FORT SILL, Oklahoma (July 19, 2021) -- It’s 8:30 a.m. and the 1st Battalion, 19th Field Artillery parking lot is already bustling.
A long line of basic combat trainees in full battle-rattle wait for a bus to pick them up as drill sergeants in their distinctive campaign hats walk around carrying huge mugs of coffee while shouting orders.
Cadre, or battalion staff, enter their headquarters to begin the workday.
In a sea of Army greens and shaved heads, one can spot a bright polo shirt, a pair of skinny jeans, a Hawaiian-print shirt, and even a beard. That’s typical attire of the eight civilians who work in the War Eagle Battalion.
Six of them are veterans, and they shared their DoD civilian employment stories for National Hire a Veteran Day, July 25.
The vets came from different places, eras, and military occupational specialties (MOS), but they all shared common traits: a yearning for adventure, a desire to serve the nation, to be part of an elite fraternity, and love of country.
The oldest vet, retired Sgt. 1st Class Joe Cepeda, said he joined the Army in 1984 “to get away from South Texas.” He was a 13M – High Mobility Artillery Rocket System crewmember. He would go on to serve 22 years, and retire in 2006.
Cepeda said he never deployed when he was on active duty, but ironically, he later went to Iraq multiple times as a contractor. He described his first months of retirement from the Army as peaceful.
Nancy Fong works as a training room technician in B Battery. She enlisted in 2004, in Micronesia, and became an automated logistical specialist.
During her career she deployed to Iraq twice. Fong left the service as a staff sergeant in 2012. She is married to a service member. Drill sergeants call her “CSM Fong” as a nickname.
Her advice for those leaving the Army is: “Take your Soldier for Life – Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP) seriously, and keep your records and paperwork straight.”
Former wheeled vehicle mechanic Darius Johnson served from 2012 to 2015. During his service he deployed to Kuwait.
Johnson had to leave the Army early because of medical reasons, and said if not for that he would still be in. He is married to a service member, and after his medical retirement he accompanied his wife to Fort Sill. Johnson is working toward a bachelor’s degree.
Retired 1st Sgt. Tracy Polynice continues to serve the nation as a battalion operations support technician. He originally enlisted in 1987, and served as a cannon crew member. He proudly served 23 years, and if you ask him he will tell you the exact amount of years, months, and days.
During his career, Polynice said he was deployed three times, including Desert Storm, and was stationed pretty much everywhere from Georgia to Hawaii, and in Germany.
How did it feel to retire from the Army?
“It felt like I took my rucksack off,” Polynice said.
C Battery training room technician Rob Peel said that after retirement from the Army there was “only a certain amount of golfing and fishing that I could do before I felt I needed another job.”
He made a smooth transition into federal civil service.
Peel had joined the Army in 1988 as an 11H, heavy anti-armor weapons infantryman, and transitioned to 11B infantryman after the 11H MOS was eliminated. He never disclosed what rank he retired from active duty, only saying he was an E2 PAC Clerk.
Derek Bennett, former infantryman, retired at Fort Sill as a first sergeant in 1-19th FA’s sister battalion 1-40th FA.
Bennett said he did not notice much difference after retirement – his circle of friends remained the same and he kept coming to the same work place. However, he took advantage of the grooming standards: He now sports a beard.
Do the vets miss anything from their time in the Army?
Yes, the friendships and teamwork. They all used different words: special bond, camaraderie, brotherhood – give it a name.
They all concurred that most of the civilian world does not offer the same sense of bond as the military. The bond that is born out of hardships, reliance on each other, and serving in the same places, and under the same people.
Any advice for those who are still in?
Enjoy it while you can because it will eventually end, they echoed.