When Larry Noonan tried to join the Indiana National Guard, he was rebuffed.
Or rather, he was re-directed.
His wife, LaTheda, remembers it this way.
“He scored so high on his tests that the (U.S.) Army met him at the door with an offer that was amazing,” she said. “So that’s how he came to be in the Army.”
But he wasn’t simply “in the Army.”
Possessor of rare technical, analytical and strategic skills, Noonan, 59, served in various capacities of Army intelligence throughout a 37-year career that spanned the Cold War; the Panama Canal crisis; both Gulf wars; and Operation Enduring Freedom.
A lifelong Whiteland resident, he retired from the Army Reserve last year with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 5.
But his service didn’t go unnoticed.
In recognition of his sterling contributions, including 10 years of active duty, 17 years in the National Guard and 10 years in the Army Reserve, Noonan has received one of the U.S. military’s most prestigious medals: The Legion of Merit Award.
Presented for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance
of outstanding services and achievements,” the Legion of Merit ranks just below the Silver Star and just above the Distinguished Flying Cross in the order of military awards precedence. It’s one of only two to be worn around the neck.
The other is the Medal of Honor.
Low-key about his service and even more low-key about the Legion of Merit, Noonan was humbled by the honor.
“I was fortunate to have opportunities and was fortunate to be recognized for what I did,” said Noonan, who did — and saw — a lot during his career.
A 1974 graduate of Whiteland High School, Noonan was persuaded to join the Army in 1977 after earning remarkably high marks on test scores for the National Guard. After basic training, he received specialized training in military intelligence and served 10 years of active duty.
Throughout the next decade, he — with his wife and young son — traveled the globe, including memorable deployments in Panama, West Berlin and Bosnia.
From 1979 to 1982, Noonan served in Panama during the height of tensions surrounding the Panama Canal. Built and operated by the United States, the canal was in the process of being ceded to Panama, a highly controversial move that stoked emotions in both countries.
Panamanians wanted immediate ownership, which wouldn’t happen until 1999. Noonan, his wife and 3-year-old and other U.S. military personnel lived in constant fear of unrest in the Canal Zone.
“There was no base or fence for protection out there,” Noonan said. “Literally, we were living on the edge of the jungle in World War II housing. It wasn’t comfortable for (LaTheda). We kind of had to hunker down on base for a little while, I’d say for about a week while things were blowing over. It ended up working out politically.
“There was no armed conflict, but it was just uncomfortable for families. Literally, they had the Navy standing offshore to evacuate Americans.”
LaTheda recalls being more than just uncomfortable.
“We had locked doors (for protection), and that was it,” she said. “They could have done anything to us. We were terrified. We had our doors barred that day.
“But we always knew the military would protect us.”
A few years later, near the end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, Noonan was deployed to West Berlin. He has vivid recollections of the Berlin Wall, the grim divider between free West Berlin and Soviet-dominated East Berlin.
“That was interesting,” he said. “You could get a chance to stare at the other guy right across the wall, literally.”
Noonan’s job occasionally required traveling into East Berlin. What he saw was the sobering difference between life in the free west and life behind the Iron Curtain.
“What you could see very clearly was their economy was way worse than the western world,” he said. “You could stand on a platform that looks over the wall, and you could see East Germany was gray, dark and not fixed up.
“West Germany was colorful and full of people.”
Noonan, whose specialty areas were strategic and tactical intelligence, left active duty in 1987. But he wasn’t finished with the military.
He spent 17 years in the National Guard and the past 10 years in the Army Reserve, which included a deployment to Bosnia, before retiring. In any given year, he was away from home for 18 weekends and four full weeks. But neither he or his family have any regrets.
For LaTheda, quite the opposite is true.
“I’m proud to be a military wife. We went into it very young, and I was with him the whole way,” she said. “He wanted to serve our country, and he was given amazing opportunities to do things. We were young, and we were kind of stupid. We didn’t know what we were doing.
“We ended up in countries where we didn’t know where we were going, but it was an incredible opportunity for our son to learn different languages. He later joined the National Guard and did his eight years. It’s just been an amazing journey.”
And still, it’s not quite finished.
Although he retired from service, Noonan has a full-time — albeit civilian — job with the Department of Defense. He is an IT manager in the finance and accounting service.
And he’s a Legion of Merit winner, a high military honor he embraces with mixed emotions.
“You hear about a lot of veterans who have been wounded and had a pretty tough time, so it doesn’t really feel like (his experience) compares to any of that,” Noonan said. “You need people that stay around and provide (non-combat service) every day for the military, but it doesn’t feel important in relevance to some of the people that have given their all, who might have survived but are struggling every day.”
Name: Larry Noonan
Distinction: Recently received the U.S. military’s Legion of Merit Award
Military service: Active duty in the U.S. Army from 1977 to 1987; served 17 years in the Indiana National Guard and 10 years in the U.S. Army reserved; retired from the Army Reserve on March 31, 2015.
Civilian occupation: IT manager in finance and accounting service for the U.S. Department of Defense
Family: Wife, LaTheda; couple has two sons, Chad, 40; and Damien, 15
About the Legion of Merit
Awarded to all seven uniformed branches of the U.S. military for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.
The medal was first awarded in 1942 and is one of only two worn around the neck. The other is the Medal of Honor.