For Voices this month, we sat down with three veterans to learn more about their experiences and what it was like serving in the military. Below is just a small part of their conversation together, but to kick things off, each of our veterans introduced themselves:
“I’m a Navy veteran. I was a Navy fire controlman, and I’ve been with NetMotion for seven and a half years,” started Andy Stevens, a QA engineer in the development team.
“I was an aviation fire control technician to start with, and the name merged with aviation electronics technician from 1987 until 1996, so I spent a good chunk of my time on two different aircraft carriers. For the last 18 months, I was on sea duty. I’ve been with NetMotion now for just over a year,” said Tim Robinson, System and Network Engineering Manager in the development team.
“I was in the Army infantry. I was stationed in upstate New York, out of Fort Drum in the 10th Mountain Division. We deployed to Iraq in 2007. After the first four years I switched into the reserve for three years, so served seven years total,” added James Stevens, a Maintenance Renewal Specialist with the sales team.
(James and Andy also happen to be brothers)
Why did you serve?
“I definitely joined because I wanted to,” began Andy. “At the time, I had felt pretty aimless during high school and wanted to something that had more meaning.”
“Andy and I both grew up in a family that very much, had a lot of admiration for the military,” added James. “I’d always thought that serving in the military was cool. I had my GED, but I’d had issues with ADHD and medication, and my parents were disappointed in me because of how rebellious I had been as a teenager. I wanted to be tough, so I joined the infantry when I was 17 years old and thought that I had a lot to prove. 9/11 had happened a few years before that, so there was a sense of fighting for freedom.”
“For me, it was a case of having nothing to do,” continued Tim. “I came from a fairly poor family, so college was not an option. My parents really weren’t interested in education at all. I had an uncle who had served for 11 years, and he was trying to get back in, so I just kind of rode with him to the recruiter’s office one day. After passing their tests I was told that I could do whatever I wanted, and since I wasn’t going to college it was a choice between joining the military or staying in Fort Wayne.
What did you learn?
“For me,” said Tim, “the military was very organized, which is something I had lacked. Throughout my entire 10 years in, there was always that structure. You knew who was in charge of you, you knew who you were in charge of, and you knew what you had to do. You knew how your job, and what you did in your job would affect other people. Coming into civilian life, that structure helped me transition into becoming a manager. I think I’m a good manager today because I learned to take all the pieces and look at them as a whole.”
“Tim has a great point. When we say it’s a different culture, it’s like a different society,” added James. “Everybody has a job to do, everybody suffers together, and everybody succeeds together. Looking back, it’s surprising how young everyone is with so much responsibility. There are a lot of privates who are 18 and 19 years old, with team leaders who are 20 and 21, and squad leaders who are around 23 years old. The platoon sergeant might be 26 or 27. In a way, being in the Army postponed having to prepare for adulthood because nobody has to worry about fending for themselves by themselves. There aren’t any bills to pay, and the worst consequences of your actions are always immediate.”
“There’s certainly a brotherhood and sisterhood,” said Andy. “There’s a camaraderie. Your coworkers are also your friends, but it’s also because you don’t have a circle of friends outside of the military. So, it was a bit of a culture shock when I first got out.”
How was the transition to civilian life?
“Speaking of civilian life, I thought life was going to be so easy when I got out,” James replied. “At first it was. I had a big savings account because I hadn’t spent any money while I was deployed. I was able to live off that for a year without doing anything, but then as more time went on, I realized how few life skills I had learned. Once the savings depleted, life got real again.”
Tim added, “I feel fortunate in the way my service ended. I had considered staying longer, but mentally, I was ready to move on. Luckily, I was able to spend the last nine months of my service working with civilians on a base, but still having a lot of the structure that the military afforded. That actually eased my transition into civilian life. At that point I was already married with two kids, and I had already started cultivating circles outside of military life. I also had some friends from high school who were living up in the Seattle and Portland areas.”
“Being in the military, one of the things that’s so different from civilian life is the fact that the people you work with sometimes have to put their lives on the line,” said Andy. “Unfortunately, one of my friends was killed in a helicopter accident, and after we deployed, we lost another 18 Marines. When I had the chance, I made the decision to leave. So, I quickly went from being in a war zone and watching people die, to suddenly being back in San Diego. It was very surreal.”
“Yes, it’s like waking up from a bad dream, but the bad dream is still there, and you can’t get away from it,” added James.
“So true,” responded Andy. “I still deal with the repercussions. I deal with the repercussions every single night. I still have nightmares.”
What can we do better?
“In addition to mental issues like PTSD, there are long-lasting physical ones, too. One thing I wanted to bring up is burn piles,” said James. “After guard duty we’d have chores, and we would gather up all the garbage. We would go out and pull out the buckets from the latrines and dump jet fuel into each bucket, and we’d set it on fire. We did this every day for 15 months, and now a bunch of veterans are getting cancer and liver failure, and these are all problems that we’ve known about for decades. There are some things that the federal government banned in the 1970s because they knew people could get terrible diseases, but the Veterans Affairs (VA) is not recognizing them as being connected to service. There are veterans right now who are dying, and the VA is not recognizing that they’re dying from something that happened during duty. I experienced it every single day and now I worry that I’m going to get cancer from it.”
“I have to say, so far my experience with the VA healthcare system has been positive, which is not the case for everyone,” James continued. “The actual doctors, hospitals and services are excellent. But to get that healthcare, you must prove to the VA that whatever problems you have are connected to your service. And then they need to approve it. And that’s where a lot of people struggle.”
“I injured my spine and fractured my knee while I was in the Navy,” added Andy. “It’s taken years of denials and appeals, MRIs and EMGs. For me, the VA is my medical. It’s my health. It’s my specialists. It’s everything. After having served, we come back and find that the VA treats us as though we’re trying to cheat the system. They make us prove that we need medical care every step of the way. It has gotten better in the last few years, but it’s still awful.”
“I’ve never had to use the VA,” Tim responded. “Based on the stories that I’ve heard and on how long you have to wait for treatments or medication. So, if I can avoid the VA, I’m not going to use it.”
How do we thank our veterans
“A lot of people say, ‘thank you for your service,’” added James, “but it’s important for everyone to realize that they don’t have to support wars to support veterans.”
“When you sign that piece of paper, you are essentially saying ‘I’m yours, do with me what you will,’ Tim agreed. “There aren’t any ifs ands or buts. You are giving yourself to the government. The second you raise your hand and take that oath, your ability to choose ends. I think people should consider that and give veterans the respect that we know we deserve.”
Would you do it again?
“If I had a choice to do it all again, I would have to talk to young me and give him some advice,” James laughs. “But I would do it all again.”
Without hesitation, Tim adds. “Yes, I’d absolutely serve again.”
“Yes, I’d definitely do it again,” continues Andy. “I might change a few things, like missed opportunities to become an officer, but, if I had a chance to do everything the exact same way, I would absolutely do it all again in a heartbeat.”
On this November 11th we remember the sacrifices made by the veterans at NetMotion and in our broader community. Whether you are in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Great Britain, France, Belgium, or any of the other countries honoring veterans today, we join you in thanks and humble gratitude.
(note: If you’re interested in seeing what boot camp in the Army was really like, Tim suggested watching the first half of the movie Full Metal Jacket. It depicts the quintessential boot camp experience.)
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