ATLANTA — Sgt. 1st Class Robert Reeves smoked his first cigarette at age six and didn't put them down until he was 38. By the time he quit, the Alabamian was smoking three packs a day and couldn't walk to his mailbox without getting winded.
Then a recruiter knocked on his door.
Reeves, the son of a Green Beret, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1983 and got out after three years. Nearly two decades later, his then-wife called a recruiter after her son entered the Army. Her reasoning, she didn't want her son to join alone.
Reeves thinking the recruiter was coming for his stepson, told him that the young man had already shipped to basic training. He found out that the recruiter was there to talk to him about joining the Army Reserve.
After 18 years out of uniform, Reeves joined in the winter of 2004. He attended his first battle assembly in Huntsville, Alabama. Per usual, he chain-smoked four cigarettes before entering the gates of the reserve center.
His new commander watching Reeves light one cigarette after another took note.
"My battalion commander wanted to get rid of me," Reeves said. "He said, 'I don't want that guy in my unit. That guy is a train!'"
The train's habit led his commander to think he couldn't pass the Army Physical Fitness Test, and he made Reeve's an offer.
Pass the PT test and get promoted, or fail, and get the boot.
"Right beside the promotion paperwork was a counseling statement to start to kick me out," Reeves said. "The battalion commander gave it to the S1, and the S1 said he would give me a PT test the next day."
Early the next morning, Reeves set out to take the APFT. He stepped into 20-degree weather and frost on the ground. "It was freezing. My lungs were full of tar," he said.
Reeves passed the pushup and situp events with ease but said he was winded and waited the full ten minutes before attempting the run. The test administrator told Reeves, "It's gonna suck if you have to grind up your promotion paperwork."
Determined not to get kicked out, Reeves went full throttle.
"I had four laps," he said. "I forced my pace and got to where I just couldn't breathe. I got down to the third lap, and I was sweating blood. I had blood coming out of my mouth. It was bad."
On his final lap, Reeves said he felt himself slipping into darkness.
"The walls were closing in," he said. "The guy yells, 'He's gonna grind up your promotion!' I got to the finish line, and everything was starting to go, I was going sideways. I fell over the line. The last thing I heard was 'he passed.'"
Reeves quit smoking Christmas Day 2004.
"I said a little prayer. I can put it down for one day, I'll give it to you for your birthday, and God you gotta take it from there. I never picked them up since," he said.
Fast forward 16 years and Reeves, who turned 54 in May, is running ultramarathons. He's run three 50K races and also a Half Ironman Triathlon under his belt. He was training for a 100-mile race before getting notified for deployment to southwest Asia.
"This year, I was trying to do a 100 mile run by October, but I'm deploying," he said. "I'm going to continue running while I'm over there. I'm not going to do extreme because of the heat, but as soon as I return, I'm going to pick it back up."
Reeves, who is from Gadsden, Alabama, serves as the operations and training NCO with the 335th Signal Command (Theater), Headquarters, and Headquarters Company outside of Atlanta. He joined the Army Reserve's Active Guard Reserve program after losing his civilian retirement during the Great Recession and continues to serve because of the camaraderie and diversity.
"I think diversity is one of the best things I've found in the military. I've met a lot of different people. Some of the best people have not been like me," he said. "People that I trust my life with have not been or looked like me. It may shock you at first, but it gives you more hope about the world in general. It's not just your corner of the world that's going to matter."