JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
Fred “Bulldog” Becker IV sat enjoying his morning paper, pointedly ignoring the grunting and complaining emanating from the other side of the newsprint.
“Bend your knees a bit more!” Bulldog said, not looking up from his daily ritual.
“You can’t even see me!” responded his oldest, Fred Becker V, as he bent his knees closer to 90 degrees, with his back firmly pressed against the wall, arms splayed out and - most notably - nothing supporting his weight.
Growing up with a military father is something many presume to come with a certain lifestyle, but growing up with Bulldog as a father -- that was something else entirely.
“He wasn’t much for beatings,” Fred said, “He preferred to use exercises and mental challenges.”
Bulldog ran a tight ship; at his heart, he was a family man but June 11, Bulldog—a known regular around JBER—didn’t show up to an event. Despite his incredibly active life, he wasn’t in good health. He suffered from an atrial fibrillation, which causes an arrhythmia - an irregular heartbeat.
“He was supposed to be at Eagle River at a certain time,” Elizabeth Smith, Bulldog’s eldest daughter, said. “We didn't hear from him at all. At first we thought he had just gotten caught-up talking to people until Jeff [Boeckman, husband of Bulldog’s youngest] called us and said ‘You need to get here right now.’”
Then, suddenly JBER lost its most visible veteran supporter, the Anchorage veteran community lost a titan, and three children lost a father they thought to be invincible—he was 73.
“We don’t know if it was a heart attack or a stroke,” Smith said. “But there were phones in every room, and at no time did he make a call to anybody.”
June 24, nearly a thousand Airmen and Soldiers from JBER lined the streets, covering the full distance from the Fort Richardson gate to the Fort Richardson Cemetery, every single one of them saluting as hundreds of motorcycles and vehicles drive by.
At the front, rode Fred Becker V with a stuffed Bulldog strapped to the back of his bike, wearing Bulldog’s widely-known spiked motorcycle helmet.
JBER will feel the loss of Fred "Bulldog" Becker for years to come," said Air Force Col. Brian
Bruckbauer, 673 Air Base Wing and JBER installation commander, "He was an integral part of every installation event. "Every Service Member who came through here knew exactly who he was, even if they did not know him personally.
"We will miss him."
As a professional military education instructor for most of his time as a noncommissioned officer, Bulldog spent his days equipping Airmen with the tools they needed to survive.
When he came home, he did the same as a father.
“Life was a lesson to him,” said Melinda Boeckman, Bulldog’s youngest daughter. “You learn every day; constantly. He’d always cut out articles for us from magazines, and send us subscriptions to educational magazines.”
If one were to ask his eldest daughter Elizabeth Smith to describe her father, one of the first things she’d mention is he taught them all how to conquer fear of water by throwing them in a lake - with life vests of course.
That may seem a rash way to teach children how to swim, but there’s more than a small amount of pride in Smith’s voice when she tells the story.
Every week, the whole family would cram downstairs to watch “Tour of Duty” and listen to Bulldog critique the show’s realism.
“He would educate us while it was playing,” Fred said. “He’d stop it and say ‘OK, watch this, this is how it’s going to go.’ This hour-long show was three freaking hours! We’d look at him and ask how he could know all this, he hasn’t seen it yet.
“When we get together for any kind of movie, he’d critique everything,” he added. “It was fun, but at times, we just wanted to watch a movie.
“That’s one of my favorites. It was just family.”
When Bulldog wasn’t educating his kids on old war films, he was educating them on motorcycle safety.
“He always would tell us, ‘Everybody is out to kill you,’” Boeckman said. “That’s how you have to ride - defensively.”
It’s with that mindset in mind that his kids have enjoyed years of safe riding.
Motorcycles were a family affair for the Beckers, so much so that his youngest daughter got her first bike at 16, which earned a certain amount of bristle from the older kids - but there’s benefits to being the baby.
“He bought me a motorcycle for my 16th birthday,” Boeckman said. “A cherry-red Honda Rebel.”
Though her older siblings might still give her a hard time about it now, that doesn’t change the fact that they still all ride together.
They also got front-row seats to a decades-long romance. Bulldog and his wife, Elizabeth - or as he called her, BAM - met in 8th grade when their gender-based Catholic schools met for co-ed dances.
Eventually they’d marry, have three kids and several lifetime’s worth of adventures.
Bulldog was living example to his kids on how to treat a woman or what to expect from a husband, said Josette Becker, Fred V’s wife.
“My favorite memory of him was how he treated his wife,” Josette said. “We were at a formal ball, and I was watching them dance. They danced like they’d been dancing together forever. Any weird extra move he threw in, she matched it step-for-step.
“There was a true, loving tenderness there that showed they were partners forever.”
He’d frequently publish lengthy ads in the newspaper that served no purpose other than to publicly proclaim his love for his wife.
That doesn’t mean he was without his mistakes in his relationship with Betty though. She had her own way of handling such a dynamic husband.
“Christmas was an event to her, she spent weeks decorating everything,” Josette said. “It was beautiful. He always made a big deal about how much work it took and everything that went into it. One time, he was ‘bellyaching’ about it and going on, she didn’t say a word to him, she just started taking every single thing down and putting it in a box. The beauty of it was, she didn’t say a word the whole time.
“By the time she was done, he bought her every Christmas [thing] he could find, she got a rotating Christmas tree stand, he probably spent two to $3,000 buying her everything she loved.
“Whenever he started up again we’d remind him: ‘Dad how much did that cost you last time you said something like that?’ He’d stop and say “Good point.’
“Even with his tenacity, she had her ways, she added. “She knew.”
Nobody in his family knows when Fred Becker IV adopted the moniker “Bulldog,” but they all felt he lived up to it in stature and in spirit.
It could have been his ability to keep a continuous supply of notoriously lazy animals in his home, each with ironically violent names like Intrepid Bonecrush, Assault and Battery, and Misdemeanor. It also could have been as simple as an endearing reference to his disproportionately broad shoulders and thick arms for someone of his height.
Whether they realize it or not, the one thing his family repeated above all else was that once Bulldog got an idea in his head, he didn’t let it go until he saw it through. Those ideas often involved recruiting the people around him; that’s how he established a legacy of not just family, but an entire community.
Nearly every Airman, Soldier and permanent civilian employee on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson could probably pick Bulldog out of a crowd. While he’s certainly a recognizable figure, the reason is he showed up to nearly every single ceremony JBER has to offer - right down to the promotion ceremonies for E-2s putting on their first stripe.
As the Airmen sat and waited for the ceremony to start with a level of nervousness that become more apparent the closer to the row of new E-2s one got, Bulldog would always walk up and make a few grandfatherly jokes and thank them for their service.
“If we called him for a family event, the first thing we’d hear is ‘let me check my schedule,’” Josette said. “It was always juggling one thing or another. Family was important to him, but he wanted to do everything.
“We would try to make it a bit later so he could do both.”
“Every day, his calendar was full,” Fred said. “If you didn’t hear from him, you knew something was wrong.”
The ceremonies were just the beginning. Bulldog was so heavily invested in the JBER community that he would be notified when a Soldier or Airman was coming back from deployment on a commercial flight, separate from the rest of his unit.
It didn’t matter what time of day it was, Bulldog was there to thank them for their service, Josette said.
For a lot of military personnel, being thanked for their service can be uncomfortable. Many don’t fill a combat role, and if they do, they rarely see themselves as a hero. But it’s an important gesture because it’s indicative of the culture of support for veterans and actively serving military.
Bulldog knew what it was like to have those tables turned, to be spat upon, called baby-killer and rapist by the very people he sacrificed so much to protect.
When he came back from Vietnam, that’s how he was thanked.
So, he did it again; two more times.
“As a Vietnam vet particularly, you were a bad guy,” said Lyle O’Connor, longtime family friend since 1976. “The colleges and government were playing political football. You weren’t liked by anybody because somehow we became the baby-killers when there was an instance of something happening. Then the media spread it out as if we had all done this atrocity, which wasn’t the case at all.”
Instead of finding relief from the atrocities of war, Vietnam veterans came back to a hostile homestead.
“He felt like he was a criminal,” Fred said. “It took him a while to adjust. He didn’t feel someone who served their country in that fashion and suffered what he suffered should be treated that way. It’s hard enough, being in war, let alone to come back and not be welcomed by your country.
“I remember him almost being ashamed of being a veteran at that time. He was very closed, which wasn’t like him at all—he a very open person,” he added. “He said he was afraid to say he was a veteran.
“It was something you didn’t openly say, because you didn’t know how people would treat you.”
O’Connor agreed with Fred adding, “I think the most important thing I recall is that we left people in the field, and we knew it. Before Bulldog involved me in the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club, I just wanted to forget about it. He started grouping people together. He gathered people behind him to stand up.”
So Bulldog did what bulldogs do, he grabbed on to his goal and didn’t let go. He was determined to make sure no veteran ever felt the way he felt again, Fred said.
He started involving politicians, coordinating memorials, ceremonies and public events.
The other motorcycle veterans weren’t too keen on politics or politicians, but Bulldog knew and appreciated the value of politics and the need to get political to accomplish their goals, O’Connor added.
“When they were fighting for benefits for retired military,” Josette said. “He had everybody he knew sending letters to senators and politicians.”
Eventually, political figures started reaching out to Bulldog instead of the other way around, Fred said. That’s when they knew they were making a difference.
“His organization skills, everything he did, from the military, our lives, to [his civilian careers] - he was good at getting people to care and get involved,” Fred said.
The Anchorage community will not be the same without Bulldog in it, but neither will it be the same for having had Bulldog in it.
All the ceremonies will continue as they did before Bulldog came crashing into the hearts of JBER’s finest. However, now there will be a pause, perhaps barely detectable to those who never knew him, as the last special guest is announced and there is no grizzled veteran to stand up, about-face to the service members and render a snappy salute.