storage.”
In 2006, Roberts retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel. He continues a solo law practice in Norman, and treasures the experiences he had while serving his country.
“The very best thing about the military and about the Air Force is being part of something that’s bigger than each one of us,” Roberts said. “Each one of us makes the whole damn thing work.”