What do you want to be? The question has near haunted me for so many years it’s hard to not cringe at the thought of it. When I was a kid I wanted to be a ninja, an astronaut, something cool. Nothing ever stuck though and over the years I lost focus. Through high school I had no real ambition or understanding of what I was capable of or what I wanted to do with myself. My focus fixed when a classmate came in one day and mentioned she had joined the Army. It felt almost as if I had always known that the decision to serve in the armed forces was for me. All of those late 80’s and early 90’s action movies created an allure for the adrenaline seeking teenager in me. With a budding understanding of the great deeds and terrible horrors of war from so much time spent watching the History Channel and reading about World War 2 in every social studies text I could get my hands on, I took the decision to heart and knew full well that to serve was a privilege and an honor.
I joined the Army at 17. My ship out date was deferred until after graduation and on July 25th, 2001 I was headed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to subject my body and mind to the challenges of basic training. The drive to succeed and to come out the other side better because of it kept me going. On September 11th, 2001 training became something all the more important as the possibility of war was now a reality. Every exercise was that much more intense. By the winter I was fully trained and ready for my first duty station.
I arrived at Killeen, Texas sometime around midnight via bus. The town was deserted, the land on the way in flat and featureless. Street lights hung oddly sideways on low hanging polls with many if not all simply blinking yellow or red. The bus station was located in the center of what is considered downtown, but would have just been considered ‘town’ in most of the east coast. The town a mockery of what a city should be in order to have that label.
Fort Hood, “The Great Place”, would be home for the coming years. Training and time out in the field became my normal life, a lot of time in the field. I made the choice to be a Fire Support Specialist, or field artillery forward observer, almost on a whim. That choice shaped and molded my career with significantly more field training and more dangerous mission types. My ability to be a solo element or attached to armor, infantry or scout platoons made for interesting and exciting job opportunities, something I would fully realize later when I would deploy overseas.
I married my wife February 7th, 2004, a beautiful and amazingly bright woman with great aspirations to become a nurse. She was always so certain of what she wanted to do, and I knew I wanted her in my life for as long as she would have me. We knew full well of the painful and long road ahead in the coming months.
Late March 2004 I found myself sitting in a tent city somewhere in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, waiting to head north. I stayed behind as part of a cleanup detail as the main bulk of our units headed in country. April 4th we woke to news that some of our units had been hit hard in an uprising in Sadr City and that some of our units had taken losses with people killed and injured. It was real. Soon after, I headed in country myself on a roller coaster ride of a flight on board a C130 transport. The hard drop to earth and subsequent g-forces necessary as long exposure to the Baghdad skyline at low altitudes invited unsavory elements of the local populace to take liberties with various sized weapons and mortars. I met up with my unit after an unquestionably stupid and long drive on the back of an unarmored transport truck through the city.
The first few weeks I tried to settle myself into my new home. But before anyone was able to get too comfortable there was another attack on one of our brigade’s units, this time with much closer ties to us. One of our trucks was hit by an improvised explosive device. The gunner, Justin Johnson, died on the spot. The driver was hurt as well but managed to get away with just a mangled arm. Our unit held a funeral service within the week. The affected company was short on personnel now. I was chosen along with two other friends to replace those hurt or lost.
C Troop 10th Cavalry became my new outfit. I quickly realized how much more dangerous my year was to become when I arrived. The truck I would carry out my missions on was the same that our friend had died in. The doors replaced with new ones and a little additional hardened steel plating and the inside cleaned out by the new driver, Joey Cantu. I knew only a handful of people in my newest unit and I was meeting men whose hands I would put my life into for the first time deep in a country where any wrong move could be your last. They would soon grow to be a family closer to me than my own blood.
I was hardly comfortable with my new role as a Humvee gunner when I was wounded by an RPG. An errant shot that luckily blew up between trucks and showered my truck with shrapnel. A small sliver of metal found its way in and out of my side through the unarmored windshield. My recollection is at best hazy thanks to the shockwave blacking me out for what my friends say was nearly two minutes. A trip to the hospital, a shot of morphine and a scan later I was released back to my unit, unable to perform combat operations and set into the hell of radio operation for a month.
Once healed, I found myself in many more attacks and a few firefights. A good amount of interaction with the locals day to day and a lot of humanitarian aid, a thankfully quiet election and a lot of lost sleep came and passed. Dangerous two man missions sitting out in the city trying to catch bad guys doing bad things, various large scale operations with air support and some smaller unit based manhunts littered my time in country. All the while trying to hide what I’d been up to with each day from my wife. No easy feat with mortars and gunfire happening as you’re on the phone professing how terribly you miss each other. The two weeks of R&R in the middle of my deployment were hardly enough.
March 2005 I found myself finally heading home. You think you can hold your tears in when you see your wife for the first time in nearly 6 months of combat. It’s a futile endeavor as any soldier can tell you. The transition back to regular life was hard to near impossible. Not even being in the Army felt the same. Things change in you after combat and they don’t go back very easily. That fact led me to leave the Army in 2007.
The last few months of my service found me searching for job opportunities at various job fairs around central Texas. My wife was still two years from completing her degree and staying local was our only choice. After a random chance meeting with the hiring authority for the city of Killeen I was encouraged to apply for the Fire Department. A battery of testing later I was placed on a lengthy wait list, and was forced to find other employment at a local cable company. A few unsatisfying months of work later I was called for an interview and subsequently offered a position with the department.
Zero training and no real understanding of what the position truly entailed, I was sent through the departments training program late in 2007. Some months and many lost hours of sleep later I was a full-fledged firefighter. Working as a firefighter appealed to the danger-seeking adrenaline junky in me. It was hard, unforgiving work. I found myself once again knee deep in a job that could take the breath from me in an instant. There was a fulfilling sense of pride in wearing the gear and hefting the weight of an air pack.
It was just about a year into my time at the Fire Department that my wife began talking about joining the Navy. She approached me with the thought cautiously, and while I immediately became defensive about the idea, it was less than a day later I had fully come around to the idea. After everything I had gone through and she was witness to during my service she was still willing to serve.
She commissioned at her graduation ceremony in front of her entire graduating class, the only person to do so that year. I pinned her newly deserved rank to her collar dressed in my firefighters dress uniform. This newest change in our life together meant upheaval and a new adventure for both of us. The roles reversed now with me being the dependent of a new US Naval Officer. I would give my notice soon after her graduation and by September of 2009 I was on my way to a new life in Maryland.
College was always something I found myself grasping at for years. A degree was a personal goal that had haunted my thoughts since signing on with the military so many years earlier. There had been various forays into continued education. Most of my chances at college never panned out in the Army, only getting a single class in during my time at Fort Hood. Signing up for the local community college after I left the Army, I quickly had to rescind my registration when the finances didn’t come together. Through many heartfelt conversations about my career future with my wife, I set myself to fulfill that long held objective that had eluded me for so long.
Pushing aside many self doubts I set my heart to what had always been so important to me, art. It had been a part of me since as early as I can remember. After going through so much it was the thing I had been doing all along as a hobby and I was able to find myself again. From second grade spaceship drawings, to teen angst filled sketches during high school, to terrain sketches on the observation post, to sketchbooks filled with images of my lovely wife and notebooks scrawled with all manner of boredom induced imagery from endless training and long nights, it took me so many uncertain years to figure it all out.
In 2010 I started attending a community college taking base art courses and by the fall of 2011 I was enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art. In May of 2013 I graduated with a Bachelors in Illustration.
This is just the newest beginning to a new set of challenges. Thankfully, I have a history of overcoming the odds.