ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Close your eyes and picture this. It’s Christmas morning in the 1970’s and you’re five years old. The morning light begins to crest through your window and you burst from your bed and run to see what is under the tree. With wide-eyed amazement you find a toy model railroad set waiting for you, ready to be opened. You tear through the box and staring at you is the gleaming silver locomotive that will pull the multiple railcars round and round in an infinite loop. At that moment you hear it. That familiar, yet unmistakable sound. You run to the window and there it is. The two-hundred ton Union Pacific locomotive barreling across your family farm like a pellet from your official Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. It’s at that moment you just know that’s what you want to do; you want to work on the railroad.
Welcome to the life of Sgt. 1st Class Jason Elm. Yes, he received a train set in the 1970’s when he was five years old. Yes, there was a rail line that ran through his family’s farm. And yes, he knew from that young age that he always wanted to be on the railroad. What he didn’t know at the time was that he would do it for the U.S. Army and that he would one day serve side-by-side with his son, U.S. Army 1st Lt. David Elm.
A tradition of service
In the 1980’s Jason tried to get a job as a railroader after graduating high school, but the country was going through a recession and jobs were scarce. Instead, he decided to go into the military. Unsure what to do or where to go, he found himself enlisting in the U.S. Navy, where he would spend the next 10 years of his life serving as a weapons technician. It was at this point in his life that he had to make a tough decision between staying in or trying to make his dream a reality.
“I said to myself, ‘well, I’m either going to hire out on the railroad or stay in the military,’” he said. “So I applied with the railroad and it happened, I was able to get hired.”
Not wanting to completely leave the military, he decided to join the U.S. Naval Reserve. Unfortunately they did not have a nearby opening in his career field, so he opted to join the U.S. Air Force Reserves, where he would spend the next seven years working on the railroad in his civilian career and serving his country simultaneously.
During his time with the Air Force Reserves, Elm’s unit was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom. While training, his base was selected to be closed down by the Base Realignment and Closure commission. He was now without a home and was only three years from retirement. This is when the trajectory of his entire military career would take off like a bullet.
His first sergeant called him into his office one day and said, “Aren’t you a civilian railroader? You know the U.S. Army has a military railroad battalion right here in Milwaukee?” Surprised by this Jason’s response was a baffled “The Army has trains?” The first sergeant simply responded with “Yeah, my brother-in-law is in the unit.” And with that a career was transformed.
Without delay, Jason went to the battalion and met with the commander and command sergeant major – still in his Air Force uniform – where they insisted that he move from the Air Force Reserves to the Army Reserves and work in the battalion. But not in the way he envisioned. They were so impressed by his resume they decided they wanted him to teach incoming Army Reserve railroaders all about the military occupational specialty.
Because the Army railroader MOS is strictly in the Reserves, he found himself as the perfect candidate to share his knowledge with young and upcoming railroaders – which he would do for the next 12 years. He would eventually head back into the field, but his motivation for this was more than career development, it would be to serve alongside his son.
Growing up, David watched his father rise within the railroad community – both on the civilian side and in the military. When he graduated high school he decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He attended the University of Nebraska on an ROTC scholarship, while concurrently serving in the Nebraska National Guard’s Simultaneous Membership Program. On the civilian side, he joined the Iowa Interstate Railroad as a conductor.
David says his career decisions were in part because of his father’s legacy and a desire to carry on the family tradition.
“My dad has been in the military since before I was born. It’s something I always wanted to be a part of, any way I could. Getting to do what I love while serving was just a bonus,” he said.
“Growing up in a railroad family it’s always been the career I wanted to pursue. Not only is it a good paying career field with good benefits and retirement, but trains have been my hobby as well since as long as I can remember. My dad has railroaded almost my entire life so being exposed to it so young really got me addicted,” he added.
David’s military career path to become a railroader was made easier by the journey his father took to get there.
“My dad had been an instructor for the 88U Railway Operations Crewmember MOS for close to 10 years when I decided I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” said David.
“See, railroading in the Army is almost a secret; nobody seems to know we exist. Luckily, growing up I knew about the unique opportunity and I’d have to do a job I enjoy while serving. That being sad, I selected the Transportation Corps as my first branch choice.”
At that point he accepted a Guaranteed Reserve Forces Duty scholarship, was commissioned and assigned to the 757th Expeditionary Railway Center, headquartered in St. Louis, in 2016.
“I knew this was a position I could excel in due to my civilian career and upbringing, along with the fact I whole heartedly believe you do your best work if you love what you do,” he said.
For Jason and David railroading has become their family’s tradition.
This tradition of course grows a level of competition within the ranks, but more than anything it has harvested a sense of pride for the two of them.
“Growing up, my dad always used to say, ‘There are two types of people in the world. Locomotive engineers, and people who wish they were locomotive engineers,’” said David.
Getting to work on the railroad every day, after telling his dad since he was five years old that this is what he wanted to do, almost brings a tear to David’s eye. “I really feel honored to carry the torch and be part of such a historic industry,” he said.
Jason’s sentiments about serving with his son are the same.
“My son and I have the same interests. We work together on the railroad on the civilian side, we both absolutely love railroading, we’ve spent times making trips around the country, we love operating trains,” he said.
“David is like my best friend,” continued the elder Elm, “and I can’t think of anything better than being able to serve with your son. I consider it an honor to be in uniform and a blessing every day that I get paid to do something I love. And then to do that with my son, there’s not a day my son and I have ever actually gone to work.”
Advice given; Advice taken
Jason’s father is a professor of pharmacy at the University of Colorado, and when Jason was young his father bestowed some fruitful advice to him.
“Be willing to adapt to change, but most importantly, always, no matter what you do, come to work with good attitude…attitude represents who you are,” Jason recalled.
His father would write the word “attitude” on the board for his students, and underneath each letter he wrote a number represented by its position in the alphabet. When you add the numbers together you get 100 and Jason’s father would always say, “Attitude dictates 100 percent of who you are.”
This is the mantra Jason has lived with and raised David with. Everything they do, they do with a great attitude.
Serving the Army; Serving the Nation
Jason currently serves as the rail operations first sergeant for Rail Planning Advisory Team 2 located at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. David is the officer in charge of Rail Assessment Team C for Rail Planning Advisory Team 1, also out of Fort Sheridan, IL.
Due to their vast railroad experience, Jason and David are always among the first Soldiers to be called on for the 757th ERC’s most important missions. Out of uniform, they both serve as railroaders for the Canadian National Railroad.
While the song, “I’ve been working on the railroad all the live long day,” may seem like an exhausted approach to the rail industry, this father/son duo have proved that if you love working on it, you love to serve, and you love doing it with your best friend, there is nothing exhausting about it.