Retired Army lieutenant colonel rose up through the ranks, starting in the streets

Auburn area resident pays tribute to fellow comrades on Memorial Day.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Frank Bannister will be up early on Memorial Day as always, smart in his uniform, with a creased cap on his head.

This year, Bannister will be one among the seven-person VFW Post 1741 team honoring late comrades, known and unknown, with ceremonies at Mountainview Cemetery and Veterans Memorial Park.

“One of our main missions in the VFW is to remember our comrades who’ve passed,” Bannister explained. “To me, Memorial Day is about the ultimate sacrifice veterans pay to protect their country.”

He’ll remember the young Air Force search and rescue officer, Charles Ross, who was “rescuing” a pilot during training in Korea in 1991 when the cable holding them snapped, mortally wounding Ross and killing the pilot instantly.

He certainly won’t forget the 28 members of the Second Brigade Combat Team who died during the time Bannister was the health clinic commander at the U.S. Army base in Baumholder, Germany. As commander, he had to attend all of their memorials and look after the needs of the families left behind.

Bannister was on the medical side of things and never in combat, but he dealt with the aftermath every day during his 26-year career in the U.S. Army.

Born in 1955 in Philadelphia, he grew up on its tough streets, one of the few white kids in a mostly Black neighborhood in the midst of the racial tensions and violence that marked the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Being an inner-city kid either makes you or breaks you,” Bannister said. “I had to cut first period in high school so I wouldn’t get beat up, and I had to cut last period so I could get home without getting beat up. But I had Black friends who looked out for me. I was doing survival escape and evasion while I was in high school. So, you learn.”

Bannister learned to box, toughened up, and became a skilled basketball player, shooting hoops on a playground — if for nothing else but to avoid, he said, the stigma of always being picked last.

“I wouldn’t trade the experience now,” Bannister said.

His Black friends would be among the vanguard of heroes and mentors in his life, from nuns in his elementary school to countless enlisted men and officers later, all of whom saw something of substance in him and took him under their wings. Their examples helped mold him into the man he is today, one who holds service to country and community among the highest of virtues.

“I’ve always felt God’s hand on me,” Bannister said, adding with a chuckle, “God takes care of the idiots.”

Don’t let the self-deprecating humor fool you.

Bannister is no idiot. Among his significant overseas military assignments were: Chief of Staff for Landstuhl Regional Medical Center; Commander Baumholder Army Health Clinic; and Chief Patient Administration Division (PAD) and PAD consultant to Europe Regional Medical Command.

His military awards number one Legion of Merit, five Meritorious Service medals, five Army Commendation Medals, four Army Achievement Medals and various service ribbons. He is an inductee into the Military Order of Medical Merit and the Honorable Order of Saint Barbara. Bannister earned a master’s degree in health care administration from Chapman University and a bachelor’s in social work from Marshall University.

His life of service in and out of the military began in earnest one memorable afternoon in 1975, Bannister recalled, when, freshly laid off from a job, he and two of his buddies walked into a local recruiter’s office and signed up for the U.S. Army.

“The army breaks some people, but joining made me. It was the best thing I ever did,” Bannister said.

The 20-year-old man who entered boot camp at Fort Dix in New Jersey was a skinny 170 pounds, missing a couple of teeth, with no upper-body strength, he said, but plenty of long hair. First thing they did at boot camp, he said, was “shave them locks.”

The enlisted man who entered Fort Dix at age 20 was a bit older than his fellow enlistees, and rapidly made his mark as soldier of the year and as an athlete. He rose quickly through the ranks, making sergeant in two years, aided as always by people who took an interest in him and pushed him.

“Funny thing, one night during boot camp, somebody killed a mouse in the barracks, so the drill sergeant rolled us out at 2 a.m. It’s February, so we’re standing there in our PTs, freezing our asses off, and he asks, ‘Who killed the mouse?’ Nobody would own up to it, so we had to have a memorial ceremony for the mouse. At that point I’m asking myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here, burying this mouse at Fort Dix, New Jersey!’”

When Bannister moved on to Fort Lee in Virginia, a colonel recommended him for “Green to Gold,” the army’s term for moving from enlisted to officer. In 1981, he was selected for a green-to-gold scholarship, attended Marshall University, played on its soccer team, became president of a number of student organizations, and graduated cum laude before his return to the army as an officer.

The noteworthy set of guiding hands behind all that activity belonged to Staff Sgt. Lenny Toyer, Bannister’s first NCO during his first assignment in Germany. Toyer, a black belt in taekwondo, also got the young man involved in army boxing and assigned him to a neuropsychiatric clinic at an army hospital. Toyer was the first to suggest he consider a career in the army’s medical services.

“He just guided me,” Bannister said of Toyer, with quiet respect

By Bannister’s 26th year in the U.S. Army, he’d risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was picked for the War College. That could have put him on track to be a general. But a heart issue landed him in intensive care, and he and his wife, Michelle, decided he needed to step back from his crowded schedule. So, he turned down the opportunity for the War College. Because he’d turned down the promotion and could no longer rise in the ranks, the army asked him to retire, which he did in 2004.

In 2004, Bannister joined the Civil Service, where he continued on for 18 years as a health care administrator. Among the positions he held was CEO of a family medical clinic he launched in Puyallup and managed for eight years. He also completed a one-year-long overseas tour in the nation of Georgia, guiding its military in rehabilitation services for soldiers wounded during the nation’s 2008 war with Russia. He finished his civilian career at Madigan Hospital as chief of soldier care and director of primary care services. He retired from civil service in 2022.

Today, he keeps busy as a volunteer for local nonprofits and is a substitute teacher in Federal Way.

“I’ve done pretty well at everything, except golf,” he said with a laugh.

He has been married to Michelle for 38 years, and the couple have four grown children: Collette, Sean, Kaylyn and MacKenzie, and three grandchildren. His family has lived in the Auburn area since 2011.

Looking back on his life, Bannister is grateful for how it all turned out, and for the many hands that guided him along the way.

“I literally come from a broken home in Philadelphia. I was a street kid. I could still be sitting in a bar in Philly, drinking myself to death, but for Sister Joan Bridgette, Mother Superior, my baseball coach, my soccer coach, Lenny Toyer, and all those people who put a mark on me. So I am always thankful,” Bannister said. “And today I try to be that person they were to me.”