ODENTON, Md. — The “Old Soldier” has a basement full of history.
At the age of 88, he has to walk gingerly down the steps. Coming around a bend in the stairway, he points to a “Moran St.” sign encased behind glass in a wooden box.
“They named a street at Fort Meade after me, too, right there,” he says, almost in passing.
No big deal. There’s more to show below.
The basement is like a private museum – time capsules dating back to the Korean War hung and displayed everywhere. Pictures, plaques, trophies, statues, banners, posters, flags, awards, books, newspaper clippings, most of which are about him: Raymond Moran, a man whose career is stacked with achievement.
As a recruiter, Moran enlisted so many men and women that the U.S. Army Recruiting Command named its Hall of Fame after him. In 2017, he received a Lifetime Service Award. Yet Moran is so low-key that the ceremony took place at a local barbecue joint. He keeps the newspaper articles in several binders, so many that they might fill a whole wall if they were framed.
Near the bar, there’s even an M1 rifle, returned from Korea decades after the war. It was a Veterans Day gift from his eldest son, Ray. The M1 is the same style rifle the ‘Old Soldier’ carried in combat when he was a young infantryman.
“I never put one nail on the wall,” said Raymond Moran as he offered the private tour.
In fact, every memory was hung by a professional: his wife, Barbara, who spent a decade working at the museum on Fort Meade. The couple has been married 65 years, celebrating their wedding anniversary at home on Valentine’s Day.
Like his marriage, Moran devoted 65 faithful years serving and loving the Army. He spent 30 years on active duty as an infantryman and recruiter, living all over the world: Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Germany. The other 35 years came as a civilian recruiter for the U.S. Army Reserve.
When the Gulf War broke out, Moran was 61 and had been retired for 21 years, but he convinced the Army to allow him back to duty in uniform.
“You’ve got to help me put my uniform together. I’ve never worn these,” he told his son, Ray, holding a camouflage-patterned uniform, known as “battle dress.”
“He was in the old, starched, OG-107 green Vietnam uniforms from that era,” recalls his son, Ray, who was an Army Reserve Soldier himself at the time. “So he’d never worn battle dress until he got recalled for Desert Storm.”
“The age cutoff was 63, and he was just a few months shy,” said his son, Ray. “He volunteered again later at age 74 when Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off. The Army sent him a very nice, ‘Thanks, but not this time,’ letter.”
Moran served stateside during Desert Storm as a casualty escort sergeant major, a job with a heavy toll. One of his most difficult tasks was taking wedding rings off the bodies of Soldiers after a scud missile attack killed 13 from an Army Reserve unit in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Moran had recruited Soldiers into that unit, located less than 10 miles from his hometown of Latrobe.
“That was a perfect example of him giving himself to the remembrance of those Soldiers,” said his younger brother, Jim Moran. “He put on his uniform, went to Dover (Air Force Base) and did one of the most difficult jobs in trying to show mercy and gratitude for these young men and women that lost their lives, and accompanied those bodies back to their hometown. People remember things like that.”
Yet, Moran recalls his years with only gratitude and joy. His 65 years of total service are equivalent to three military careers.
“I loved it. Enjoyed every minute of it. Never complained at all any time that I served in uniform. It was just an honor for me to serve. And I have all of this as a result of it,” he says, pointing to the walls.
“All this” is more than military trinkets displayed on some walls. These objects point to the memories of people whose lives he touched. His brother and son said all those plaques and pictures are a reflection of the people Moran has helped, either through his recruiting years or otherwise.
“He’d always help other people. I remember so many people would call Dad for assignments,” said Ray. “And he’d call buddies, guys he had worked with … It was crazy because Dad never did that for himself. Even if he had a lousy duty assignment, he would never ask for a better one. But when it came to everybody else, he was always pressing for the best.”
In the Army, he eventually became the sergeant major of the First Recruiting Brigade on Fort Meade, responsible for hundreds of recruiters across multiple states. When he retired, he humbly (and eagerly) accepted a civilian position as a GS-7, basically working at the lowest level of the recruiting food chain. He reported to a staff sergeant, a rank that was three grades below his retired rank. And yet, he never acted like the work was beneath him. Instead, he loved it. He recruited for the Army Reserve and found plenty of active duty recruits to pass onto others, which helped everyone else meet the recruiting numbers they needed.
“Recruiting is something close to my heart. I have a lot of pride in the Army Reserve, so encouraging them to join was an easy job for me,” he said.
“He genuinely is that kind of person. Positive. Upbeat. I hope to someday love anything as much as that man loves the Army and Barbi,” said Sgt. Maj. Luther Legg, former recruiting command sergeant major and long-time friend of Moran.
“If you have something in your life you aspire to, if you can feel that much affection toward anything, then you should consider yourself blessed,” he said.
He, Barbara and their three children, Ray, Rich and Robbi – all grown into parents and some into grandparents by now – have lived in so many places during Moran’s time on active duty, but one town in particular is still a point of pride for the Old Soldier: Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
If anyone mentions Latrobe, he is quick to mention Arnold Palmer, the famed golfer whose smiling picture is in his basement – autographed and all. Palmer and Moran were high school friends, along with Fred Rogers, who was one year ahead of them.
“He never had any tattoos underneath his sweater,” Moran reminds others of Mister Rogers, dispelling the silly rumor, which had made its way around some internet circles.
As the basement tour continues, Moran jumps from one life event to another. Historical references spanning decades press against each other. Within minutes of mentioning high school (which he attended while the world was engaged in its second war), he jumps three-quarters of a century in time to another picture.
“Happy Veteran’s Day, Pap-Pap,” he reads from one inscribed portrait of a baby named Penelope, his great-granddaughter. “Kinda cute,” he says with a chuckle.
Then, another family picture. This time, a young Soldier: Christopher, his grandson, served in Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2007-2008. Moran had recruited him into the Army.
“And of course he got pinned with a (Combat Infantry Badge), and he was so proud because the first thing he wanted to show me was his CIB,” said Moran.
He mentions his grandson’s CIB, because he, too, earned one in Korea.
In fact, there it is, hanging on the wall beneath the M1: An oversized replica of the award – a ribbon given specifically to infantrymen who engage in combat.
“That was pinned on me by my battalion commander in the Korean War … We were in mud up to our ankles in combat boots, and he told everyone, ‘Unbutton your top button on your field jacket. And then he came and pinned our CIB on … That day, it must have been at least 100 (of us). We were all lined up from one end to the other in a parade field. That was the only time we ever got together,” said Moran.
When the Korean War first broke out, Moran was a corporal serving in Japan on peacekeeping occupation duty. Then, the war brought him to the Korean peninsula. When he returned home to his parents in Latrobe, he was a 21-year-old master sergeant. He’d been promoted from E-4 to E-8 in one year.
“He got a lot of field promotions,” said his brother, Jim. “Which tells you that he saw a lot of action.”
Jim is 84 now. He was too young to serve in Korea, but their middle brother, Sam fought at the same time as Ray. The two brothers ran into each other several times during the war, even though they were assigned to different units. Ray was with the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. Sam was assigned to the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion in support of a British regiment known as the “Glorious Glosters.” During one encounter, they wrote a joint letter home to their parents. They missed two Christmases, which the Moran family refused to celebrate without them. Somehow, they returned home from across the world within a few hours of each other.
It’s hard to imagine Raymond Moran as a combat-fierce infantryman. Not because of his age, but because of his gentleness.
He’s an encourager, often saying to friends and family, “Good job. I’m real proud of you,” over the littlest things.
“Good job, Barbara, you remembered your medicine. You do such a great job,” he says for example.
“That was real nice of you. You take such good care of me,” he tells his sons and daughter repeatedly as they take turns visiting him on weekends.
Or, “Oh you’re right on time. I’m real proud of you,” he tells a visitor on their way out the door together.
When he says those things, his voice is not that of a dog owner training a puppy. It’s filled with genuine kindness. It’s more like the voice of his high school mate Mister Rogers making a neighbor feel welcome in his home.
When visitors leave his home, Moran stands on the front door waving a little American flag and salutes them goodbye.
“He’s always positive. He’s always upbeat … At first you think, ‘He’s a recruiter and he’s been a recruiter for years and years and years, so he’s taught to be that way because he wants to be positive around people when talking to them about joining the Army.’ But then you realize that he’s just like that. There’s no one left for him to convince to join the Army,” said Legg.
“I remember one sergeant major one time saying to me, ‘I’ve never heard your dad say a bad word about anybody,’” recalled his son, Ray. “There was one guy who was just like the worst person in the world. Somebody said something like, ‘I hate that son of a bitch.’ And Dad wouldn’t, just wouldn’t cross that line,” he said.
Ray remembers how his dad would give fatherly care and advice to all his Soldiers.
“Dad kind of adopted (them) like a second son, or third son, or tenth son, at this point. He’s got so many,” he said.
He was a father and mentor to all who came in contact with him, and beyond.
“If you track (Soldiers’) mentors back, somehow they all find their way back to Sergeant Major Moran. He may not have been your mentor, but there’s a good chance that he was your mentor’s mentor … I used to kid, he’s like the (game) ‘Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’ Eventually you find your way back to Sergeant Major Moran,” said Legg.
Moran earned his nickname in Vietnam because he called a lot troops “Ol’ Soldier” when he couldn’t remember their names. Eventually, the nickname stuck back on him, especially because he was older than most around him. Yet, long before Vietnam, Raymond was known as “Smiley Moran” because of his constant smile and infectious positive attitude.
“Dad used to tell a story when I was a kid that they were digging ditches or something in Korea, and Dad was whistling,” his son said. “The captain came over and said, ‘You’re Morale-Builder Moran.’ And everybody called him Smiley Moran after that.”
What made his cheerfulness unusual was that the Korean War was no place for smiling. The winters were so brutal that some Soldiers recall their gravy freezing on their plates by the time they walked back to their foxholes from the chow line. Bodies of American Soldiers – frozen stiff – were stacked by the truckload after China sent 200,000 troops to fight alongside the North Koreans against the Americans. The History Channel produced a documentary on the war, titled, “Our Time in Hell.” It features Moran, among several other Soldiers who fought there. The images and video clips shown in that documentary don’t evoke any desire to smile, yet “Smiley Moran” managed to earn that nickname.
“I would (imagine) Ray was a smart fighter,” his brother, Jim, said. “He’s not one to have (made) many mistakes as a fighter. He was the one always looking to take advantage of the situation. To change the situation. To make it better for them … He was a thinking-man’s fighter.”
The Old Soldier himself talks very little of whatever combat he saw or hardships he experienced.
He’s proud of his service in Korea, summarized simply, “It was infantry. It was mud. It was hardship. Good buddies … The guys had each other’s backs. Got to know each other so well.”
He typically resorts to the same few anecdotes: seeing his brother in Korea on several chance encounters and coming home to hug his father. Yet not every story is offered as easily as his smile, nor found framed inside a picture. Some stories surface over the years in the most unexpected ways.
Like the time his son, Ray, accompanied him to receive an award in Texas in 2002 and a young sergeant major came up to him and said, “Hey! You’re Smiley Moran, aren’t you? … My dad says you saved his life.”
That was a story he’d never told his son before, and even when asked about it now, he treats it as if it was no big thing.
“I just patched him up. Did the best I could, the way they teach you in the Army,” he said, and that was it. He wouldn’t linger there any longer or brag about saving someone else’s life.
Another story that surfaced unexpectedly was after Vietnam, when he went for a haircut with Barbara. The barber nicked Raymond’s neck, but instead of a little trickle of blood, it shot off in gushes. Barbara was scared. She thought maybe the barber’s scissors had fallen out of his pocket and stabbed her husband in the neck.
They managed to stop the bleeding, and Raymond was fine, but the whole incident upset his wife.
“We’re not going back to that barber shop anymore,” Barbara told her husband.
But in his typical gentleman fashion, Raymond Moran took the blame away from the barber.
“No, no. Not his fault,” he said. “I didn’t tell him to be careful. I had a wound on my neck.”
The wound was from a helicopter crash in Vietnam. This was a shock to his wife because he had never mentioned it before. After all, Moran was a 41-year-old retention sergeant major in Vietnam, not the fighting infantryman he once was in Korea.
The crash happened in the spring of 1970. He recalls how a medic had to administer an injection to his scalp because of the profuse bleeding from his neck. The medic was freaked. He’d never given a shot in the scalp before.
“Do it anyway. You have to do it,” someone told him.
He injected Moran, stopped the bleeding, and they evacuated him.
After the incident, Moran wanted to keep a memento to remember the man who helped save his life. So he gave him a “Mickey Mouse” bill – it was fake money used by Soldiers during the war. Moran asked the medic to write his name so he could keep it to remember him. He also told him to write “New Hampshire” on the bill because that’s where the medic said he lived back home.
“I went to New Hampshire (later on) to look him up, and I could never find him, and I felt bad. But I still think of him, often, up in New Hampshire. He helped me,” Moran recalled now, years later.
Unfortunately that paper bill is gone, lost somewhere in a box or maybe slipped between the pages of a book. Moran had tried several times looking for that bill, but couldn’t retrieve it.
That’s how it happens. That’s how Moran has managed to collect so many mementos. But it’s usually Moran doing the helping, and the recipient sending him a token of appreciation in return. Barbara said there are even more boxes of items in a backroom of the basement they couldn’t fit on the walls. A few miles from their home, Moran still has an office at an Army Reserve center. He doesn’t go there often, but like his basement the walls of that office are plastered with reminders: autographed portraits of sergeants major and generals, coffee mugs from all corners of the Army, a rack full of challenge coins, pictures, banners, trophies, even the Korean flag draping from one corner of the room. And stacks of business cards.
That’s the one thing everyone else keeps as an Old Soldier memento: his business card. Even though he’s long retired, he keeps some at home and hands them to anyone who visits. Sometimes he will hand out a second or third business card.
“No, this one is different, take it,” he’ll say. And sure enough, this time the business card has a different picture on the back. It’s a wedding photo of him and Barbara, dated 1953.
Nowadays, he doesn’t give out as many as he used to. At 88, he spends most of his days at home with Barbara, whom he calls his “wonderful Army wife.” But on the rare occasions he makes his way to Fort Meade, he’s like a local celebrity. Soldiers at the gate recognize him and many stop him to take a picture together.
At home, a nurse visits daily to take care of Barbara and checks both of their temperatures and blood pressure in the morning while eating breakfast.
After she reads his vitals, Moran asked, “Is that good?”
“That’s very good. You’re strong and healthy.”
“Good,” he responded. “I guess I’ll re-enlist then.”