As part of a North Carolina State Archives initiative to obtain oral histories of veterans I volunteered to be interviewed for the North Carolina Veterans Oral History Collection. I was interviewed by Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (later referred to as MP).
The interview was well worth the time it took to coordinate and conduct it. I would encourage all North Carolina veterans to contact Matthew and provide their unique story for preservation.
This picks up where North Carolina Veterans Oral History Interview Part 2 left off. I was in the throes of Operation Iraqi Freedom at the Central Command Forward Headquarters in Qatar and the major combat operations are winding down.
Also available as an MP3 download
CS: So… Yeah, we’re… You know, we go through this whole war effort and they get to the point where it’s like, all right, the major combat operations are over, we’re still there, you know, at some point in time we’re talking about sustaining the mission. And that’s not what our unit was designed to do. Our unit was designed to come in, set up stuff, pull out. We knew this was an unusual circumstance and this was going to be a little longer than normal, but we still needed to go back and become the national command authority asset that we were. So, there was a lot of talk of, well, you have to hit these certain benchmarks, and we have to do this, we have to do that, we have to bring people in – hire people, like contractors, to come do this job. So that obviously takes time.
We’re like, okay, we get that, but, you know, what about this equipment? Are we going to swap it out? Because this is our stuff. They’re like, “We’ll buy it.” “Wait, I don’t think you can just…” – “No, no, no, you don’t understand. We’ve already ordered you new equipment.” They had a full inventory of everything we had brought. Not only did they order all new of it, they ordered two all new of it. Just to make sure that we couldn’t say no. So all this brand new equipment shows up there, and they’re like, “If you need to take stuff home, here it is.”
MP: And in case you guys had to go to another…
CS: And – yeah.
MP: Because Afghanistan’s still going on, to a degree.
CS: Afghanistan is still going on, and they took a small detachment of our guys into Iraq with them. So once they set up shop in some of Saddam’s palaces – I really wanted to go just so I could be like, yeah, I was in Saddam’s palace doing stuff. But they were like, no, no, no, the longer mission is going to be here, we need you here. Central focal point. Sorry, you’re stuck. So, yeah, we were there as a small contingent, like 20, 30 people, well into… July? Late July/August 2003.
CS: So, yeah, we had shown up in early January. The war hadn’t even started yet. And major combat operations ended in, what, April, or something? You know, and we’re still there in July, and we’re like, hey, are we going to get home at any point in time?
MP: Well, this is a new… We’re going into the period of building schools…
CS: Right, we’re talking a whole…
MP: Setting up city councils.
CS: - new way of life. Yeah, like we’re…
MP: All that kind of…
CS: The second – so venturing back into the politics of it all. The second they said we’re not going to allow any Baath Party members to be in the new government of Iraq, you knew right then and there it was just chaos. How are you going to have all these people that have actually been in the business of running a country excluded completely. And a lot of those Baath Party Members were probably not fully on board with Saddam [like lockstep].
MP: It’s like with Germans in World War II not every German was a Nazi, yeah.
CS: Right, like they had no choice in a lot of cases. They were just, you know – the circumstances around, they’re like, well, this is what I want to do, this is where I’m at, I can’t get out of it, so let me just – yeah, sure, I’ll be a Baath Party member. I mean, you knew then things were going to be a little chaotic, but…
MP: And this is when we’re starting to see the real development of IEDs, the terror, everything is, at this point, building.
CS: Yeah. I mean, the idea of going into a guerilla warfare operation with Humvees was smart, but the problem was you didn’t take into account that people could just make bombs out of basically stuff laying around. Because there were mortar rounds and rockets everywhere. And, you know… it was… When you started hearing that they were bringing in real bomb people from Iran and things like that to make shaped charges to penetrate tank armor and all this other crazy stuff, that’s when you knew it was just like… We got to get these guys, and we got to just absolutely annihilate them.
Because, you know, the… It was funny, because as quickly as we took out Saddam’s tanks, which were old Soviet tanks, someone else would come back around with an RPG that was an old Soviet RPG, and somehow pierce the armor in our awesome tanks that had just taken out these other tanks. Well, they weren’t designed to take out RPG guys. That’s the infantry’s job. But this is the only thing we had in the area, so we sent that in.
MP: You had people who could adapt rapidly.
CS: Rapid adaptation and rapid prototyping of things. It was just happening. Like just overnight you would see these new concepts and new ideas coming from the insurgency, and we would have to respond. But we only had so much stuff, like… There’s only so much creativity you can have in a desert with military minds sitting there, right. Some of these issues get back to the States and you have to have actual weapons development guys think about how to prevent this from puncturing armor.
MP: Classically trained military – they’re not meant to adapt this fast. They have protocol, standards, and troop movements…
CS: Yeah, and you have to change your thinking. One of the things I learned over there is you fight the war you just won. So you go – we had just beat the snot out of Iraq in Desert Storm a decade earlier, or less than a decade earlier, well, no, I guess over a decade at that point, but… That’s how we thought we were going to win it. Troops on the ground, well, you know, we didn’t really plan for that last time, so, yeah, we’ll have to go in there and knock a couple of statues over, and set up a government, then we’re out. But you don’t realize people are… Who’ve been kind of just been beaten down for so long, they’re not going to stand up and fight on their own. Especially after what we did after Desert Storm where we didn’t overthrow Saddam, so anybody that was helping us at the time…
MP: Not going to trust us staying there.
CS: Kind of, yeah.
MP: So this is like post-World War II Japan, the occupation becomes the most important key.
CS: Exactly, right. And…Yeah, and we didn’t – and the problem was we didn’t want to call it an occupation. We didn’t want to put these labels on things. And it was just like, why don’t we call it what it is? Give it the resources we need and be done with it.
MP: Support the new government until it can get on its own two legs.
CS: Yeah, till it can go.
MP: - type thing, yeah.
CS: But we didn’t want to call it an occupation because it’s not an occupation, we’re liberators. Well, yeah, we’re liberating people from a regime that’s been there for 30 years. I mean, you can’t just walk in there and be like, hey, here you go, you know? It just doesn’t work like that. So the… The constant nature of OIF, and just how violent it really was in the long scheme of things – because that first initial Operation Iraqi Freedom kind of run…That was the war plan. That was it. All the game planning was done and over with. You kind of knew that based off the exercise we had just gone through. There was no sense of, like, now what? There was nobody that had a great idea, it was all these people that had great ideas, but none of them were focused and coordinated and, you know… Orchestrated into action. It’s like the State Department had their deal, the DoD had their deal, and all these different entities were doing all these things.
The French were pissed at us because we took away their oil from the Oil-for-Food Program. And… Speaking of the French, it’s funny, because one thing I learned in the run-up to the war was most of the Iraqi military communications infrastructure was French. And the reason that was, was because France had this UN Oil-for-Food thing going, and it was a total farce. They were just… It wasn’t for food. It was for money, and Saddam’s regime was just getting paid hand over fist. And they were turning around and buying French company stuff and… Yeah, the French were adamantly against the war because we’re taking away a cash cow from them, essentially.
But, one of the things at the Fusion Center I had mentioned earlier, there are all like – these are younger guys, older military brass, working together, from all these different agencies, trying to bring new ideas together. And they’re like… They come in, they’re like, “Hey, you guys are comm guys, right?” Yeah. “Come here for a second.” They bring us into the tent, and they put up on the screen, like, hey, this is a 500 pound bomb being dropped from an F-16 flying in from the southeast, and it hits this bunker. And they show this schematic of this like – it looks like, you know, those fuel tanks that you see underground with a little manhole cover thing on top? But it’s just filled with communications equipment. It’s in the middle of the desert. And it’s like how Saddam communicates with his troops in the south, in the north, he’s got all these things crossed out across the desert to figure out, you know, communication relays.
And we’re like… 500 pound bomb. What kind of hole would that make? They’re like, battle damage assessment showed this. And for the thing that just happened- it was really cool. Who made this? Like, oh, this company. I can’t remember who. Oh, yeah, their stuff’s crap, no, no, there’s no way it’s going to work. You know, it’s like there’s no way this thing is going to survive this, even if it was buried 27 feet down.
MP: So they brought you comm guys in to figure out how defeat the comms.
CS: To figure out like…you know, what kind of damage would happen from blasts, from shaking, you know, like what kind of stuff would happen if we put off a hand grenade next to your… If we threw a bomb in your comm room, what would happen? We’re like, well, this is what’s going to happen. You’d lose this, you’d lose this, all this stuff might still work – you know. And we just kind of rattled through it for them, they’re like, okay, so now apply that to this based off what you know.
MP: It’s almost better jamming the signals, then, in some cases.
CS: So jamming is really hard, right? Jamming signals is not as easy as you would think. It requires you to know all the signals that are coming out. It requires you to be able to broadcast on those same frequencies and signals. And it requires a lot of power, and usually localization. So, unless you’re going to have these constant drones flying – drones really weren’t that big of a deal back then. So you’re talking like A-6s, F-16s constantly flying around jamming communications, it was just easier to just knock it out. You knew these were unmanned.
MP: Targeted strikes, that’s going to be the easiest solution.
CS: Yeah, I mean, you’re talking a 500 pound bomb, and you can put, what, six or eight of these on an aircraft and take out eight, maybe seven, if you miss one, and be done with it. It’s a simple thing. It’s like, here you go, have some target practice in the desert. Not our desert, though. So, yeah. That was one of the interesting things that happened then.
MP: So you come back – when do you come back to the US?
CS: It was like late July. And the funniest thing, coming back, I swear, this is like typical American Government, like this is stuff you hear about, like, no way. That really happened? No way. So my ex-wife, she was about to deploy to go to UAE to help with Enduring Freedom. So I was still deployed, we were – we knew our mission was done, we were just waiting on a C-5 to come pick us up, put all our gear in, and fly home. And so it was like day, after day, after day, we were literally playing the waiting game. Our stuff is sitting on a tarmac waiting to be loaded on an aircraft. We knew that. And we were waiting, we were waiting, we were waiting, and we’re getting closer to the time where my ex-wife needs to go. She’s like, “Well, I’m going to take the kid” – to her mom’s house – “and then the next week I’ll be gone.”
And the coolest, one of the coolest gestures ever made to me as a military service member was the NCOIC that was with us at the time, his name was John, he comes and he knocks on my door, and he’s like, “Hey, how’re you doing?” I’m like, “Good. About to go work out.” He’s like, “Well, you might want to shower.” And he hands me this plane ticket, and it’s like a $10,000 plane ticket, it was like this absurd amount of money for a plane ticket, the most expensive plane ticket I’ve ever held in my hand. And he’s like, “You’re leaving the country in two hours. You’re going home… right now. We don’t want you to not see your wife for over a year.” You know.
And it was literally the best gesture I think any service member could give to any other service member. Because he knew what was going on. But to work through the bureaucracy of like, oh yeah, you’re just waiting on the aircraft, there’s just one guy – and it’s not even just one guy, it’s just one E-4. You know. Who cares? No. They did it. He went ahead and did whatever it took to get that plane ticket to get me home. So the coolest thing ever was like, you know.
It’s so hot in Qatar, my shoes – it’s so hot, my shoes, you know, I’m like wearing civilian clothes for the first time in forever, that weren’t like gym clothes, right? And my shoes are like… It’s so hot, it’s…
MP: Are you wearing sneakers?
CS: I’m wearing sneakers, and it’s so hot in Qatar that at night time I’m walking up to the tarmac, or the terminal at the airport, and my shoes are sticking to the asphalt. It is that hot there. I’m just like, this is insane. So I get in the airport, and I’m flying by myself. This is it, it’s just me. So I’m trying to lay real low. Six-four white dude from North Carolina does not lay low in the Middle East. At all. Right? So, I’m just trying to hang out and chill, not trying to make eye contact with anybody, get on my plane. It lands in Saudi Arabia, which I didn’t see coming, so that was kind of weird, but it was like, whoa, we’re not on great speaking terms with the Saudis right now. I tell the flight attendant, I was like, “I’m not getting off this plane.” She’s like, “You don’t have to, don’t worry.” They were just picking up people. So I was like, okay, good.
CS: I’m not supposed to be here. I didn’t have orders, I just had my passport and a plane ticket. That was it. And it was a military…
MP: Technically they could’ve taken you.
CS: Yeah, it was a military passport, too, so it wasn’t like I was flying like…really incognito at all. It was very obvious diplomatically who I was. So… The people come on the airplane from Saudi Arabia, we get off, and we fly for an hour and a half or so. And the pilot chimes in – we’re still not flying over Iraq yet at point, we’re still flying around. The pilot chimes in, he’s like, “We have now left Saudi airspace.” And that’s all he said, and then all of a sudden all the hijabs comes off, the drinks and the champagne start flowing, – it’s like they can’t drink until they get out of Saudi Arabia – and everybody looked around and like, you cool, you cool, okay, cool. So, land in Amsterdam, no orders, no nothing, get through security there, it was kind of… Kind of a hassle, but, you know, I explained.
MP: Well, it’s a plane coming from the Middle East in war time, yeah.
CS: Right, yeah. And there was post-9/11 security still, and I’m an American soldier with no orders, a passport, and a military ID card. That’s how I’m trying to get home. And, you know, get through, no big deal, kind of just, you know, hey, no big deal, don’t need to make a scene here, let’s just go, you know. Just trying to get home to my wife and kid. So, he’s like, cool, thanks, appreciate what you’ve done – to have a Dutch person say, hey, we appreciate what you’re doing meant a lot. So I come in, I land in Detroit, and I was like, oh, okay, that’s an interesting place to land. Which is funny, because my current wife is from the Detroit Metro area, so…Land in Detroit, get off the plane, and you’re going to international arrivals, so you go through INS, TSA, all these different three-letter agencies, to get through…
MP: All this stuff you take for granted being in the military, in military transport.
CS: Right, I never have to deal with this, right? I get off the plane, I’m on the Air Force base, I get in my car, I go home, kind of thing, like that’s what I’m used to. So, yeah, I’m going through there, and immigration stops me. And it’s funny, because the Saudi family that I sat next to on the plane from Amsterdam to Detroit just walks right through, like barely stops, their feet never stop moving. Me, I’m stopped, I’m asked for my orders, I’m accused of deserting, all this stuff is happening. Like I’m in a full blown screaming match with this immigration agent. And I’ve got like 17 bags of stuff trailing behind me, and it’s just like this is unbelievable.
Finally, the TSA watch officer comes over, and she’s like, “Is there a problem here?” And I just lay into her, and she’s like, “Hang on a second.” She lays into the immigration person, and then two TSA agents that work for her come and grab me, stamp my paperwork and everything that I need in my passport and all that stuff, get all that taken care of for me and then immediately send me to the front of the line. And then they’re like, “Don’t worry about your bags. We’ll take care of them.” Totally like… It went from really bad, like, oh, now I’m going to get stopped by immigration in Detroit, to, okay, this is an okay situation now. But –
MP: Well, it’s interesting to me – by immigration – I would not have thought that .
CS: You would think…
MP: – even for deserters, that they’d be the agency that would’ve stopped you.
CS: No, and it’s not their job.
MP: Because it is post-9/11, there are armed military patrols…
CS: Oh, yeah, like I saw a couple of them, right?
MP: - at Air Force bases that I…
CS: Yeah, I mean, every airport had somebody that was a National Guard member, or something, you know, so you couldn’t sneak your way home if you were a deserter. You kind of had to assume another identity.
MP: That’s interesting.
CS: - and do all this other stuff. So… And that’s kind of what I was telling her, like if I was deserting why the hell would I be here right now? You know?
MP: In Detroit.
CS: In Detroit, you know? Never. And would I use my military credentials, either? I don’t have orders, I was literally put on a plane 18 hours ago, give me a break, lady.
MP: Motown’s down, the car industry is going down, there’s nothing to come here for, yeah.
CS: Yeah, it’s just like… It was the most unfathomable situation you could possibly think. It’s like, oh, somehow this guy has made it through months and months and months of deployment, an international flight home, and that’s where he gets stopped. Not in all these other places where, you know, like…
MP: Saudi Arabia.
CS: Yeah, not like, you know, I had to give the guys $20 not to search through all my gear at the Doha International Airport, not the Saudi Arabia stop, not the Amsterdam stop, but, you know, hey, let’s stop him in Detroit and give him a hard time.
MP: So coming home, what as that like after all that time gone?
CS: So it was like eerie because I came home, and there was nobody home. My wife had already, you know, like…We spent one night together and I put her on the plane the next day and she was off to UAE. My kid was in Oklahoma, so like… It was just me, so it was like eerily quiet. That was mind-numbing how quiet it was. No jets, no helicopters, no dull hum from communications equipment, no loud roar from HVAC or generators. None of that noise. Nothing. Utter quiet. And everything was so green. It was like – remember the transition from standard def to high def? Coming back from months in the desert, the exact same thing. It was like mind-blowingly crystal clear…
MP: Going into the home entertainment…
MP: - store.
CS: Right, right.
MP: Sitting down in those home theater things, movie comes on…
CS: Right, with the 4K TV, with this amazing picture quality. It’s just like that experience after watching something on rabbit ears, right.
MP: Did you go out to touch the grass.
CS: No, like I really went out and made sure that the palm trees were like… real. Because they had – it was funny, because they had this Army Central Command compound on Camp As Sayliyah, and it was like this tiny little building right next to a chow hall. And around this little building was grass. It’s like literally the only place in Doha, Qatar there was actual grass. And they watered it like four hours a day. It was insane. It was just nuts. But that was the only thing green I had seen from nature. And I was back home in the States during winter, so… I mean, so like basically from September of 2002 to July of 2003 I didn’t see anything green, except this one…
MP: It’s unreal.
CS: - little patch of grass.
CS: Yeah, so like… The first day I was home in Florida in the summer, it was just like… just mind sensory overload. And then the quiet, it was just like, whoa. It was just too much. I thought, well, okay, I can get over the quiet with the TV, but the colors and the vividness and everything was hard to adjust to. It took a couple of days. So after I readjusted, I just told my unit, I was like, I’m vanishing. Don’t call, don’t – you know, because even the guys that went to Iraq had already made it home at that point. So I was like, don’t call me, don’t come looking for me. I have 75 days of leave saved up, I’m gone. At least a month. And I was gone. I was gone for a month. And it was like I drove from Florida, to Oklahoma, back to North Carolina to visit my parents, back down to Florida. And we just chilled. Just me and the kid. So that was my experience with the Iraq operation, essentially, was just a lot of just never before seen things, never thought of things, and experiencing those first hand.
MP: I suppose you’d grown up hearing all those stories from the World War II guys.
CS: - my dad was in Vietnam, so, yeah, I heard some stories from him.
MP: So, I mean, did you have expectations when you went into Iraq of what it would be like.
CS: So my first night in Qatar I was terrified. Because we knew there was Al-Qaeda operatives in the country, we knew what we were coming into, you know…
MP: Some of the terror suspects, yeah, yeah.
CS: Yeah, we knew there were potential threats around the area, so…You put up a tent in the middle of a warehouse. Well, there’s a door on either end of the warehouse to get out to go to the showers, to go to the chow hall, to go to wherever. Every time that door would close, I would wake up. So there’s like a hundred guys in this warehouse. Think about that. You get up once in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. A hundred guys get up once in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. A hundred door shuts, a hundred guys getting up, taking showers, it was just like the most unrestful sleep I think I ever had.
MP: So your training and that tension just predicates…
CS: Right, it was just like – you’re just like, where am I, what am I doing, am I ready for this. That’s your first four to eight hours in-country. Because there’s a lull between you showing up and then now you’re doing your job. Because you’ve got to transport from here to here, or do something, you’re waiting for the equipment to show up, or whatever. But we were actually waiting for them to move the tanks out of the warehouse we were going to set up in, so they were doing it that night, so they had to clear out all the support equipment and everything, and then we were good to go. But, yeah, until you had something to physically drain you, you were just kind of like on edge, wide awake. Even in Qatar, which was kind of weird.
MP: So the busy work, the job, actually…
CS: The job would help.
MP: - helped to take that away.
CS: The job helps a lot, like, you know, and…It’s funny, because we were like… We weren’t concerned at all about time off, but once we set up shift schedules and everything, we’re like, six days on, one night off. It’s like why the one night off? Oh, so you can do laundry. Like that was it. That’s all you could - like you could read a book, you could do laundry, you could work out a little bit longer that day, you know, but… But chances are you were going to go back into the work center and use the internet or whatever, to do – or talk on the phone, you know, someplace. But, yeah, you just kind of had one night to clean your stuff up.
MP: So you’re back in the States, by this time it’s coming close to fall, 2003. What was your – did you go back to your unit in Florida?
CS: Yeah, I mean, I came back, I was still at JCSE until 2005, so… I was back in my unit, and… We were doing… It was funny, because they were like, yeah, we budgeted to do two hurricane evac exercises this year, and we haven’t done either one of them yet because you guys have bene gone. So we got to do at least one. The color of money, government, right? So you got to spend the money that’s allocated in a certain way. So it’s the end of hurricane season, and now we’re doing a hurricane evac exercise, which we’re supposed to do in February or March.
MP: Well, that’s an interesting year to be doing that.
CS: Yeah, right, like…Yeah, it was kind of funny, so…We’re…We’re gearing up, we’re going out, and it’s just this skeleton crew. It’s like, okay, we’re actually doing this for real, or are we just going to kind of go through the motions? Like, no, no, no, we’re doing it for real, you’re going to do 17 jobs, it’s going to be great, Chris. I was like, fine, whatever. You know. So we go out there, and I’m literally doing 17 jobs. I’m helping the generator guys get their equipment set up, I’m building tents, I’m driving a forklift, I’m setting up my equipment, I’m pulling my equipment out, so it’s three-man lift, one-man lift, all this stuff happens, right?
MP: Now, would you guys have – if there was a hurricane, get back up to retain Central Command communications, or would you also be doing that to help with evacuation and rescue efforts.
CS: So our job was to be accessible. And it’s funny, because of all the hurricanes I went through there, the one time where we were really concerned about our equipment getting hit, we moved it to Avon Park Bombing Range. And there was that one hurricane that was supposed to hit Tampa Bay, and it turned left and hit Punta Gorda or something? And just smack – like I remember turning on the TV at my aunt’s house in Ocala, and the eye of the storm is right over the bombing range where our equipment was. I was like, that is terrible. Of course it’s the one place our gear was. And that was like… That was awful to walk back – not to walk back but we’d get on busses because literally all of our gear was out there and we had to come back and get it in case somebody needed us to go somewhere.
So we’re going out, and we go through this one town, and it’s just ravaged. Ravaged by this series of tornadoes and a hurricane that had come through. And normally we stop at the Publix Grocery store there to use the restroom, grab anything before we make it to the bombing range. And the grocery store has no power. It has already been looted. So it’s just random people walking around in there seeing if there’s anything they can get. And we show up and we’re like, yeah, we’re not here to help. Because that’s what everybody instantly thought. It’s like, oh god, the military is here, oh, thank god. You’re here to help us, right? We’re like, actually, no.
MP: So that was National Guard – you guys just…
CS: Yeah, we were going to get our gear, coming back to MacDill, and getting ready to go out someplace else.
MP: That must’ve been odd for you.
CS: It was so surreal, because you don’t see yourself as that kind of person that would help… Especially when you’re not a Guard or Reservist, you don’t think about operating inside the US. Even after 9/11. We knew that – it was very, very weird for us to do a real mission inside the US. It was always going to be like these communications up during disasters, kind of scenario, would be the closest thing we would get. But for these people, thinking we were there to help them, it’s like the worst feeling I think I… Outside of – or inside the US I’ve ever had in the military right? So I think eventually we just all – like here’s MREs, just… We all had a surplus of MREs from Iraq so we brought a ton of them with us, in case we were stuck someplace. We just gave them a ton of MREs and went on our way. It was all we could do.
CS: Yeah. So during the previously mentioned hurricane exercise, we used to get there – and the way we operated was we show up, we set up, we don’t sleep until everything’s up and running. And then we start sleeping. So when we went to Qatar I was up for 72 hours straight, once we got all our gear in place. No big deal. So here it was like 12 hours of work, four hours in the air conditioned tent setting up everything, and then hit the hay and take a nap. And then get up and work the next day. I wake up the next morning, can’t move my arm. It’s like, what’s going on. I needed help getting out of my cot. And it turns out during that incident, or during that setup exercise I had damaged a nerve, the long thoracic nerve in my right shoulder, so my scapula was sticking out a little bit further from my back.
MP: It was pinching the nerve?
CS: It wasn’t pinching, it actually hurt it.
CS: Yeah, like I still deal with it today. I’m a partially disabled veteran now because of it. That was ‘03, and I got out in 2010. So It’s such a weird injury to have; like it’s nerve damage .
MP: During an exercise, yeah.
CS: During an exercise, like you woke up with it – that was always like the thing is you woke up the next day? It’s like are you sure you didn’t…
MP: I’m sure that’s hard for…
CS: - pull a muscle or something?
MP: I’m sure that’s hard for benefits.
CS: Oh, yeah, I mean like… So I got out at the end of 2010, and the VA – my appeals process is still in progress. Actually, April 20th they came back and awarded me a disability rating for my shoulder.
CS: For the damage.
MP: Five and a half, six years.
CS: Five and a half years after the fact. Before they said, yeah you have a service connected injury but there’s no rating for it. They didn’t even know like… Because VA works in a very, very, very kind of regimented Congressionally approved way. They’re like, what did you injur? X. Go to the book, here’s the parameters for an injury to X. If it’s your ankle, it has to be able to move less than this, or more than that, you know. There’s all these hard-coded raw metrics for it to be hit for certain things. And 2011, when I had my first VA exam, they didn’t even know what a long thoracic nerve was. There was nothing in that book about that, right? So, it’s been a real uphill battle with the VA.
MP: This is another thing that where the reactions, the actual on the ground what’s happening, versus the categorized…
CS: Yeah, like… The VA is terrible. I’ll just go ahead and say it. They… The VA, the Veterans Administration, the actual administrative side of it, is awful. The doctors and the nurses, probably the best people I’ve ever met. The VA in Durham, which is the closest major VA facility here, they liaise with Duke, which is right across the street, so I have Duke’s head of pain management seeing me on a regular basis. That is amazing. That is a very innovative thing that Duke and the VA there on the ground in Durham came together and did. But it took me a year and a half to get to that point. I mean, there were several times where I was just like, I don’t know what to do. I have… I’m in excruciating pain, I have nothing to take other than Tylenol. I can’t get any trigger point injections unless I pay for them out of pocket. Because my insurance wasn’t necessarily going to cover them, or… You know, it was going to be a hard nightmare, hard uphill climb.
MP: It’s the height of the recession…
CS: Yeah, this is 2010. It’s a hard time. The malaise of 2007/2008 was over, but… Me getting out, finding a job, and then trying to get care – and, by the way, you’re buying a house, you’re getting married in all this time, too. I got to give a lot of credit to my wife. Our first year of our marriage was really hard because I was transitioning out of the Air Force, an injured veteran, in a civilian world.
I mean, I remember the first week of my first job in the civilian world, it was like, I don’t know if I can do this. It’s like I don’t know if I can work in the civilian world. I might have to go get a government contract somewhere. We might have to move to DC or something, right.
MP: Is it because you know that when you’re in service you’ll at least have something that you’ll be given?
CS: There’s something…
MP: You know you have to get up, you have to – there’ll be something… And it’ll be – you won’t have to do it, but it will be assigned to you.
CS: Well, no, it’s not necessarily that. For me, I was always a go-getter. I could find something that needed to be done and go accomplish it. I didn’t necessarily need somebody to come tell me. For me it was just like the sense of camaraderie, the friends I had made, the help that they had given me over the years, was gone. That was all gone. And it was so weird how it worked out, because I was medically separated, I wasn’t actually medically retired, which… that’s a bone of contention with the Air Force and I, but anyways. So I had so much leave saved up because I knew this was coming, I was like, I’m going to have plenty of time to search for a job. So they told me in September, hey, you’re getting out of the Air Force, we’re medically separating you, you can fight it, not fight it; take your pick. And this is the second time I had gone through this process, and I was like, if I fight it now I’m only going to get maybe four more years out of the Air Force. I’ll take my [lumps] and go.
So I had so much leave saved up, it was like September you found out, here’s your orders, you got those in October, and oh, yeah, you have so much leave that you got to take all your leave before you get out. Your separation date was December 28th, yeah, you have three weeks to out process. Here’s the culmination of 11 years of your life and you’re done in three weeks. And people – and I would walk in and be like, here’s my separation orders, here’s the checklists, please do what you need to do. They’re like, “We need a lot more time than this.” I remember up until the last day they’re like, why didn’t you come to us sooner?" I was like, I just got to the point where I could do this. I got these – look at the date on the orders. They’re like, oh. Like, look at the kind of orders they are. Like, oh.
MP: So it’s great when you’re in, but…
CS: Yeah, like… And I was an E-6 when I got out, so it wasn’t – I would show up places and people would – there was an instant amount of respect, no matter where I was. I wasn’t treated as the new guy, or, you know, whatever. It was like, “How can I help you, sergeant?” The rank – that’s when I felt like, okay, the rank really does help me now. Finally, for once in my career, the rank finally helps me, you know, so… It’s not just knowledge, it’s rank at that point. And you know all it is, is you’re pushing buttons on a computer, you wait till the next day, and making sure it got done, right? In the grand scheme of things, that’s what out processing is. But it’s a series of events that happen, that have to happen in a certain order.
MP: And it’s stressful, because you don’t know when it’s going to be finished.
CS: You don’t know where you’re going. I mean, I remember – my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, we were dating, and I remember going up to her parents’ house, it’s the second time I met them, for Thanksgiving. I was going to have a conversation with her dad to ask for her hand in marriage, and, oh, yeah, by the way, I just got kicked out of the Air Force. I don’t have a job yet. You know? So… Yeah, and we need to find a place to live together, and, you know, all these things, and it was just – it was like…
MP: The added stress of the normal life stuff to what..
CS: On top of, oh, yeah, your life just got blown up. It was very significant. And, oh, yeah, by the way, the VA is not going to be any help to you for the first year.
MP: Is it difficult when you get out, despite the experience that you had and because sometimes civilian industry businesses don’t necessarily recognize the military experience, was it challenging for you to figure out where you wanted to go? Or could go?
CS: It was especially hard for me, because when I came – when I left MacDill I went to Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado. And I was assigned to a unit that had no job for me. So I was like the unit deployment officer, I was doing these additional kind of things, as like a full-time job. And then I came to Pope, which is now Fort Bragg, and I was detached from my career for a couple of years, so I was relearning things that had happened the past few years – I was playing catch up, and making sure I was setting myself up for success further down the road, wherever that road may have taken me.
MP: And in that time period, technology had rapidly…
CS: Rapidly advanced, especially in the military. I mean, you’re talking…You’re going from these huge unsecured networks to now these highly segmented, tightened, locked down, redistricted policy based networks.
MP: And you were at Pope from what time?
CS: ‘07 to 2010.
MP: Okay. So that was your last station.
CS: My last station, yeah. They were closing – they were in the process of closing down Pope and I was getting out of the Air Force. So… Yeah, the transition out was… It wasn’t like… It was not what I was expecting, right? I was expecting the VA to be there to help. I was expecting if I had to cash in all my chips all at once there’d be someplace to go. There was nothing. There was nothing. No help for me whatsoever.
MP: All those pamphlets they give you…
CS: Yeah. You know, they were still dealing with all the guys coming back from Iraq and getting out, and they had no strategic plan. And I remember the following year guys were like, “Hey, I’m getting med boarded, what should I expect?” And I was like, here’s what I went through, and I’d just lay out the story for them. And they’re like, oh my god, I need to get ready. And they would come back to me a week or two later and they’re like, “Hey, man, they’ve changed everything. I’m going to meet with the VA and get all that stuff figured out before I even separate from the Air Force.” And I said, well, thank God. Because I met with the VA for the first time while I was on leave in December, after Thanksgiving. It was like, “This is the first time you’re coming here. Why did you wait so long?” I was like…“Well, were you here last week during Thanksgiving? No. So that’s why.” You know?
MP: What do you think the military could do, from your experience, to help the guys prep for that separation.
CS: Sadly, I don’t think there’s anything the military can do. I mean, aside from setting up a program where civilian HR people come in – which they kind of already do in some circumstances.
MP: And Goodwill has that for job programs, yeah.
CS: Right, I mean… But a lot of the guys that are in don’t want to take the time to do that. Right? Because it’s… You don’t necessarily think like that. You don’t realize how beneficial that could be until you’re on the outside. And they had something that they offered me, but because Pope was in transition it was like, yeah, we’re going to go through this curriculum but there wasn’t anybody coming, right? To give us any insight, or wisdom, or whatever, so…I was not prepared at all for…I was prepared to move again, because you’re always ready to move, but I was not prepared at all to look for a job. It was just like… It was earth-shattering.
I remember I get the phone call from the Medical Group saying, “Hey, Mr. Short, we have a ruling on your medical separation case. Come by now.” This is like two o’clock in the afternoon, on Pope, and it was right around the corner, so I just was like, “Hey, guys, I’m going to the Med Group. I’ll be back.” I walk over there, and she prints out the paper, hands it to me, and it’s like your separation is imminent, dah, dah, dah, and you need to get ready to separate, dah, dah, dah, you’ll be done – we’re working on your orders right now. You can appeal or you can not appeal.
And at that point, I knew I’m not going to appeal this. And I remember walking back, and I was like… What am I going to do? You know, I mean, how… How am I going to…? Where am I going to live, right? I have no income. When you think about all these things that immediately go away on this date, you have to be set up by that point. And it’s, what, September/October at that point, and you’re sitting there thinking, “I got to find a job.” That’s my new job, is to find a job.
MP: It’s your new mission, really.
CS: Right, my new mission is to find a job. And…
MP: You haven’t worked on a résumé, you haven’t done any of that.
CS: Hadn’t done a résumé, hadn’t done anything. I mean, I knew how to phrase things well, you know, doing evaluations in the military you get experience with that, so…You’re not ready ever to lose a job. Right? You’re ready to transition to a different job, but you’re never ready to just outright lose it, right? So… It was really hard for me to explain to my bosses, like, guys, this is what I need to do. I have a kid, I have myself I have to take care of. I’m going to be paying cash for my medical treatments for a while, for God knows how long…
MP: This isn’t an option, this is I want – I need to – yeah.
CS: I’m like, I’m going to do this, like… If I show up for PT, it’s a special thing. That’s not going to be the norm anymore. You’re going to see me when you see me. And for me as an E-6 to sit there and tell an E-7 and an E-8 that, I could just see the smoke coming out of their ears. They’re like, “You can’t do this. This isn’t good for…” – I was like, I don’t care who this is good for. The Air Force just told me I’m not good enough for it anymore. I’m doing it this way. You can either try to punish me, or you can let me do it and be as undisruptive as possible. And it was like literally that threat of trying to do non-judicial punishment to a guy who’s separating is really, really frowned upon. You know, so…
MP: And did you see that kind of struggle with your friends who were in service with you as they were starting to leave.
CS: So… No, because the stigma that was put on people that were medically separating at that time was kind of like, well, are they really injured, or - ?
MP: Or are they mentally injured, yeah.
CS: Are they – do they just not want to do this anymore? Because a lot of the things you would get separated for back then was like rheumatoid arthritis, or this fibromyalgia, things that were kind of newish on the medical scene, that they had no idea how to deal with it. But they knew they couldn’t send you out the door. Like I had a very specific injury, and the military knew that I couldn’t serve in a combat role ever again, so they said we’ll cut our losses and go. Which makes perfect sense. They’re in the business of combat. So, convincing people that, listen, you want me to show up and you want me to lead people. I just – there’s no fight in me anymore. This paper took it all out of me. The second I read this, all the fight was gone.
MP: And they could’ve used your knowledge and experience in a non-combat – in a consulting position, or a…
CS: Any other kind of way. Don’t expect me to show up and lead other Airmen and be an inspiration to people. That was what they were wanting me to do, and I was just like, I can’t commit to that anymore. I’ve got a month. You know. Let me – I will do PT – you know, at that point in time Runkeeper and all these apps for tracking your run were becoming popular. I was like, I will run, I will do PT, whatever I can do. I will do it at my house, though, and then I’m going to get done and I’m going to search for a job. And then I’ll take a shower, and I’ll throw on my uniform, and I’ll be in before 10. You know? Guarantee you that every day. And they were cool with that. And I give – I’m still friends with the E-8. He retired a few years after the fact. I was at his retirement ceremony and everything. And he understood it better when he got out. He realized it’s like, yeah, this is kind of stressful. Especially if you weren’t expecting it. He was preparing for it, you know? I wasn’t.
MP: Well, I’ll ask – as you’re looking for jobs… Because I am interested – and it’s important, especially for this time period. What was the response from potential employers?
CS: Well, so like the… I had experience before I was in the military, I had experience during the military service, working on things IT related, but I knew I didn’t want to do Windows networks, and I wasn’t…you know, the…
MP: Sitting at a call desk or… yeah.
CS: Right, I didn’t want to do like reading a script at Time Warner Cable kind of thing. I wanted to be something great. To sit there and watch history happen before you changes your perspective on life in ways you don’t realize until years later. You don’t want to sit there and just punch a clock every day. You want to inspire yourself to get up every morning.
MP: You want to be in the middle of it again.
CS: Yeah, whether that it is, you know, some technology product, or – you know, you got to believe in your mission. Whatever that mission may be, you still have to believe in it. And… It has been interesting finding a job. Especially in 2010/2011. Actually, I got a job at McClatchy Interactive, which is part of the McClatchy Newspaper company, and it was… culturally, a huge change. Like guys wearing flip-flops, t-shirts, cargo shorts to work.
MP: “Hey, man, why you show up so early?” You got a 15-minute break, go ahead – yeah…
CS: Yeah, and it was just like… It was totally a different mind shift, and I was just… And people were like, here, you know, you’ll figure it out. And it wasn’t like that. So I remember two weeks after starting, I was reading all this documentation, I was diving into these systems, I was looking for things, I was doing things, I was… I was finding a lot of inconsistencies, and I was like, you know, this isn’t working, right? So I go to my vice president and I’m like… Here’s the thing; I took this job because I thought I would like the work. I don’t like the work right now, because what I’m seeing is a lot of bad documentation leading me down all these rabbit holes that I find aren’t right, and then I go ask somebody, and they tell me the real story. Why don’t I just work with the people that are telling me the real story on a regular basis and figure things out and get things done that way? And they were blown away. No-one ever – most people would’ve just quit. Most people just would’ve walked away, and they would just…
MP: Find something that – yeah.
CS: Find something else that was more their speed, or whatever, or had better guidance or direction.
MP: Not being innovative.
CS: Right. And they were just like… I remember my exit interview from that job, talking to the VP, and he was like, “I still remember that conversation we had two weeks after you got here, about how you needed a little nudge in the right direction, to work with the right people, and you would do some good stuff for us. We really appreciate that, because we know that your military service was part of the reason for that conversation.” So…
MP: So you had a good experience, then.
CS: Yeah, I mean, I was one of the very few people – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I looked for a job from September to January, so it took me four months to find a job. But I got a job. And it was doing a good job. It didn’t pay that great, but I got a job, right? I mean…
MP: Which is a win compared to a lot of other people.
CS: A lot of other veterans did not get that lucky. Yeah. I have been very lucky. I mean, obviously the location, being in the IT field… The only other location you could pick that’s probably better is Silicon Valley. Being in Raleigh is a good place to look for IT jobs. It really is. And, I mean, to be honest with you, I change jobs frequently to get more of that experience, or because I don’t necessarily believe in the mission that’s going on after I get there and figure out things, so…
MP: And it’s – again, you keep saying the mission –not just the work, or the task, but the mission of the job, the company, it’s still that mission-oriented focus you have.
CS: Yeah, so the interesting thing, right now I work at Duke, and the problem I have there is that I work in the health system, and the health system is very concerned about privacy, and security, and all these things. But I work on a research team in Duke, so I’m talking about fail fast and all these things that I’ve been doing for years and years and years – I want to do that. But every time I turn around they put a roadblock in my way. Oh, you can’t do this, you have to do this, oh, you can’t do that, and you have to do that. It’s like, I don’t believe in this anymore, so I turned in my resignation a week ago, because it’s like, yes, you guys do amazing things, like figuring out that a polio vaccine kills brain tumors is mind blowing, but this research team can’t work in your bubble like that. It was actually a different research team that found that polio vaccine. So… Because the stuff we’re doing requires computational power, and the time it takes to get computational resources is just exceedingly long, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It is that way…
MP: So you miss that fast asset ability that the military offered you.
CS: Yeah, I mean, the… I could pick up a phone, and I mean any phone, and I could call any number at Cisco, and I could get to somebody that could give me an answer to a problem. Because of just… I am Technical Sergeant Chris Short from Pope Air Force Base. I have this problem. My entire base is blacked out. I need help right now. I could’ve called the sales guy and I would’ve got transferred to the right place, you know? So, having that capability… Like there’s… You miss that, and… You can still – the presence and the authority and the tone you take when you’re making phone calls like that, you still have that, but you say, you know, Pope Air Force Base, like you’re the guy calling from there, you’re having a problem with our stuff? Oh, okay, hang on. You know? Where it’s like, oh yeah, I’m from company XYZ, I need some help. They’re like, oh, yeah, file a ticket. We’ll get to you in five days. Yeah, so… [Coughs] I’m sorry.
MP: No, you’re okay. It’s okay. Well, I think we’ve reached the end of the interview, and I want to thank you. It’s…
CS: Oh, no problem.
MP: - a really good interview.
CS: No problem.
MP: Was there anything we didn’t get to that you’d like to talk about, or go over? We covered pretty much everything.
CS: No, I think we got everything. I mean, I just want – you know… Military deployments are hard for families. I think that’s the only thing we didn’t talk about. I mean, I guarantee you that… And it’s not the time away, necessarily that’s the problem, it’s… You become different people in that time away. I guarantee you my ex-wife and I split up because – it’s not that we were away from each other for such long periods of time here and there, it’s just that we didn’t grow as people together.
MP: You didn’t have the opportunity.
CS: Right. So, yeah, looking at guys with long term deployment histories and things like that, if they’re with their wife still, that were with them before that, that is a huge feat. Because that means they’ve gone through a significant amount of change, both personally and professionally. And they’ve worked it out. And that’s something to behold. So, yeah.
MP: Well, thank you so much.
CS: Thank you, man, I appreciate it.
MP: And thank you for your service.
CS: No problem. Any time.
The entire series is linked here: North Carolina Veterans Oral History Program