Mel Pender grew up in Georgia, and much of his childhood was spent in either Dalton or around Atlanta. From a young age, his father’s naval service during WWII and news reels of Audie Murphy inspired him. He enlisted in the Army when he was 17 and attended basic training in 1955. His began his Army career in engineer units in England, rebuilding airfields that were destroyed during WWII. He then returned to the United States and was stationed at Ft. Wolters, Texas. In 1958, he reenlisted, completed airborne school, and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. During his time with the 82nd, he deployed on a rotation to Okinawa, where he began running track. His performance earned him the opportunity to train for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics at Ft. Hood, Texas. After the Olympics, he attended Officer Candidate School and commissioned in 1965. He was then assigned to Ft. Riley, Kansas, and a deployment to Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division quickly followed. He served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, and returned to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, to train for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where he won a gold medal in the 4x 100m relay. After the Olympics, he returned to Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne Division and worked in a Tactical Operations Center. When the 82nd retuned to the United States, he was reassigned to work for William Colby in Saigon. He returned to the United States in 1970 and was assigned to West Point as a track coach under Carlton Crowell. He retired from the Army in 1976.
In this interview, he provides vivid glimpses into his childhood, sharing stories of his family, his grandparents and great grandparents, and his school experiences. He describes his service in the Army, including depictions of his time as an enlisted Soldier and an Officer. He discusses his time at West Point, highlighting working with the athletes on the track team, and sharing why he was not hired as the head coach when Carlton Crowell died. Finally, he reflects on what his service means to him.