National Armed Forces Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in May annually, along with a celebratory Armed Forces week running from that Saturday to the following Sunday. Armed Forces Day started as a citizens-organized idea where they could volunteer their time to come together and help at a veteran organization, make care packages for service members, recognize and acknowledge current military by being a pen pal, and more. This organized day came to fruition in May 1950, launching parades, air shows, and receptions, becoming an official holiday in 1962 by John F. Kennedy.
As most of you likely know, the United States military comprises six total branches, including the Army, Airforce, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and newly established (2019) Space Force. Each branch has its own unique mission, but the overall mission of U.S. Security. The U.S. Military forces operate in more than 100 countries.
You may be wondering why a car parts website writes a blog post about Armed Forces Day, but we have an extremely special place in our hearts for this holiday. In our small team, we have two Veterans who served in two separate time frames, who we want to showcase. We want to shed light on these warriors and survivors that defend our country. These men and women lay their lives on the line so that we can continue to be free and live our everyday lives, and that is something that many people take for granted.
So, I took the opportunity to sit down with them, with the rest of our team, and we asked them questions like what it was like, what they did for fun, what they sacrificed, how they handled the overall impact on their lives and more. I don’t think any of us were quite ready for some of the answers to the questions, but we were also very careful and mindful of their experiences, making sure not to overwhelm or talk about anything they weren’t ready to.
Both men were a part of the U.S. Army, Ryan enlisting in 2001, as the tragedy of 9/11 happened in the first two weeks of his senior year of high school. This changed the trajectory he was on, and he made a pivot in his choices after high school. Although he enlisted as a reserve, he served in the second year of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Steve enlisted in 2011 after taking a semester at the local college, knowing this was his path since Kindergarten when he finally decided to take the leap. He enlisted to serve actively and was part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Both men's families took it as expected; they weren’t enthused but worried about their well-being and safety. I asked them to tell me about their experiences and thoughts during their time.
Tell me about what your first days were like, what your boot camp/training experience was like, and how you got through it.
S: Funnily enough, it started with me and a buddy finishing Gears of War 3 on the hardest difficulty at 4 in the morning. Then I had to report to the recruiter's station by 7, Left there to head to a Radisson in Harrisburg by MEPS to fly from there to basic. At the hotel, I was exhausted and went to bed early (5 PM). Woke up at 10 PM and could not fall back asleep, so I watched infomercials while my roommate snored enough to blast down the walls until we got up at 5 AM. Then we traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia, for ‘Reception.’
Kind of the ‘waiting room’ for basic where you get shots, your head shaved, hygiene products, tests done, etc. (lasts about a week). It was 1 am when we arrived, and after getting our uniforms and bags, it was 4 am. They said, ‘This is about the time to wake up, so put your bags down and come out to start the day.’ For the first three days of leaving, I had a total of 8 hours of sleep. So that was my start.
R: My boot camp was crazy. I was Delta 146 infantry, Fort Knox, Kentucky. And this was pre-war training. So basically, the war in Afghanistan had begun. This was before war was declared on Iraq, but they knew we were being mobilized, so it wasn't a normal basic training, and it was pretty insane. I had some fun with it. I have some pretty funny stories.
We were through Raging Bulls platoon, and our platoon was a very punishment-oriented platoon, and they specifically set out to win the PT badge and win these other badges by just smoking us all the time. And so every day as punishment. Every day was hell. It was fun; I have to say. FTX's (field training exercises) and other stuff like that, where you would go out, and you would have to set up a base and then defend a base, et cetera. But, I mean, ours was just very physically grueling. There was a big mulch pit right in front of our building, and that was like we were always doing “front, back, go's,” rain, sun, whatever it was.
Can you tell us a funny story from your time at basic training?
S: From day 1, our DS (Drill Sergeant) told us about DS Ghost and how he was on a ‘special recon mission’ (as that was our MOS) and couldn’t be here to introduce himself. Throughout the span of basic and our OSUT, anytime we flagged up, one of our DS would always bring him up, saying when he finally gets back, he’s going to ‘really bring pain.’ As time went on, we went from ‘shitting bricks’ to scoffing every time he was mentioned.
Fast forward to graduation and finally being done; in the middle of the field, our DS announces that DS ghost has arrived. Wide eyes and confused looks, with a few more scoffs, were among the crowd. Then a DS asked if DS ghost could come out. Everyone stood and watched as our other DS walked forward and put a G.I. Joe action figure on the ground, then proceeded to smoke us in our class A’s until muscle failure or until you had to get on the bus to get to your station. I arrived at mine with sweat stains and a disheveled uniform, which I proceeded to get smoked there, even when my unit knew what had happened. I realize these stories probably don’t sound funny… But looking back, to me, it kinda is.
R: Funny story? Don’t volunteer for anything. They asked for a driver and everyone’s hands go up. Those people got to push full wheel barrows up a hill.
What are some things you remember about adapting to military life?
S: Being on your own for the first time, knowing nothing, your surroundings, the people, and adjusting and adapting on your own to everything new.
R: Shaving. Every day was a new one—a very painful thing to learn. I mean, I like the structure. I'd say it is a bit getting used to, but once you learn the rules, even the basic training, I understood it's all psychological because there would be people starting to lose their minds. I'm like, Dude, they're just messing with you; relax. Your wakeup time was like 430, and you had to be ready within like 15 minutes in Pts, ready to do PT.
That's all basic. It was different, like in Iraq, but I don't know if that's a separate question. You have to make your bed, get ready, and your stuff all has to be squared away, or you're going to come back, and they're going to destroy your things while you're gone. And then you get smoked again. Then you got to run, get chow. Yeah, you're pretty much kept under duress the entire time.
Where were you stationed, either on base or on tours? What was it like when you first arrived?
S: Basic: 5-15 BCT Fort Benning, Georgia
1st station: 3rd Armored Division 1st Infantry (Big Red One famously known as), 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry regiment, A-troop (Anarchy), 4th Platoon. (This was disbanded).
Overseas: We moved a lot. First was Manas Air force base in Kyrgyzstan. The main place was Camp John Pratt in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan
2nd Station: Fort Bliss, Texas, 2-14 Squadron in B-troop (I think?)
R: We were stationed in Tikrit. That was our headquarters on FOB Danger, FOB is Forward Operating Base. But we also worked at patrol bases and went to others we bounced around often. After about six months there, things changed with our unit. But there was a lot of convoying. I did a lot of convoying. I spent much time at PB Yuvani and other bases in northern Iraq, mainly in Tikrit. That was our headquarters. My first time going there, it was pretty crazy. I was part of the advanced party for my unit. The war had already lasted for a year, so I was part of the advanced party. And so they took a small group of us to go up, meet the unit, and get prepped for the rest, who had to drive up with the vehicles and equipment.
So I went by C-130 and then by Blackhawk to the other place, and then hopped a freaking convoy on the back of a five-ton because there are a couple of different versions of the five-ton dump trucks and other trucks, there's like troop carriers, but basically, they were cramming a bunch of us into the back of it. And we're all laying down with our rifles, like, pointing outward on the five-ton for this trek from, I'm not sure, it might have been just north of Baghdad, but up there to Tikrit. But I was here with my buddy, and we were, like, joking. We sang Highway to the Danger Zone because the name of the base was FOB Danger..
What was your job assignment? Tells us about what you did.
S: 19D, Cav Scout. A combat reconnaissance job. Essentially, the same training we do with infantry, except for our job, we’re not meant to be seen or noticed while gathering intel. When you watch a movie or play a game where in the briefing they begin to say, ‘The intel we received shows, blah blah blah,’ that’s us.
R: I was an engineer. I was a 21-kilo plumber pipe fitter in an Engineering company. And we pretty much did all types of construction, but we were mainly there to raise the quality of living on base in Iraq. But that wasn't our original description. Going back originally, we weren't even supposed to go to Iraq. We were supposed to go to Kuwait, which is what we told our families. But we outperformed another unit that was messing up, and they looked at our two units, and they're like, okay, well, Charlie Company, have them stay in Kuwait because there are too many not equipt in their units. Alpha Company. You're going to Iraq. And so they told us when we got to Kuwait that we were going there. But initially, it was just basically on the post, fixing up the post. But we ran out of work very quickly, and then we started going out and servicing other main bases with our specialties.
We split out into groups like a couple of plumbers, a couple of carpenters, and a couple of electricians. We'd split up, go to one place, raise the quality of living and then move on to the next base. Well, there's a lot of convoying. During the first six months, I worked a lot with EOD, and I did a lot of convoying with them. And that was like a whole nother experience. But we didn't deal with too many IED devices because they had the Warlock system, which blocks all frequencies. The usual method of detonating an IED is a cell phone or a garage clicker, which sends a frequency where you can get some distance from it. And so what the Warlock does, it that blocks the frequencies. And we would go around. I helped them run errands because I was like a driver.
Once they found out I was a good driver, I was like, hopping on all kinds of convoys all over the place. But with them, it was pretty cool. I mean, I like that unit. They're pretty crazy. I mean, we've driven by IEDs that didn't go off, and we're assuming it was the system blocking it, but we drove by, we're like, Shit, that's an IED in us. But with the policy when I was there, basically, when you spot an ID, you own the IED because it becomes a danger for other troops. So basically, you have to fucking sit there until they can call in a group that either finds a way to disable it, shoots it, or blows it up. They usually don't even try to disarm it. They just fucking detonated it, or they got distance, detonated it, but I mean, stuck.
Well, luckily, if I traveled with their first sergeant, I wouldn't get stuck. Well, most of the time, because if they did, they would radio it in, find out if any other convoys are going that way, reroute anything, be like, yeah, send out a crew, here's the location, and they would take care of it because sometimes we would just bail because they had very pressing issues. And they're like, okay, no convoys are going here. No one's really in danger. They won't kill their own people, so have someone else take care of it.
We were doing, like, aside from EOD, I was doing combat patrols, which was kind of kind of a messed up concept. They basically sent us out in 2004 with the minimum number of personnel to leave the gates, which was twelve personnel, three gun trucks, and they would take all lower enlisted, so twelve personnel, all privates and specialists, and one E-5 sergeant. And they would send us out before a large convoy to basically almost like kind of scouting.
What was your rank?
S: E-4 SPC
R: E-4 SPC
Did you see Combat? What was that experience like? What was it like coming home from deployment?
S: Yes. More or less disbelief of ‘Wait, is this really happening right now?’. The reaction sets in, and you do what you do. Overall, paranoia. Things you always look out for over there could be traps, ambushes, IEDs, etc. From walking in between two cliffs at a low elevation on a hike or even just a trash bag on the side of the road that you drive by. When it’s something they show you that could end you, you don’t just ‘stop’ looking for it.
R: I've been shot at a lot. I've seen more combat than I would like and have seen more people die than I would like. And coming home, the treatment that you get is a joke, if you get treatment at all. I came back, and I did well while I was over there. I functioned very well. I function surprisingly well under fire. When you're getting shot at and shit, I don't know, something like clicks inside you and takes over everything. Like, automatic? And it's all about the mission.
I did well over there, and I functioned well, but then when I came home, I had these thoughts in my mind and these memories and these ideas I couldn't shake. And they messed with me for a while because it was difficult for me to integrate who I was and what I had done in Iraq to survive with what I thought a good person was. So I came back thinking I was a monster, thinking I was a horrible human being and deserved to die because I had seen and done horrible shit and barely even felt it or reacted to it when I was there. You have to learn to live with these two versions of yourself. It took me years to figure that out, to put that together and be like, okay. War rules are a lot different than normal rules. And what makes you a monster in war, you survive.
In war, you do what you must to protect your brothers and your sisters, your platoon. You do what you need to do. But then you start to think about it, and you're like, holy shit, man. What did I do? What was I a part of? And it took me a while to reconcile that, especially because, my first three and a half years back, I kept dreaming about these three kids I watched die in Samarra. And they pretty much haunted me for like three years. I tried to save them, and I couldn't. And I would, like, wake up, like, fucking sweating because it was incredibly real. And that fucked with my head for years until, eventually, I finally accepted that I couldn't save them. I was turned down for treatment by the VA; I had to seek therapy to help myself. They would tell me that I was okay, to check back in later, and maybe do an outpatient program, but I needed help.
What were the things you missed most about civilian life while deployed?
S: The little things of everything. Proper shower with working temperatures, your own bed, privacy, and freedom to do as you please.
R: I don't know. It's rough, too. Well, I just kind of missed being with my family and being able to spend time with my family and stuff like that. Not be shot at.
How did you stay in touch with your family and friends while deployed?
S: Facebook was the biggest way. Sometimes the occasional letter. However, I wouldn’t get a letter from someone until about a month after it was sent.
R: They had little call centers Well, they have very minimum Internet access. You might be able to get, like, half an hour, but the line is fairly long, and sometimes you don't really have too often to go. But it's part of their MWR program. Morale, welfare, recreation, and smaller bases didn't have anything. You'd be lucky if you had. You didn't have Internet or anything at the patrol bases. But the main base, I mean, they at least had stuff like that. But it took, like, two weeks. There were people I was writing I like to write. I prefer that over-the-phone calls, which are always fairly awkward.
What was the food like? Did you have a sufficient source of supplies?
S: It was comfortable. It wasn’t the best tasting, but it did what it needed to do. If we were doing a patrol, we already knew what we needed to pack and ration, depending on if it was a week or more without heading back to the FOB.
R: Well, KBR was there. Their food was fairly decent. That whole thing is a big scam with Halliburton and them being a subsidiary and getting a no-bid contract. There's all kinds of controversy with that. They got money to foot that bill, but not for veterans. The food wasn't that bad. I didn't mind the MREs, but when I was in Samarra, I mean, I was getting one hot meal every other day. That was it. We used to get a hot meal every day, and then they figured out when that convoy was coming, and they bombed it.
Every other day, they started mixing the time when it would come. So we would get one hot meal every other day and then live off MREs, which is fine. Everyone has their preference. You have so many boxes; you can have the one you like. Chicken Tetrazzini. I loved chicken Tetrazzini. Shortages aside from the armor and stuff, where there were also times when we were getting short on other supplies like water because of what was going on in Fallujah, made other things a little more hostile. And with what happened, they spread out to the areas, which is why Samarra happened because they were cracking down.
It was Operation Baton Rouge, and they were cracking down on the cities that would start turning into Fallujah. And so they started cataloging cities and grading them, and then they were taking out the targets before it became another Fallujah. But when Fallujah was happening, we were starting to have a startup water ration, and we were going to get to the point where we were going to start using the water from the Tigris with our iodine tablets.
Was there something you did for good luck?
S: No. The only thing I kept was a photo of my family and girlfriend at the time.
R: I think it was my grandfather's St. Christopher pendant. I had that. I mean, I wasn't really religious, I was an atheist at the time, but they would have a group prayer before the convoys. Almost every convoy I've ever been on had like a little group, especially the 1st ID. And they would usually do like, the lieutenant or someone would say something beforehand, and we would all I would have been there, respectfully, bow my head. I was raised Catholic, but I turned against that at a fairly young age.
How did you entertain yourselves? Did you and your fellow soldiers play pranks, etc., on each other?
S: Everyone had their own thing: gym, weapon races, cleaning, stuff to do at the USO, games, and such. Catch up on sleep when possible.
R: I think we kind of went over nonstop pranks. Well, we also got Xboxes, and we had a nice little LAN party going on—a fun story in Iraq. My squad won a Halo tournament, and it was all squads from different infantry, MP, support groups, and we're all in there – four man teams, four on four, death match with double elimination. And we got a trophy for it. That was a lot of fun. We had big screens. It was like a theater, and basically, two teams would go at a time.
Did you keep any written documentation about the time you were away? I.e., a journal?
R: I kept a journal, but I burned it. It's probably better that way. I kind of wish I would have kept it, but I mean, at the time, it did make me feel better because it was just too heavy for me to grapple with.
Do you recall the day your service ended? Where were you? What did you do in the days/weeks after?
S: Went home and relaxed. It was nice not having to expect random room checks or have someone banging on the door for you.
R: April 16th. It's become like a holiday for me. It was good. It was like a nice liberating moment. It was good to no longer hold that obligation over me because I was worried I would be deployed again.
Did you take advantage of military benefits like the GI bill, etc.?
S: I somewhat did. I started a Comp Science degree but didn’t complete it. There are certain goals you need to meet to hold onto it… kind of like a scholarship.
R: I didn't finish college. I did like three or four semesters. Dropped out of my fourth one, so I didn't even finish college. I think I'm supposed to use it within ten years, so I don't even think I have access to it anymore. So much for that.
How many years did you serve? When you left, what was the process like?
S: 4 years. 20 weeks. Things were different. Things I used to do (or not do) bothered me then.
R: It was pretty straightforward. Contracts for eight years, but with reserves, they split it up. It could be like six and two or four and four. I did six and two. I mean, it's pretty straightforward. You have your paperwork. You're supposed to hand in stuff, etc. But yeah, you turn your gear. It's all very easy. It's not very stressful.
Was it hard to transition back into civilian life? Was there anything that helped you during the transition? What were the first few months back in civilian life like?
S: It was different. It didn’t feel like you were out like you were done. Felt like, for something, they were going to call or pull me back into it. Physically, I was out. Mentally, not so much.
R: It was very hard to transition. I mean, because, like, every vehicle went by too fast. I was, like, looking out the window at all these sensory things being thrown into a civilian world. And I remember distinctly wanting to go back to Iraq, like, really wanting to go back to Iraq because I couldn't shake it, that civilian life. I couldn't do it. It was too much stress for me. It was weird because even when I was in Iraq, I wanted to leave. Like it was no one's business, and now I'm home, and now I just can't adjust, and I just don't fit in because I'm here for war, and we're in a civilian world, and I'm, like, reacting overreacting to a lot of shit, getting to some fights. I fucked up some people who stepped over boundaries and didn't realize what they were dealing with.
Did you make any close friendships that you still have today?
S: Some I kept in contact with. Others aren’t around anymore.
R: Yes. Some good, some bad. I mean, one of the big things I learned when I was over there is that everyone is human. And seeing the Iraqis and actually being able to interact with them in many places we were going, we were interacting with Iraqis and getting to know people and just seeing that they were like everyone else. They just want a good life for their kids. There weren't overly bad people. It was kind of a strange thing to see and experience. But when it comes down to it, almost all war is wrong because war is going to result in the deaths of innocent people, deaths of children. And by declaring war, you're accepting that these things will happen.
The Iraq war is an illegal war. It was sold under false pretenses. There is no justification for it. So being able to reconcile that in my mind kind of and forgive myself for being duped and having to do what I needed to do to survive. And also to see that everyone's human and to have compassion for people in Third World countries, no matter where they are.
Are you a part of any Veteran organizations?
S: I was, but they pestered me nonstop with letters of membership renewals and donations. I stopped bothering. To be honest, I don’t remember the names of them.
R: Not really. I was a part of a VFW for a little bit, but I don’t like paying dues, and I don’t drink very much.
Did your military experience influence your thinking about war or the military in general? How did your service experience affect your life?
S: At some points. Those are two different subjects, in a way. Deployment is actually radically different compared to garrison life in the states and on base. It’s not a thing I regret doing or wouldn’t change if given the choice. Whether I changed for the better or the latter, I couldn’t tell you. You would need to ask a friend, mainly someone who has seen ‘both sides of the coin.’ Some good things, some bad.
R: It changed it. I mean, I've always been, like, a history nerd. I've always loved old war movies and World War II and am fascinated with just history, any of the wars. But the reality of war is quite different than any kind of glamorized version that I ever see portrayed. I don't like seeing war portrayed as glamorous with how certain movies try to do it. I'm like, yeah, sorry. You can't glamorize shooting kids. Yeah, sorry, bud. It pretty much ruined my life; I'd have to say. It put me with some really heavy psychological baggage, and then they didn't give me the tools or the opportunity to work on or fix it. And so I had to search for myself. I had to search on my own dime and through my own experience. Trying to blindly find my way out of what they're calling nowadays is complex PTSD, CPTSD, which is treatment-resistant PTSD.
Is there anything you wish civilians understood about the military and military life?
S: ‘Thank you for your service.’ This more or less goes for combat vets, but it doesn’t need to be said. Many other vets would agree, and we understand most who say it mean it on good terms. But being ‘thanked’ for things done overseas or seen isn’t exactly something you feel you should be ‘thanked’ for. Unfortunately, it also isn’t something that could be explained or understood easily either.
R: I mean, honestly, the whole thank a veteran thing, that's something people don't understand. Some people thank me, and many times I just try to say, whatever, you're welcome, or whatever, blah, blah, blah, move on. But there are times when I've been having a really bad day or week or month, and I've been thinking about things and it's, like, weighing on me heavily. So they say thank you for your service and all I'm thinking about is all these innocent people and these bodies, and they're thanking me for my service, and I'm just like to me, there's this weird, like, friction I feel.
I try to be polite. If there's something I REALLY want people to know is that fireworks on the 4th of July can mess with veterans. That took me a long time to really kind of calm myself down and get to a point where I wasn't, like, freaking out.
What are things you miss about the military? What are some things you are glad to have left behind?
S: The structure. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a TON of dumb crap we had to do (like our LT lost a padlock to a connex, which left it unsecured. So, due to his error, all the unmarried guys had to sit/guard in front of it from Friday to Monday, 24/7, until LT could ‘register’ a new padlock to put on, which he did on Monday since he was out of state for a ‘mini holiday’). But other things just made sense.
R: I don't know, I do miss having fun with my squad and kind of goofing around and doing stupid stuff. I mean, some of the missions were fun, I'd have to admit. Some of the stuff I did enjoy. That's another problem. When you're in this guilt cycle, there are times I had that were fun. So you're dealing with both sides of it. What was the second part of that? And left behind? Petty people in positions of power abusing it.
That's something I don't miss. But if you meet a good sergeant or a good captain or good first sergeant, you'll bend over backward for him/her. But if you meet a guy who doesn't deserve the power, he was just promoted because he was there, and he's a shitty person. It can be a nightmare trying to work for those people.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to join the service? What advice do you have for someone transitioning into civilian life?
S: Joining? Research, research, research, and be sure you know it’s what you want. There are a LOT of guys that are gun-ho and couldn’t wait to get in, then next thing you know, they quit midway through basic. Civ life is different. That depends on the person. But one thing is, be sure you have something waiting for you on the outside, job-wise. Don’t be complacent and sit around just because your Sgt isn’t up your ass to have you report anywhere anymore.
R: For someone joining service, I'd say don't. Or join the Air Force or the Navy, someone who's not going to throw you in combat for a war you don't believe in or understand. For those transitioning, there are more groups out there nowadays in their work. So there's also more access to funds, there's more access to therapy, there's more access to groups. So if anyone coming back has any issues, you need to seek help. You need to be brave enough to be able to talk to somebody about it and eventually go into groups. Because some of the most progress I made was in veteran groups with other veterans who understood, knowing that I wasn't alone, I can share shit or hear other stories, and I'm like and have it resonate with you on a deeper level.
I went into this interview thinking I would hear a series of generic responses, some funny stories, some not so great, but I don’t think I was truly ready to understand the severity of trauma these men and women have. I realized afterward that not many people truly shed light on the aftermath… the PTSD, the trauma, the ups, and downs. I walked away from this interview with them with a sadness that I can’t explain. I want you to consider what these two men say in this interview and have a better perspective on how this has affected their lives.
If there is anything you can take away, although it is customary to offer the generic “Thank you for your service” to our veterans, next time, consider something else. Consider donating to Veteran care, hiring a veteran to do a job for you, volunteering, or simply asking them how they’re doing. These men and women carry the weight of sacrificing their mind, body, and soul for our everyday freedom, and we are not equipt to handle the aftermath of that. Not all vets have war stories, and some have never seen war; some work day-to-day, and some it consumes their life and personality. Be mindful of everyone and use your words wisely. Be respectful, kind, and courteous, but also stay mindful.