Taking the leap: "Starting Strong" records a Paratrooper's journey
June 21, 2013
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - The paratrooper sat rigid in his chair, harsh light shining on his stoic face and glinting off of the brass on his dress uniform. Behind him, a television screen displayed a cityscape. The video camera stood and regarded him silently as seconds passed. With hands folded in his lap, Spc. Julian Chavez, a forward observer assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, patiently waited to tell the "Fox and Friends" hosts and audience about his participation in the Army's new recruiting effort called "Starting Strong."
When he considered enlisting nearly two years ago, his recruiter approached him with the opportunity to participate in this unconventional recruiting initiative. The program put the civilian from Portland, Ore. alongside Army aviation mechanics in Fort Lewis, Wash. Their mission was to give Chavez a firsthand view of the training and work involved with being a Soldier in that career field. Throughout his visit to the base, a video camera crew filmed the recruit. The crew collected footage and interviews that would become a reality-TV-styled, long-form commercial highlighting the experience.
Chavez was one of nine others across the U.S. who had volunteered to help produce a vehicle for people considering whether or not to join the Army. Now he was on Fox for a promotional interview with the network that had ultimately picked up the series.
"Fox and Friends" audiences witnessed the differences between the wide-eyed and eager civilian in the documentary and the now reserved and disciplined paratrooper in the studio as the interview and clips of the "Starting Strong" show played side-by-side on screen. The contrast was most apparent in his confident posture and businesslike expression as he answered questions live on national television.
That morning, Chavez had left Fort Bragg, N.C., and traveled to a studio in Raleigh to interview with the "Fox and Friends" co-hosts Alisyn Camerota and Tucker Carlson. They asked him about his experiences with "Starting Strong" and the Army. They inquired as to what helped Chavez decide to join the military.
"What was the tipping point for you that allowed you to do it?" asked Camerota.
After a pause, he replied, "When I received the mentorship of the sergeant that was in charge of me, it really opened my eyes and it gave me the courage to make the leap."
Shortly after the interview, Chavez's episode, the first of nine in the "Starting Strong" series, aired June 2, at 9 a.m. on Fox affiliates in 16 markets around the country.
As the eldest of five children, Chavez already knew what selfless service was about. By the time he was a teenager, he'd already been changing diapers and waking up at 4:00 a.m. to help his mother get his siblings out the door. He helped shoulder parental responsibilities and to this day bears a deep love for them.
"There was always something to do and fun to be had, he said. I love my family very much. Their support was one of the biggest reasons I was able to join without much hesitancy."
He said his family believed the Army was something that would help him improve as a person and become more mature.
Going to school but facing financial uncertainty, Chavez looked for help. With no job prospects to be found he said he looked hard at the military.
"Before I joined, I was lost on what I wanted to do with my life. The Army made me realize there was a different route."
When he talks about the person who walked into the recruiter's office two years ago, he describes a person wholly different in his outlook and less resilient than the man he has become.
He said he handled things differently in the past. He described himself as very short-tempered and impatient when presented a problem with no easy solution. He said he was carefree but oblivious.
Participating in the "Starting Strong" program helped guide the wayward teenager by putting him face-to-face with the lifestyle of the soldier. He was instructed in pre-flight maintenance procedures for an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter. He learned how to fire the M-240 machine gun as a helicopter door gunner. He was taught how to set up and re-equip the aircraft from a forward arming and refueling point.
"I was overwhelmed by the experience of being able to see the things that I did. I got to do a lot of cool things and meet some incredible leaders and soldiers," he said. Never once while doing this did I think it was a bad idea."
Chavez enlisted in August 2011. He recalled Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training being very mentally challenging for him.
He said they were positive experiences and the graduations were very proud moments of his life.
Although his original intention was to go into aviation, his qualifications forced a different choice of military occupational specialty. He graduated AIT as a forward observer, a front line soldier whose job is to direct artillery or aircraft indirect fire. He is happy with the turn of events.
"I get paid to blow things up; it's a lot of fun," he said.
From there, Chavez entered the Army's Airborne School. He credits his recruiter, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, with his decision to become a Paratrooper. Hearing stories of the noncommissioned officer's love of jumping and the espirit de corps of the troops motivated him to volunteer. Chavez said he wanted to have the same experience.
During his last week at Airborne School, his spirit and courage faced a greater test than ever before as he prepared to make his first jump from an aircraft.
"I can still recall how nervous I was when the door opened. I was shaking and felt nothing but fear. As I approached the door, my training kicked in and my mind went blank and I jumped out."
Many paratroopers mark their first jump as a momentous event in their lives. Chavez's philosophy was no different.
"I was scared out of my mind, but when my 'chute' opened up, I looked at the scenery and felt the pride and accomplishment of being able to overcome another hurdle."
With training complete, Chavez received orders for the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, where he was assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. As a member of "America's Guard of Honor," he is one of the Army's elite Paratroopers that stand ready to deploy anywhere around the world within 18 hours. Rigorous training and dedication is required to be able to fight with little notification and then win against any enemy or obstacle. Chavez said he feels grateful for his placement.
"For my first unit, it couldn't have gotten any better than being in the 82nd Airborne Division. The fast pace was difficult to keep up with at times, but now I can't imagine doing anything differently. Being airborne sets you to a higher standard and you are always reminded that if you're not at your best, you are wrong."
His goals are now to go to Ranger School and complete his college education.
He said he hoped to continue to improve himself and become a more valuable asset to his team.
This pride and sense of belonging came at a cost for Chavez. Notable amongst those sacrifices is the closeness of the family he left in Portland.
"I do miss home very much though and being this far from my family isn't easy. To hear my family tell me how much they miss me is difficult."
Chavez stated he does feel as though he has been compensated for his sacrifices in very important ways.
"The Army has given me the tools to become my own man and has given me a more serious and direct outlook on life."
He said he handled situations with greater maturity now because he knows what right looks like and how to achieve it.
"The person that I was, compared to the person I am now, is like night and day."
Others in Chavez's life have noticed the changes as well.
He said his friends and family notice that he is more serious now and that they have told him that they see a different person.
"Joining the Army was the right thing to do. It has given me much and I hope to give just as much back," he said.