Born in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1979, I am the last of seven children. My father worked as a general contractor building approximately 300 homes in 27 years. All of my brothers and sisters, including myself, worked in construction during our summer breaks from school and several of us even after graduation.
After graduation, I worked several jobs ranging from construction to cook, and bouncer to receptionist. The most rewarding jobs were ones that allowed me to use my skills in building and creating new things for people and my artistic abilities. After many attempts to find my place in the world, I decided to join the Army Reserves.
I enlisted in June 2001 in the Army Reserves as a Tracked Vehicle Mechanic. I attended Basic Training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. My advanced individual training (AIT) was held in Aberdeen, Maryland. In AIT I learned how to diagnose and repair several types of tracked vehicles which my home unit used in their operations. I graduated near the top of my class in January 2002.
Upon returning from AIT, I was incorporated into my new military family, Bravo Company 498th Engineer Battalion. I quickly moved up from a new PFC to a team leader and later a squad leader. We were deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom in February 2003. Our unit entered Iraq in April 2003 within 30 days after the initial invasion. Our deployment was definitely a learning experience for everyone. The tactics, techniques and procedures that we had been training for were all but ineffective for the type of terrain and combat we were faced with in this new generation of warfare. Our company relocated 26 times upon entering Iraq which taught me to be flexible.
My second deployment in April 2008 was quite different. We stayed in one location on Camp Liberty just outside Baghdad. I was put in charge of the welding shop where we designed, fabricated and installed dozens of systems to aid in route clearance operations. I was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for my design of an external storage and deployment system for the TALON robot. The design decreased the amount of time that the soldiers inside and outside the vehicle were exposed to enemy fire from 4 minutes down to 10 seconds. After several months, we were caught up in the welding shop to the point where I was able to transfer to Recovery Operations. My new assignment included recovering vehicles which had broken down while on a route clearance mission in the Baghdad area.
On one such recovery mission in December 2008, I was the gunner on the .50 Cal machine gun. My driver had seen a pressure plate in the road and dodged it to avoid setting off the triple array EFP that the pressure plate was attached to. His maneuver prevented us from being hit by the EFP, but in dodging the pressure plate, he drove off the side of the road hitting a trench and launching me out of my turret. I ended up with a cracked spine, ruptured disk, and a compressed nerve. We gathered ourselves, adjusted our mindset, and helmets, and continued the mission. After 3 more months, our mission was complete and we returned to the US once again.
I was held on active duty for another 4 years pending medical treatment and eventually medical discharge. I had 3 surgeries, 4 different pain management procedures and countless rounds of shots, physical therapy and painkillers. During the medical process I was in a program called the Community Based Warrior Transition Unit (CBWTU) which allows Reserve and National Guard soldiers to stay at home while undergoing medical treatment and recovery. During the process, the soldiers report to their unit on a daily basis for accountability and to keep them active. I had moved to Southeast Missouri to be closer to family. My unit was over 3 hours away. After doing some research, I found the Mark Twain National Forest right down the road from my house. They agreed to partner with the CBWTU, and allowed me to report to the Forest Service for the duration of my medical treatments and recovery. I quickly found a new family of kindred spirits in the Eleven Point Ranger District of the Mark Twain National Forest.
I worked mostly with the Recreation department and finally found my place in the world. I was destined to follow a career path within the Forest Service. I stayed with the USFS as a sponsored volunteer for 2 years and then another 6 months as a regular volunteer. I had to leave for almost a year to make enough money to pay the bills. I was pleasantly surprised when I was notified of the VetsWork internship program. It’s like being away for a long time, and finally coming home.