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It was supposed to be a routine convoy mission. An out and back with leadership from Forward Operating Base Wilson (FOB Wilson) in Afghanistan.
But, as night fell and the personal security detail (PSD) convoy rolled down Highway 1, the atmosphere chaotically transitioned into “your classic, deliberate, near-ambush scenario.”
“The vehicle I was in was hit by three things; two RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade) and then we hit a roadside bomb,” Stephen “Hooch” Hochstetler said.
The M-ATV was disabled, on fire and the cab’s three other occupants – including a future Army general – were knocked unconscious.
“I had a through-and-through wound in my left leg and shrapnel in both,” Hochstetler, who manned the gun turret, said.
“I put the fire out because the extinguishing system didn’t go off, [and] I realized I was bleeding all over the place,” he said. “I put a tourniquet on my leg and went to work from there. ‘Take-care-of-the-bad-guys’ kind of deal.”
Hochstetler’s efforts protecting his unit on the night of June 13, 2010 earned him a Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’ device, elevating this former Soldier and directing him down a decade-long path of self-realization into leadership with Army ROTC.
After graduating in 2006 from East High School in Waterloo, Iowa, Hochstetler entered the workforce and quickly discovered the traditional 9-to-5 job wasn’t going to work for him.
“I was working at Walmart in the deli section slicing deli meat, and it was the most boring thing in the world to me when I knew that I could go do adventurous stuff in the Army,” he said.
Hochstetler enlisted in the Army, branching infantry. He asked for the United States Army Airborne School – just like his father – but the recruiters wouldn’t give him an Airborne spot.
“I love telling people this part, because, sometimes, people settle for things that they didn’t want and I’m a big advocate of never settling for anything,” Hochstetler said.
Hochstetler was determined to get the spot. He traveled to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) five times to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).
After the fifth trip, the recruiters still wouldn’t budge, but neither would Hochstetler.
“The lady picked up the phone and called down to Fort Benning, to the Airborne School, and said, ‘I have this candidate who wants to go Airborne School and needs a slot,’” he said.
From that point, as Hochstetler likes to say, “The rest is history.”
He shipped off to Fort Benning, Ga. to the United States Army Infantry School before transitioning to Airborne School and getting stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division, a division trained to deploy anywhere in the world within 18 hours in support of U.S. national interests.
“The Army is big on shared hardships, they build camaraderie, and you experience that when you just jumped out of a plane to get to your objective,” Hochstetler said. “You’re cold, hungry, and maybe you’re getting rained on, and you look around and go, ‘Man, my teammates are going through the same thing, it’s not that bad.’ To me that was pretty cool.
You have to have confidence in your ability and confidence in your equipment…just having trust in all these moments leading up to you jumping out of the airplane, seizing key terrain and all that sexy stuff that comes with the Airborne community.”
Two years into his time as an enlisted Soldier, Hochstetler was in another bargaining position with the Army. His re-enlistment window was open, and he wanted to deploy.
“I was in 7th grade and watched the Twin Towers fall, so I had this thing in my mind that I didn’t want to go to Iraq, I wanted to go to Afghanistan,” Hochstetler said. “I knew that the 101st Airborne Division was going to Afghanistan…so I raised my hand and volunteered.”
Off to Afghanistan he went and a few months later on June 13, 2010, Hochstetler found himself wounded on the side of Highway 1.
Among the unconscious in the vehicle was Hochstetler’s battle-buddy, Clayton Swanson. Over the course of their deployment, the two bonded over a love of heavy metal music.
“Hooch was my gunner that day and I typically like to sit in the back left behind the driver’s seat,” Swanson said. “When I opened the door to go and throw all my gear in there, he was in there taking a little nap and he just looked at me and said, “Uh Uh, other side.’
“So I went and sat on the other side behind the passenger.”
This small interaction with Hochstetler saved Swanson’s life.
“The first major blasts were on the back left door, and then the back frame right between the driver and the passenger sent a huge piece of shrapnel through Hooch’s leg,” Swanson said.
“If it wasn’t his knee, it would have taken the entire front of my face off,” he adds. “I’ve loved that man ever since.”
Hochstetler’s actions the night of the near-ambush remain etched in the memories of his teammates and leadership, still, more than a decade later.
Maj. Gen. Johnny K. Davis, former commanding general of United States Army Cadet Command, was a Lieutenant Colonel and Hochstetler’s battalion commander. Davis was sitting in the front passenger seat of Hochstetler’s vehicle, sustaining injuries when the attack occurred.
“In the chaos, noise, and confusion, I remember Hooch springing into action by manning his weapon and preparing to return fire despite all of us being wounded,” Davis said. “In that moment, I could feel the bonds of trust between all of us – we were a family and a unit dedicated to do the right thing, no matter what happened to us.”
Swanson shares a similar memory.
“What stands out that day is after [Hooch] got hit, before I came to, he was already getting his own tourniquet on,” Swanson said. “His gun was trashed, and with a big old piece of metal right through his leg he was up in that gunner’s chair, just as quick as possible, handling business until we were able to get him out of there.”
Seven Soldiers were wounded that night, no lives were lost. Hochstetler was medically evacuated from Afghanistan to Germany where he recovered from his injuries. His time spent waiting to heal was more excruciating than any physical wounds.
“My big issue was for the time that I was healing up, I was not able to do missions with my teammates,” he said. “That was the hardest thing, I am very mission driven.”
While humble and extremely appreciative of the awards he received for his efforts that night, the bigger prize to Hochstetler was accomplishing the mission.
“I’m not big on the whole awards thing,” he said. “I’m an advocate of signing up to do a job and if you do it well then everybody gets to go home at the end of the day.”
Hochstetler served for two more years before deciding to leave the Army in 2012. He re-entered the workforce for a year and a half, trying his hand again at a 9-to-5 career.
“I really got bored with the civilian life,” he said. “I knew what I enjoyed doing and that’s military things – especially infantry things.”
Hochstetler set his sights on becoming a Navy SEAL and began preparing for the Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEAL training (BUD/S).
Physically ready, he approached a Navy recruiter only to discover time remaining on his Army contract – something he was obligated to complete to be considered for careers in the military.
In the Army he remained.
“I was in the Civil Affairs for two years in the Reserves…I wanted to focus on school so I went to the Reserves, fulfilled my 8-year contract and just focused on college at that point,” Hochstetler said. “I knew at some point I would want to go back into the military, I just didn’t know in what capacity.”
School became Hochstetler’s priority. While attending classes at the University of Oklahoma, he tried a semester of Army ROTC, but “at the time it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue,” he said.
In 2019 he earned his bachelor’s degree in French Language from OU and, tried once again, unsuccessfully, to enter the civilian workforce.
Hochstetler missed the community and esprit de corps the Army provided. He turned his goals toward Army ROTC.
“It’s always what’s the next mission, and so I started grad school [at the University of Central Oklahoma],” Hochstetler said. “I knew when I started grad school, that I was going to go chips in and do this officer route.”
“Going back to my Afghanistan experience, I can apply that, and God forbid if I’m ever in a scenario again like that I know how I will react when the job gets really tough.”
Hochstetler entered Army ROTC at the University of Central Oklahoma in 2021 as a married, 30-something, seasoned Army Veteran.
He’s embraced his nearly 15-year age difference with the “dad-figure” leadership role his peers placed on him. He enjoys being able to observe and teach daily.
“I can kind of be the ambassador and say, ‘Hey, this is how we can all work together,’” Hochstetler said. “Here’s how you can teach me, here’s how I can teach you, and I think at the end it really makes everybody better.
I don’t need to tell people I work with what I’m good at, I’m just going to show them and over time it’s just going to hold true and in my program it’s definitely held.”
Kennan Horn, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, met Hochstetler in 2016 while working for the Veteran’s Program at the University of Central Oklahoma. He describes Hochstetler as “a very quiet, humble guy and one of the finest young men I’ve had come through the program.”
“He is incredibly mature, and he listens before he speaks,” Horn said. “He understands the importance of assessing a situation before he acts on it. He’s not impulsive by any stretch of the imagination and that is going to serve him very well…
Stephen’s the guy that will be in the motor pool at midnight making sure something is right for the next day. That’s just the kind of guy he is, he is a mission first type of dude all day every day.”
Master Sgt. Robert Grizzle is one of Hochstetler’s senior military science instructors at the University of Central Oklahoma.
He recognizes Hochstetler has plenty of Army experiences, but he still continues to observe and teach in every situation.
“He doesn’t try to chime in and speak over the class with all the right answers. He lets them learn as they go and helps out when he can,” Grizzle said. “The other students see that this is what they should strive to be. He is already at the level that they should want to be at.”
Over the summer, Hochstetler attended Cadet Summer Training as part of the 2nd Regiment, Advanced Camp. After graduation, he hopped on a plane to Stuttgart, Germany for an internship with the United States European Command (EUCOM).
“We worked with the Germans and we worked with the French, and considering the history that we have with each other, shirking the current global climate, shirking the war in Ukraine, if you look at the history of the U.S. and coalition forces working together there’s really something to be said when you put them in the same room and everybody’s hanging out and having a good time,” Hochstetler said.
With a 2023 graduation and commissioning right around the corner, Hochstetler is looking to accept any challenge that comes his way.
Hochstetler plans to continue pushing his limits, aiming to branch military intelligence, nab a Ranger tab, and pursue a role in the Special Operations Community.
He hopes his previous Army knowledge and experiences, along with the guidance of his non-commissioned officers (NCOs) leave a positive impact on the units and Soldiers he leads.
“I just want to develop and mentor them to the best of my ability with the tools I have,” Hochstetler said. “I’m not afraid to ask what I’m failing at and what I can do better. I’m always willing to learn, I’m never going to have all the right answers.
No matter how hard something gets, there’s always something harder – and that ultimately makes you better at the end of the day.”
About Army ROTC
Army ROTC is one of the best leadership courses in the country and is part of your college curriculum. Through classes and field training, Army ROTC provides you with the tools to become an Army Officer without interfering with your other classes. ROTC also provides you with discipline and money for tuition while enhancing your college experience.
Army ROTC offers pathways to becoming an Army Officer for high school students, current active duty Soldiers, and for current National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers through the Simultaneous Membership Program.