Eli deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a Mortarman in the Marine Corps and twice to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. His two deployments to Afghanistan involved different units and deploying in different capacities. He is currently starting a non-profit called All American Riders that gets veterans together to ride motorcycles, help fellow GWOT veterans with local issues and reach out to families of POW/MIA service members from Vietnam.
Interview conducted on February 16, 2015 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Eli Shultz
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: Can I have your full name please?
Eli Shultz: Eli Lucas Shultz.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
ES: From 2004 to 2008 I was active duty in the Marine Corps and 2008 to present I have been in the Army National Guard.
RH: What was your rank when you got out of the Marine Corps and what is your rank currently?
ES: I was an E3, Lance Corporal, in the Marines and I am an E5, Sergeant in the National Guard.
RH: What was your MOS in the Marines and what is your MOS currently?
ES: I was a 0341 [spoken as oh-three forty-one] Mortarman in the Marines. In the Army I am 11B [spoken as eleven Bravo], infantry and my secondary MOS is 11C [spoken as eleven Charlie], Mortarman.
RH: Can you talk a little bit about Mortarman? What does it do exactly?
ES: It’s indirect fire, like small or mini artillery that you can carry around. Some of it’s a little too big to carry but they have the smaller ones that you can carry – the 60mm mortar. You can carry the 81’s if you need to but it’s not too pleasant. I’ve never trained on the 120mm mortar. The Army has those. I don’t know if the Marine Corps has any. I think they might have a few.
RH: What was your unit in the Marines and what is your current unit?
ES: I was in Golf Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines and my current unit is Alpha Company, First of the 185th Combined Arms Battalion.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
ES: My father was a Marine and he never told me to join or anything like that but it made me interested. My grandfather was in World War II in the Army National Guard. My uncle was in the Navy in Vietnam. I have two great uncles who were in the Army in World War II and Korea so I guess family history.
RH: Why did you pick the MOS’es that you did?
ES: Well, I wanted to be a mechanic like my dad was and I was working on my car at the time I joined – I had a ’65 Mustang – and I wanted to learn more about cars and I figured, why not? That’d be cool. But I didn’t start working on my car until my senior year and I took the ASVAB my junior year so I didn’t score high enough on the mechanic’s portion so that wasn’t available. I would’ve had to take my ASVAB which I could’ve but I was like, “man, screw it! It takes too much time.” Then I wanted to be military police because I wanted to be a cop when I got out and then I would have had to wait to go to boot camp because you have to be nineteen when you finish your MOS school and I would have been eighteen and I said, “screw that. I’m not waiting.” So I joined the infantry because that was the most exciting thing to me other than those two.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
ES: My mom just wanted to make sure. She was like, “is that really what you want?” I signed up when I was seventeen so both of my parents had to sign. And she just said, “think about it for a week or something and I’ll sign.” My dad was totally OK with it right away.
RH: Where did you go to boot camp?
ES: I went to MCRD, San Diego. You do four or five weeks down there and then you go to Camp Pendleton for four weeks and then back to MCRD in San Diego for the last four. The east coast goes to Parris Island for the whole time but when you go to west coast Marine boot camp you go to Pendleton for the field part.
RH: Were you living in California at the time?
ES: Yes. I’m from a little town called Phelan [California]. It’s up in the high desert by Victorville and Hesperia.
RH: What was your follow-up training like?
ES: It took me two months because I went during Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks and New Year’s and all that. I want to say I reported on November 15th and I graduated January 29th or something. Or maybe the middle of January. I think it’s supposed to be six weeks, or maybe eight.
Infantry school was like – I thought it was worse than boot camp. [laughs] You got weekends off but, I don’t know, [laughs] they didn’t let you use cellphones. They were just becoming popular and you weren’t allowed to use them in my company at all during the week. And then they just keep you late on Friday night. You get off at like nine at night just to mess with you. I didn’t like infantry school except for the fact that the mortars training was fun, to learn the whole mortars system. I really liked being in mortars. But the humps sucked and the fact that they could hole you away on the weekends was pretty frustrating.
RH: What do you like particularly about mortars?
ES: It’s a challenge because the whole time you’re at infantry school, if you’re a Mortarman you start with the 60mm mortar system, the smaller one, and they teach you how to set it up. And you just keep running. You start at a starting point and you run and then each guy carries a different part – the baseplate, the bipod and the barrel. Well, the 60 is the bipod and barrel is attached. Basically you do these gun drills where you set it up as fast as possible and you just keep doing it. When you first start you’re like “there’s no way we can get this time!” And then at the end you’re doing it and you’re beating that time sometimes. You have to be good at it. It’s hard, it’s a challenge. I think you have to use your brain. It’s more complicated than people think. Plus, when you’re on the range and you’re trying to hit a target that’s a thousand meters away – they’ll tack some tires up on a wood pole – and you try to get on target with your mortar, it’s not that easy. You have to adjust fire to get on target and once you finally get it, it’s pretty exciting.
RH: Did your training prepare you for deploying?
ES: Definitely. Considering that I’ve deployed twice with the Army National Guard now, it hasn’t been the most normal situation. But when I was in the Marine Corps we trained hard and we were focused, took everything seriously. We always prepared for the worst possible situation and I’ve felt like if anyone messes with us on deployment, they were gonna lose. I knew bad things were going to happen because that’s what we were prepared for and I expected them to happen but I expected that we would react in the very best way possible. No matter what situation, we would come out on top. We trained hard, we were focused and, even at the lowest level, our team leaders and just the senior guy on your team, everyone knew what was going on. They could fill that position above him. So I was very confident that we were prepared for going to Iraq. We also had senior guys who had already been there.
RH: Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
ES: I served in both. I went to Iraq with the Marines and Afghanistan twice with the Army National Guard.
RH: What were the dates of each of those deployments?
ES: The first deployment we left July 5th of 2005 and I think we got home January 29th of 2006. That was with the Marines in Iraq. And then my second deployment was with guard. We did a work up for like three months in the states and then you go overseas for about nine months or so. I think we left August 7th, 2010. We went down to Mississippi and then Fort Irwin, California and then back to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. And then we left for Afghanistan, I want to say, November 17th sounds about right, of 2010. Then I think I left Afghanistan July 29th, 2011. That sounds about right. My last deployment I was in Afghanistan from Memorial Day, or maybe the day after Memorial Day, of 2013 and I got home May 17th of 2014.
RH: So about a year?
ES: Yes. I was in country for almost a whole year minus a week at the beginning and five days at the end. In the Marines I was stationed in Twentynine Palms.
RH: What were the locals like in Twentynine Palms?
ES: You know, I didn’t interact that much. I was married at the time. I just kind of hung out with my wife and maybe a couple of other Marines friends who were married, a little bit. But I’d usually go home on the weekends, back up to Phelan. There was a good amount of Asian people who ran all the nail shops and the beauty places for all the military wives. It’s kind of a not-too-great of a town but it wasn’t like terrible or anything. I grew up in a desert type area so I’m kind of used to those people. It’s just like, I really don’t know how to explain it. [laughs] It was a little bit low income, not too many options for things to do in the town. I never really had a problem with the people there but I never really interacted with them either.
RH: Where in Iraq did you deploy to?
ES: We were in Fallujah for the first half of the deployment and the second half I went to this little town call Al Amiriyah. And then for like a month and a half, the last six weeks I was on Camp Smitty standing guard, which was in-between Al Amiriyah and Ferris Town. That’s where our headquarters platoon was at. And then our attachments of tracks and tanks.
RH: What company were you with in 2/7?
ES: Golf Company.
RH: What was the mission of your unit while you were in Iraq?
ES: We were doing security patrols in Fallujah and Al Amiriyah. It was basically just trying to keep things good in the town because we were relieving 3/4 and they were letting everyone back in the city after the battle in November. We were just kind of controlling. We had all the control points around the city so we would do a rotation each platoon at the entry control points. So we were controlling the people going in and then keeping the city as secure as possible to make sure that they could rebuild and not have all the bad guys move back in.
RH: What do you remember most about deploying to Iraq for the first time?
ES: Man, there’s a few things. I think it was definitely a challenging deployment – physically challenging. We didn’t get too much rest. I think every two weeks they gave us a day off. Your squad would get a day off, or platoon. I can’t remember. I think it was maybe my platoon. And not too much sleep. Sometimes the missions were really long. I remember doing a nine at night to one in the afternoon, I think we got back. We did a search of this one small area of Fallujah. It took that long. And then an hour later we had to go on post for four hours. So that was probably the longest day I’ve ever had on any of my deployments. I had the least amount of communications. Didn’t have showers. Old school letters and satellite phone once a week or something like that. It was the most challenging. And I was married too. The last two I didn’t have anyone at home to worry about besides my son.
Of course, that was the only deployment where I’d seen a little bit of combat. You know, see your friends get blown up. They didn’t die. It hasn’t really affected me in a negative way but it sticks in your mind. And then, [sighs] what else? It was definitely the biggest challenge of my life that I remember. That’s the first time you see being around the same guys all the time in a stressful situation. You get a little tension between people and I’d never really had to deal with that. They used to call me Jesus Boy in high school so I was really stepping out there and getting a dose of all the stuff I hadn’t really been around or chose to be around. It was different and I was a boot. I was the new guy. But I didn’t really fit in too well to be honest. I was kind of a loner back then.
RH: What was your initial impression of Iraq when you arrived?
ES: Oh man. [clears throat] It smelled bad. [laughs] And Fallujah was blown to shit. I would say like a third to half the city was either, the houses were completely rubble or halfway blown up. I’m sure that having all their infrastructure blown up didn’t help with the cleanliness with all the sewage and everything. But it was stinky. And then I noticed the people were a little angrier or maybe more rude. The kids were little jerks. They were not very respectful because they know that we’re not going to put hands on them or smack them if they do something bad. If you yelled at a kid in the United States they’d probably be scared of you, like “oh crap! I’m gonna get in trouble,” because of the parents or something. They knew we wouldn’t do anything to them. The kids were jerks but there were also some times where people were more inviting you into their house than they would be in the United States. They were a little less stand offish sometimes. So it was kind of weird. They’re kind of more like jerks but at the same time, on the flip side, if they do accept you they accept you a lot more, or at least pretend to. Maybe they’ll hate you but they’ll bring you to the house, bring you some food, and really want to kill you. I don’t know. So it was kind of interesting to see that. It’s a lot different than our culture. And the driving! They drive crazy. [laughs]
RH: [laughs] Are there any parts of your AO that were particularly memorable?
ES: Al Amiriyah was like a little town. It wasn’t too memorable. It would be more like a rural town out here. Fallujah was very memorable. It was like you were walking around in history. You heard about it because the big battle had been there and that’s going to be a big part of Marine Corps history forever, and military history. It was very interesting to see a semi-modern area. As a city it had fifteen story buildings, ten story buildings. It looked like something in a movie. It was all blown up. It was a war zone, man. They were rebuilding and it wasn’t like some kind of World War II war zone but that was definitely very memorable.
RH: What were some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment?
ES: I can remember one time I was standing post down at Camp Smitty and they were shooting indirect fire rockets at us. They used to shoot these nine foot long rockets. They would put a little PVC pipe. They’d make a little stand, light it and run away. And these long rockets – you could hear them sometimes with a whistle. Usually you can’t hear getting incoming like that but these ones you could sometimes. My buddy, I remember [name withheld]. I can’t remember if he was a Corporal yet. He was one my seniors. We looked up and all of a sudden we hear, “woo!” [laughs] and we just look at each other and we’re like, “oh shit!” [laughs] Do you know how they say you kiss your ass good-bye? We tucked our head between our legs and kind of crouched down [RH laughs] like that. We were like, “oh shit.” The rocket hit a hundred meters away. It was kind of funny but I was a little nervous at the same time.
There’s another time when we were in Fallujah still. We heard a big boom to the west side of our compound. And it shook the whole building and we had just switched out on post. I had to go up on post and this guy [name withheld] and, I want say [name withheld] was with him, and they had taken over my post from me and [name inaudible] or something. And we hear this big boom and we hear it’s that way and I thought that the post was going to be gone and they were going to be dead. But we went out there and they were OK and I was like “whoa.” And they said it hit like fifty or a hundred meters out and straight ahead of them. That was pretty crazy.
That thirteen hour mission that I was talking about earlier – the one from nine at night to one – just searching and searching rooms. We found a guy who had taken apart his rifle and had put it all over his house. That long mission. That was pretty crazy. And then the of course day, I want to say it was, I think it was a month exactly after we got there. I want to say it was August 5th. That was the day Staff Sergeant [name withheld], Doc Hu, [name withheld], [name withheld], they all got hit by the IED and got hurt. And [name withheld] and [name inaudible] got two tiny pieces of shrapnel in him. I’ll never forget that day.
RH: Are there any Iraqis in particular that stick out?
ES: No. I don’t really remember any specific ones. We were training Iraqi Army guys. Sometimes we would feel really awkward because they would definitely have some gay tendencies. We’d go on watch with them and then there’s me, I want to say it was me and – who else was with me? – I don’t remember. Me and another new guy. We were sitting in a room with probably eight of those guys and we were like in the corner and they gave us some hummus and pita bread or whatever and it was just like, “this is kind of awkward.” Everyone else, there was just so many people that we didn’t really interact with them on a personal level too much so I can’t say that there’s any certain one.
RH: What do you remember about the local food?
ES: I had the food that the interpreters got brought to them. They were like, “sit down with us.” And they had all this rice and I think maybe chicken or something. I don’t know if that was something from some kind of restaurant in town or the chow hall. I’m not really sure. That was pretty good. And there was a few times we ordered a full chicken and it would come with vegetables in it in this bag when we were out at the ECP. And then some people would get the shits from it afterwards but I never did. It was kind of bland compared to in Afghanistan. That food was good. A lot more spicy.
RH: What was the most challenging period of the deployment? The beginning, the middle or the end?
ES: The middle. I think the middle was the worst for me of any deployment because it was just kind of dragging on at that point. You’re not fresh there. I never had too much of a problem with getting complacent. Everyone figures out the spots where you can relax a little bit but not to the point where you endanger each other. I felt like my squad, we were always on our toes and I think that might be a big reason we never got attacked on the ground. I know that when I was at Camp Smitty they got attacked at the combat outpost but they were just sitting at the outpost. I think we were really squared away and vigilant. But the middle was like, “man, I’m in the middle of this thing.” You’re not just there. You’re not fresh anymore. You still got a long ways to go.
RH: As you gained more experience, did you change at all?
ES: Yeah. I think I was trained very well. I remember my very first patrol. We walked right out of the compound onto one of the busiest streets in Fallujah. I can’t remember if we lived off of [route] Henry, I want to say, that went up to MSR Michigan. I think it was Henry, I’m not sure. And there were always cars flying down and they had been [words inaudible]. And my squad leader was Staff Sergeant [name withheld] at the time and he we was like, “go out there and stop the traffic.” And I’m like, “umm, OK. How do I do that?” [laughs] These cars are zipping up and down. How am I gonna stop the traffic, you know? So I just kind of stood there and then one of my seniors walked up. I think he just walked up in front of me and then he just walked out into the street and put his hands up and all the cars stopped. I was like, “oh. OK.” So by the end of our first patrol I was good to go. I knew what to do. And then, you know, you get a little more confidence after that and I was confident anyways but I was just confident in that action. I didn’t know exactly what to do so you get used to the operations with the people and how they are. You gain more confidence as you go. I changed. You just gain perspective in life. When you actually leave the United States and go to a country that doesn’t have all of the nice things we have – Iraq was semi-modern anyways, it wasn’t too bad – it’s not much compared to what we have. It made me appreciate more and it made me gain more confidence.
RH: What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
ES: Getting along with the guys. Especially being who I was at the time. I was kind of loner-ish. Everyone I connected with was senior to me. I was kind of the same in high school. Most of my friends were older. One of my seniors who got hit and lost his eye on, I think it was August 5th, he was gone after that so I was close with my squad leader, Corporal [name withheld]. He quit being squad leader later. He was like, “screw it.” He got frustrated with the command. And then Corporal [name withheld] became my squad leader and I was close with him. He was Christian like me and so was [name withheld]. And I always got along with my seniors [name inaudible] a lot because he was a good dude who understood. He was a good guy. I had a couple of other guys that I just didn’t get along with in my squad at all and that was always an issue. That was the hardest part.
And then getting frustrated with the command when they’d just be like, they wanted you to do stupid stuff. I understand – we lived in this mansion – keeping it clean and hygiene-wise. It helps to keep motivation up a little bit. Just getting too uptight with that stuff or maybe making us wear our gear to walk to the other part of the compound to get chow and everything. Stuff like that was annoying.
RH: Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?
ES: I don’t think so. Just the stuff I remembered that I told you about. I don’t know if it changed me much or anything but I just remember it.
RH: OK. Great. Let’s shift over to your experience in Afghanistan. Can you please repeat your unit in the Army?
ES: I’ve been to different units. Did you want the unit that I was on my first Afghanistan deployment with and then the second?
RH: Let’s talk about the first deployment first.
ES: On that one I was on a PSD team – Personal Security Detail – for the base commander. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division. We were the Colonel’s personal security. He was always going places where he needed us – flying somewhere, going somewhere and we’d take plenty of other people. So my unit was 2nd, 34th [spoken as second, thirty-fourth] infantry.
RH: So it was your job to escort the Colonel all over the AO to wherever he needed to go?
ES: Yes. And any other people that needed to go anywhere. We were based on Bargam Air Field so we would go anywhere within driving distance of there. Sometimes we’d take the legal team out if they needed to go meet with someone. I had the Sergeant Major of the Army National Guard at the national level in my truck one day. We’ve had two star generals, taking people to meetings and all this stuff. We’d just take any kind of people. We were like a security escort service for anyone in the AO. And then we’d also be on QRF for the AO which usually ended up being escorting EOD to either go blow up a cache that was found or, more often than not, it was old UXO from when the Russians were there. It was land mines and artillery shells and aircraft ordnance all over the place that was from the ‘80s.
Then we got spun up a couple times on QRF for air missions to go support firefights but they said that the air was too windy for helicopters so we stood down.
RH: Did you travel by helicopters mostly? Or by land? Or by how.
ES: I never went by helicopter. Only a couple of times we were about to, we got stood down. We would drive. And then in the Spring when it warmed up we started doing foot patrols. We would do a week of foot patrols and QRF and then a week of PSD missions between the two squads we had and we would rotate.
RH: What, specifically, was your job within the unit?
ES: I was a team leader so I had to take care of my two or three guys in my team and my truck. Make sure my truck was always squared away and everything that was needed was there – it was cleaned, organized. Make sure my guys, everything that they needed was taken care of and they had all of their equipment. And then my job on foot patrols was to check the whole squad, pre-combat checks, pre-combat inspections. Make sure they had their gear, make sure they know their role. Then on foot patrols I would navigate and be the point man. And then sometimes I’d be the rear team leader and take the rear, but usually navigate.
Going into that deployment, interesting, only my platoon Sergeant and myself had ever been deployed before out of thirty-two guys, or thirty-six. There was only six of us that were infantry and all the rest came from – we had about six combat engineers, or maybe three. And then we had heavy equipment operators, Supply, NBC, truck drivers, mechanics. We had a water purification guy. So I took it upon myself to train the whole platoon basically because my platoon Sergeant was always busy taking care of Platoon Sergeant stuff so I could train all the guys on how to do operations on foot. My Platoon Sergeant took care of training us in calling in nine-lines and all the other reports but as far as boots on the ground, movements, tactics and stuff I had to train the whole platoon.
RH: What do you remember most about deploying to Afghanistan for the first time?
ES: I liked it a lot better than Iraq. [laughs] There’s a couple things. Number one, we were never really totally prepared training-wise. At least they didn’t train the guys I was with for any type of thing. If we would have got into a firefight I probably would have had to baby sit my whole team, or at least three quarters of the guys. Improper training, lack of training, basically. Second I most remember about Afghanistan was the amount of money the Army has compared to the Marines. [laughs] We had really good equipment. And the country is a lot prettier, the scenery. They’ve got mountains and a lot more rural. Besides Kabul, there’s not really any major cities and that even looks like a crap hole. We were near a pretty decent-sized city called Charikar. The infrastructure – they’re not modern like Iraq was at all. You could really see the place is only a country on paper because some village that’s two hundred miles from somewhere else, the people might not ever see each other. There’s not as many roads. There’s a lot more farming and it’s kind of like a trip back in time minus all the crappy cars driving around.
RH: [laughs] Where were you exactly in Afghanistan?
ES: My first deployment was in Bagram Airfield. It’s kind of central, maybe a little more to the northeast area. It’s by the town of Charikar. The way we drive and how slow we go it’s maybe an hour and a half north of Kabul, northeast.
RH: Are there any parts of your AO that were particularly memorable?
ES: Yes. We went to this place called the Lion’s Den. It’s – what’s the name of that town? – it’s where Massoud was from. He was killed on September 10th, 2001, the day before September 11th. He was the biggest enemy of the Taliban. They don’t like the Taliban in that area at all. You drive up this canyon road next to the stream up in the mountains – and they’re big mountains – and when it snows it’s just the most majestic mountains I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful up there. Some of it was very brown but still, you’re driving up next to a stream. It was pretty memorable. A pretty cool place.
RH: I know you talked about it a little bit but what were some of the big differences between Afghanistan and Iraq?
ES: The people were a little more stand offish, and the kids too. In Iraq they would follow you around if they could. And of course I was in a big city for half of the deployment. I mean a major city, a big place. People were a little more stand offish. It seemed like they would get offended a little easier because they’re more old school, disrespect-wise. And just less modern.
RH: In Afghanistan, correct?
ES: Yes. And I never questioned why I was in Afghanistan. That had a pretty easy link to September 11th and the whole story. I don’t know if any of us really felt the way we would about either war was maybe the right way. Iraq pretty much ended up working out but we always looked at each other like, “what are we doing here?” and in Afghanistan I never felt that way.
RH: What are some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment?
ES: [laughs] We had a truck that we had to go pick up when we were QRF and I think we drove a couple hours down through the mountains on a switchback mountain road that was paved. And then we had to keep going back down on this switchback mountain road that wasn’t paved. We barely got up there and were looking down the cliff on the dirt road part to go pick up this truck. We weren’t really sure if it was an IED or just UXO but it blew the tire off. So we had to pick up the mechanic guys with the wrecker truck with the boom on the back. We barely got up there and somehow these guys hooked up this M-ATV on the back of the truck, their wrecker, and we got it down this zigzag mountain road next to a cliff. [laughs] We would have to kind of have to pull to where it turned and then back up and then hook the truck up to it – the truck that they were towing – onto another truck and pull it to the side with chains and get around the corner. It was insane. And at one point the truck started to go off the cliff a little bit that they were towing so we yelled at him over the radio to hit it and they gunned it [laughs] and the guy was like from Kentucky and he said in an accent [affecting a hillbilly accent] “What the hell?” [laughs] This guy on the wrecker just floored it and the pulled the truck back up onto the road. And I think if it would have gone over the edge it would have pulled the whole wrecker truck with it – they would have been toast – off this cliff. That was a crazy day. It got dark and we got to the very last switchback when we were getting back to the valley where Bagram Airbase was and their hydraulic lift broke because the turn was so sharp. And then they were dragging this truck back and forth. It was getting hot and parts were flying off. We just all went and ate ice cream that night at the chowhall because it was pretty stressful.
And when we were up there picking that truck up we saw this kiowa – this little helicopter that the Army has – the cav guys were in contact with some Taliban fighters and we saw rockets up on a hill. We were in a pretty bad area down there so it was just a crazy day because we were waiting for someone to hit us because it was getting dark and we were in this canyon. Everything worked out but it was just, kind of on edge all day.
RH: What do you remember about the local culture in Afghanistan?
ES: When I was up north on my first deployment it was way different than down south in Helmand province on my second Afghanistan deployment.
RH: How so?
ES: Up north the people mostly liked us. There was people, we’d get intel that they were moving stuff, and they would shoot indirect at us sometimes. There’s people that don’t like you there but I’d say eighty percent of the people up there don’t like the Taliban. It was a lot different up there. They were more chill. You’d go around up north and they’d give you the thumbs up. Down south you’d drive around and all these kids would give you thumbs down. They were throwing rocks at you, slitting their throat with their finger at you. It’s totally different down south.
RH: What do you remember about the local food?
ES: It was friggin’ good, man! You had wrapped up meat and pita bread they called kebab. It had a lot of seasoning on it. It would be goat or sheep, usually. And it was good, man. Every once in a while you’d get beef. Then they would have one thing they called the burger but it was like pita bread and in the middle it would be seasoned fries with cabbage and cucumbers and some peppers Everything was seasoned a lot. It was really good. We had this stuff called gulani. It was like fried flatbread made out of potatoes. It was kind of like mashed potatoes on the inside with a spicy bread on the outside. It was really good. It was really greasy.
RH: Let’s talk about the second deployment to Afghanistan. What unit were you with on the second deployment?
ES: I deployed with the US Army Corps of Engineers. I went on this website and applied for deployment because if you’re a reservist or guard member you can volunteer to go to a unit that needs you. So the Army Corps of Engineers would get people that way. They basically had civilian contractors would drive the truck and do security on the ground and then they’d have Army guys be the gunners and the convoy commander. So I was with PSD again but it was for the Army Corps of Engineers.
RH: You said for the second deployment you were in the southern part of Afghanistan?
ES: Yes. I was in Helmand Province at Camp Leatherneck.
RH: How was that different than the north? You talked a little bit about the local culture but were there any other differences?
ES: It wasn’t super green but there was more green. You’re next to these huge mountains. It snowed up there. It was like four thousand feet elevation at Bagram Airfield and then you’d go up into the mountains and be really high but down in Helmand Province it looked a lot more like Iraq – it kind of looked like Twentynine Palms – except that you get those pockets of mountains. They’re really more like big jagged hills. Living on the west coast by mountains, mountains to me – someone on the east coast, they call those mountains but I wouldn’t call them mountains. Down there it was a hundred and twenty-five like Iraq was. Dust storms, hot as heck, camels everywhere and then spots of little mountains. It kind of looked like Tattooine or something from Star Wars.
RH: What was the most challenging period of those deployments? The beginning, the middle or the end?
ES: It was the middle. Same as before.
RH: Did you have any significant or transformative events that informed either of those deployments?
ES: I grew into more of a leader on that first deployment and ever since I’ve been in the Guard because they just don’t train people like Marines do. The Army doesn’t change people a lot in boot camp. The Marine Corps makes leaders out of pretty much everybody and they change your mindset. It might sound bad to a civilian but you need to know how to kill in the military. They change you to that killer mentality. I mean, I know how to switch it on and off. The Marine Corps prepared me and I’m glad I did that before I joined the Army National Guard. I got better training. I was mentally prepared. When I was with the Guard on that first deployment I was a team leader. I was going with my leadership style and doing all that so. That’s what I kind of got out of that deployment. This last deployment I didn’t get a chance to really have a team because it was mostly civilian guys and a few Army guys and I was just a gunner.
RH: You talked about it but I want to piggyback on that question a little bit. How was your transition from the Marine Corps into the Army?
ES: It was weird, man. [laughs] I showed up for my first drill with the Army National Guard and I wanted to – do you know what I’m saying about the knife hand? I showed up and there were all these old fat people. [RH laughs] I was like, “what are they doing in the military?” Their uniform’s all jacked up. There wasn’t a lot of pride there. There were certain guys who had pride and I wasn’t in the infantry. It’s better on the infantry side a little bit but there’s this lack of discipline, lack of physical fitness, which is hard to enforce when a guys is only with you one weekend a month. You can’t change his whole life with two days. So basically it’s personal responsibility to stay in shape, stay disciplined and know your job. Even if you do stay disciplined it’s hard. I get rusty on my tactics and everything when you don’t do it all the time. And it’s frustrating sometimes but once we mobilized we get time to train everybody.
I’ve calmed down a little bit. I like that I don’t feel like somebody’s gonna jump out of the friggin’ corner somewhere and yell at me all the time but at the same time I miss the discipline a lot and the professionalism and the tactical knowledge of being active duty in the Marine Corps. It’s a huge difference.
RH: We’re going to shift topics a little bit and talk a little bit about coming home. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences?
ES: My first deployment I came home to a son that was a month old and I’d never held a baby before. Or Maybe I’d held a baby once at church or something but that was it. It was totally different. I had a wife, a month-old baby. First deployment was the worst deployment. I didn’t really know how to think about anyone else but me. I had been focused for seven months straight on, what do I need for the mission? What do I need to do about getting the truck ready? Getting my personal gear ready? I’ve got my water. What’s my mission? What do I need to know? Where are we on the map? Just to stay alive and keep my buddies alive because you’re so focused on you. It took me a good, probably, three months to get back to thinking about other people besides myself. I don’t think I was a jerk or anything but it takes a lot to adjust. And of course after every deployment you always wake up for the first few weeks like, “where’s my weapon?” Oh yeah. It’ll happen.
So, Afghanistan. I’m a little older now. The deployments were a little longer. I come home and, I didn’t really drink or anything until I was twenty-one pretty much, or almost twenty-one, and I had never been to a bar before I moved to Iowa. I go to bars sometimes now. I notice that when I come home now, for the first month or two, I’ll be at the bar and stupid people irritate me more. And they kind of do anyways, overall, the older I get. When you spend a lot of time overseas your perspective on reality – you understand what’s important in life. Meaningful relationships with other people, treating people good, working, is something I’ve always had but you really have perspective, man. It’s not like, “oh, I just live in this sheltered world where I have everything I need and I don’t have to think about anything.” A lot of people don’t appreciate our right to vote, even, and all the freedoms we have and how our country started, how many people put their lives on the line and went through hardships just to create this country. So when you have some guy at the bar who thinks he’s the coolest man on Earth it irritates me more or some girl who is really stuck up. Or anywhere you go. When people are full of themselves, it pisses me off. I think everyone should be humble. Everyone’s different and that’s another thing I love about this country. After going on this deployment, it’s the diversity. You go these other countries, everyone looks the same, everyone acts the same, eats the same food. It’s so boring. I can’t imagine a life like that.
So when someone doesn’t have perspective, when you first get home it bugs you more than normal for a while. And it doesn’t really bug me now, but it’s bad when you first get home. It’s really annoying because you’re surrounded by a whole bunch of people who would die for each other and for a random kid in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter who you are. And these people put their lives on the line for you and you come home to people who don’t give a crap about anyone but themselves but are in one of the best situations that you can ever be in, in this country. So that gets really irritating when you first get home.
RH: Did you notice that the Marines and the soldiers around you changed after the first deployment and, if so, how?
ES: I don’t know if it was the fact that I was such a loner, it just didn’t seem like anyone changed that much to me. Other than the guys who were on their first deployment, me and the other boots, we kind of put our big boy shoes on now, taking the next step. We changed a little bit, turning more into men, you know? But that’s about it. I didn’t really notice too much of a difference.
RH: How did your family respond to each deployment?
ES: I feel like my mom and dad get more proud of me every time and some of my close friends and stuff. They’ve always been really supportive and cool. Some of my family in Iowa that I grew up with on my dad’s side, they’re kind of like those people that don’t realize what they have and don’t totally appreciate it. I don’t know. I barely even talk to them. It’s like I’m gone and they don’t even say hi or ask how I’m doing. I have one aunt, she’s cool. The rest are like, “don’t even talk to me,” and I’m somewhere where people want to kill me. For the most part everyone’s super supportive. I feel very blessed compared to the people like Vietnam vets. I feel really bad for what they went through.
RH: Right now you’re in the National Guard so you’re living a civilian life concurrently with being in the National Guard, correct?
RH: How has your military experienced shaped your life since you’ve gotten out of the Marine Corps and going forward?
ES: How has my military life shaped my civilian life?
RH: Yes. How has your military experience shaped your civilian life?
ES: I’ve had a tough time keeping a long-term civilian job. Since I got out of the Marine Corps I feel like I’ve just been hustling and going to school. I’m like nine classes away from my Bachelor’s degree. I did community college. Now I’m finishing online. I get frustrated at civilian jobs because they don’t have quality standards. People are OK with just getting by. I’m always looking for the best way we can do something, be the most efficient and provide the best service or product or whatever. And I just get tired with a lot of the people who don’t have any character or standards for themselves and are just liars, or stuff like that. I got fired from one job for them trying to strong arm me and push me around. I stood up to them. I got unhappy and then they fired me because I said I didn’t like my job. It was a crappy job anyways, for armored truck place. It paid barely over minimum wage. People want to shoot you and take your money.
But you can see the frustration there where almost, there needs to be a reality check there. So I have a pretty decent job now and I’m actually probably going to an even better job here in the next week working for a retired Gunny at a shop and doing a parks manager-type thing which I think I’ll like. He’s looking for leadership traits and to get things squared away, you know? So I think I’ll actually fit in there. But other civilian jobs – people just aren’t on that level that they train you in the Marine Corps.
To be honest, I skated by in the Marine Corps and I didn’t really realize all the tools the Marine Corps had given me and what it was until I got out. The Marine Corps is a rough ride, man. It’s like trying to ride a bull. They train you to be tough and everything. I don’t know if it was my ex-wife and me being so naïve and young but I realized what good the Marine Corps does a man after I got out. I joined the Guard because I felt like I had more to give but I have a son now so I don’t want to do active duty and I feel like I burned a lot of bridges with the Marines, not living up to what I could have been. So I kind of try to make up for it now with the Guard. I know it’s only part-time but I try to make a difference in the soldiers around me and do the right thing. I’m really motivated now. I’ve even started a non-profit veteran’s riders group. I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to make up for lost time, maybe subconsciously. I kind of know but I don’t think about it on a daily basis but I think that’s just led me to really exceed, try to exceed at everything I do now and try to help other people. I think it’s all really because of the Marine Corps, to be honest.
RH: What does your non-profit do?
ES: We’re just getting started. We’re working on getting our non-profit status as far as taxes so we can’t really take any money and use it to do anything yet. Right now, we just got started and we want to provide a safe place for veterans to hang out and guys who like to ride American motorcycles because we’re all-American riders. We want to represent the best of America, you know? And it’s for veterans. So what we want to do is provide a safe place for guys to look out for each other. That’s internally. What we’re going to do as a group is go help out in any way we can. So we have a Master Sergeant that one of our guys knows that’s coming back from Afghanistan in a few weeks and we’re going to go clean up his yard, pull his weeds and have everything squared away for him when he gets home. That will be the first thing we do.
The next thing we’re going to do is start branching out into finding families of POWs and MIAs from Vietnam that people forget about. They always forget about the guys that died. That sits on my heart. A lot of people went missing. I want to go find those families, talk to them, ask them about their loved ones – who’s missing and never came home – and then maybe getting to know them and find out something we can help them out with. Or maybe we help them by not forgetting about them and spending actual time with them. I want to be a boots on the ground, face to face type of organization.
And from there as we grow the biggest thing I want to do is to provide peer to peer counseling for PTSD. The VA is going to give you a psychiatrist and throw pills at you. It might help some people. The pills I know, personally, some guys it’s done them worse. And then other guys maybe that helps them and they’re good. But I want to provide someone who is a veteran, who’s worked through those situations and can help somebody who’s going through that stuff to get them help. That’s the kind of stuff that we’re looking at doing.
RH: So we’re going to shift gears a little bit and just a couple of questions about Iraq’s current state. How do you feel about ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
ES: I think there’s only two ways to deal with it. You either say, you know what? We’re going to go all in to find these people wherever they’re at and we’re going to put our resources towards it and we’re going to destroy those guys or you just stay the heck out of it. I don’t think playing, dancing and toeing the line is the way to go because it puts the guys who are doing the fighting in a weird situation. I mean, you’re talking billions of dollars, you’re talking a lot of assets, who knows if you make more enemies out of it? There’s a lot of stuff being an average citizen you don’t know. You can study all you want but your government’s going to know more than you but I think you either have to go full-bore one way or the other. You need to make your defenses strong and prepare for these guys or you need to go and just lay the hurt on them.
RH: I have some spiritual questions for you. Has deploying effected you spiritually and, if so, how?
ES: It’s never changed my faith at all. There was a time definitely when I got back from Iraq and I was questioning why. What’s a justifiable war? And maybe I’ve kind of gotten to that point, I got out of the Marines and I feel like I left some stuff out on the table because I was questioning that. And then I got out and I felt like I was letting down the guy next to me. I quit thinking about, “can I control the whole government and what we’re doing?” Or, “can I do my part the right way in whatever they’re doing?” If they say, “we’re going to go kill everyone in Africa,” there’s no friggin’ way I’m going to say yes to that, or any country. But if it’s for a legitimate reason, you know?
That’s why I think Iraq is hard. It was a weird change in my life going from being a big part of my youth group and I was helping to teach some times when the youth pastor was gone to being in Iraq, not really knowing exactly why. My squad never treated anyone bad. We always treated everyone with respect in Iraq that we came in contact with and I was always very proud of that. And then when we got hit by that IED it was like, “why are they doing this? I’m not here to hurt and treat anyone bad.” We’re just here to secure the country so that they can do whatever they want with their freedom, you know? So it was weird. It’s really weird. I guess I never really asked myself that question you just asked me so it’s kind of interesting.
I’m definitely a Christian and I believe in God and Jesus and the teachings of the Bible and I know I don’t live up to what I feel God wants from me and expects from me as much as I used to but I’m also less judgmental now that I’ve grown up and seen so much of the world and other people. I’ve seen the human part and the conflict and the pain people feel in situations faster than I used to when I used to just look at it, “oh that’s right and that’s wrong,” you know? I guess I look deeper into people’s hearts now than I used to but my faith is still the same. That’s a pretty deep question. [laughs] I never thought of that.
RH: Did the religious nature of the Iraqis or the Afghanis affect you at all?
ES: Not on a personal level. It’s never something I thought of when I’m interacting with them or anything other than I don’t want to do something that offends them on a personal level. Plus it would make them more harder [laughs] and put other people’s lives in danger. But when I think about it, I try not to fall into it now because right now there’s this big push on ISIS and a lot of people are like, “there’s no way the Islam can be good because the Koran says to kill infidels,” and whatever and I’m trying not to fall into that too much. I think in America you can be whatever the heck you want to be as long as you’re not conflicting with other people’s freedoms and that’s what I love about our country. That’s why we are what we are and how we started, too.
So I try not to fall into that. Sometimes it tries to catch me and I’m like, “you know what? Shut up.” I try to judge people on a personal level. You can’t go around and just round up people because they follow the religion of Islam. In World War II I know we rounded up Japanese people. I don’t know if we did Germans at all, to be honest I haven’t studied the history that much. I can see where they were coming from but at the same time I want to think of that Thomas Jefferson quote, I think it was, where he said, “you should value your freedom over your safety.” I think it was him, or maybe Washington. If being free requires you to be less safe then screw it, man. So I kind of stay away from that and try to judge people on a personal level. I know, personally, with my religious beliefs that’s the right way to go. I know that deep in my heart. But everyone has free will here, man. You should be able to do what you want to do as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.
RH: Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
ES: Hmm. I don’t think so. I think just growing older and life experience I think – I don’t think so. No.
RH: What’s the happiest memory of the entire time you served?
ES: Hmm. Overseas and at home?
RH: Well, your happiest memory. Is there anything that sticks out that was particularly joyous or a really good feeling?
ES: We did a two week annual training a couple of summers ago and my command was all jacked up and people didn’t have gear and stuff. We just ended up going to the field and I just had a great time with the guys in my squad. We got a lot of good training done and we kicked butt on the training. Afterwards we all went out and celebrated a couple of birthdays – my birthday and another guy – and the end of the training. For some reason in that two week span we kind of made some lifelong friends, did some good training, overcame some crap with our higher command and our squad just kicked butt. I think that it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve gotten older and realized I just like doing the training sometimes. And it’s nice because I only do part-time. I go do my military thing and have some fun, deal with a little bit of BS, and then go back to my civilian life. But I get my military fix when I need it, you know? I don’t have to be completely out or completely in.
RH: What is the best MRE?
ES: Beef stew.
RH: [laughs] OK. Why?
ES: I don’t know. It’s the first one I ever had and it tastes the most like something from home. Nothing’s been as good as beef stew. Chili mac is a close number two but beef stew is the best.
RH: What are the best chowhalls stateside, in Iraq and in Afghanistan?
ES: In Iraq I ate at Camp Falluja and Al Taqaddam, I think it was called. It was an air base – TQ. I only ate at TQ a couple times so I’m just going to go with Camp Fallujah because that’s the only one I have memories of, really. It was good. I think they had Baskin Robbins ice cream, or something. It was pretty legit in the chowhall. And then in Afghanistan it was definitely Bagram – Bagram Air Field. That place. They had all different kinds of chowhalls. And it was good. It was way good.
RH: And then stateside?
ES: Stateside I only ate at a couple of them, at Pendleton and Twentynine Palms. Let’s see, where else have I been for a regular chowhall? Wisconsin? Twentynine Palms, definitely.
RH: And what’s the funniest story that you have?
ES: [laughs] I guess there was that one two-week training that I was talking about. There was so many shenanigans where we were sitting outside watching our cell phones at night. We’d all be down laying down in our sleeping bags and the one guy would be watching this stupid YouTube video. Ranger Up posts these cartoons. And it was a stupid cartoon of a rhino that’s an Army Ranger and a Marine that’s a bulldog and they say the funniest crap. And it’s totally spot, those military stereotypes. We’d just sit around and laugh about that kind of stuff. I don’t know. I guess I can’t find a specific moment that I can think of now. Just joking the whole time and making jokes out of crappy situations to make it tolerable.
RH: If you could communicate something to young Marines and soldiers that are going to be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
ES: I would say always take the training seriously and, in your mind, when you’re training pretend like the real stuff’s happening. That’s what I always did, that’s what my dad told me to do, that’s how the Marine Corps teaches you. I would say put yourself in that mindset that you’re actually in combat when you’re training. Don’t marry someone that’s going to make it harder on you while you’re in. And make sure you cherish the good friendships and relationships that you make while you’re in with those good people and keep in contact with them the rest of your life.
RH: Alright. Thank you. Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
ES: Nothing that I can think of right now.
RH: OK. My last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your entire service?
ES: It was definitely everything I did on my second deployment. I took it upon myself to train the guys and get them ready because I knew they weren’t and I didn’t want their blood to be on my conscience, do you know what I mean? Not only just for selfish reasons but for their families. My command didn’t even let me train them as much as I wanted to but I think what I did there was the biggest accomplishment I’ve had so far in my career. And I mean, gaining the respect of the soldiers I’ve had since I’ve been in the Guard as a team leader is a big accomplishment but specifically my first Afghanistan deployment.
RH: Alright! Good to go. Anything else?
ES: No man. That’s it dude! I’m happy to be a part of it. I’ll give you a call if I think of anything else.