My name is Steven Marshall and I am from Saginaw, Michigan, a city just north of Detroit. In 2010, I joined the United States Army as a Combat Engineer and subsequently spent four months at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for Basic Combat Training (BCT). This military occupational specialty consisted of tasks that a typical “engineer” in the civilian world would not be prescribed, such as finding land mines, breaching locked doors, and utilizing explosive compounds (C4) in various capacities.
Following BCT I was stationed in Bamberg, Germany with the 370TH Sapper Company, 54TH Engineer Battalion and learned my first day that a deployment was on the horizon. I remember my squad leader saying to me ambiguously, “don’t get too comfortable.” I was puzzled and when I asked him why, he said “we are leaving for Afghanistan in two months.”
It is quite an overwhelming feeling, being out of the country for the first time, almost 7,000 kilometers away from home, and being told at the young age of 21 that you are going to fight in a war that started when you were 11. I was calm, excited, scared, nervous, and anxious simultaneously – it was kind of surreal. I called my dad to tell him the news and could sense the tension in his voice. I called my mom and sister and they were both panicking. Finally, I called the closest person to me in my life: my grandfather. My grandfather was the strongest individual I have ever met, having served in Japan in World War II, two tours in the Korean War, and one tour in the Vietnam War. Gramps was no stranger to what these types of life events entailed, and he told me that him and my grandmother were proud of me.
On 19 November 2010, we boarded a plane to Kyrgyzstan and after a few days we landed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in the Logar Province of Eastern Afghanistan. This FOB was considered “black-out,” which translates to only being able to use red or green flashlights outside at night. There were no other forms of light permitted because it was historically a base that was constantly under attack. Using white flashlights would essentially provide the enemies outside of the base a rough target estimation. It did not take long for me to recognize the importance of this concept, as it only took a few hours for us to come under mortar fire.
During deployment, our primary role as Combat Engineers was to perform Route Clearance Missions. This basically entails looking for landmines, bombs, and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), to mitigate the threat for other combat and logistics units. Unfortunately, sometimes these attempts by the enemy to harm coalition troops were successful. They often combined these detonations with small arms or machine gun fire, known as a complex attack, which is the most chaotic environment I have ever been in. People on both sides are injured, lives are lost, and the trauma lasts a lifetime.
Afghanistan was my home for a year. We were constantly moving to different provinces in the country; however, I spent the last five months in Sharana, the capital of Paktika Province. FOB Sharana was close to the border with Pakistan and we would clear Route Jeep multiple times a week. For many units, this is where some of the most intense combat was taking place during 2011 and it was undoubtedly one of the most formative time periods of my life.
Following our last night in Afghanistan, we headed back to Germany and began the reintegration process. I already had plans to exit the military in the next two years, so I prioritized self-development and creating amazing experiences with my remaining time. I spent every weekend traveling to various cities and countries throughout Europe while starting the process to transition out of the Army. Unfortunately, the military’s program is not the most effective in helping soldiers become civilians, so when I exited the military, I decided to independently backpack through the Middle East and Asia and figure things out on my own.
After seeing 45 countries and returning to Michigan, I thought I wanted a career in international relations. I completed degrees in Liberal Arts, Political Science, and years later I now find myself at Thunderbird. During this time, I was extremely successful, but more importantly, I also struggled to deal with things that I had compartmentalized from my experiences in the military. PTSD, anxiety, depression, irritability, anger – they were all making themselves present and it affected my everyday life. I now understand that struggling was a blessing in disguise and provided an opportunity to identify and eventually work on managing these illnesses.
I am honored to have been asked to create this piece for Das Tor, especially for Veteran’s Day. However, I did not want this to solely be about me. I wanted to use this chance to speak about the broader conversation that we desperately need to have, but many are reluctant to engage in: mental health awareness, kindness, and empathy. We should be considering what is going on in a person’s day, week, month, or past when we decide how to act towards them. It is significantly easier to be nice to someone than it is to be mean. Reaching out to someone and having sympathy is equally important – not all of our injuries are visible.
Resources are available to veterans and non-veterans alike, through 24/7 ASU Counseling Services by dialing 480-921-1006, the National Institute of Mental Health by dialing 988, and the Veteran Crisis Line, also at 988.
As Thunderbirds, we strive to “leave places better than how we found them”, and I believe that we can do the same for people.