The hills crawled with enemy combatants as “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins blasted over the headphones on my beat-up cassette player. I sought only to destroy them with speed, surprise, and violence of action. I was a one-man army and took it seriously. My neighborhood was an imaginary combat zone and the local kids were the enemy. Little did I know that some years later I’d find myself on a real highway in a danger zone a few thousand miles away.
So many things influenced my decision to serve in the military. I idolized an uncle in the Army. He gave me a pair of dog tags and a BDU uniform when I was in second grade that I wore to school every Wednesday. I was probably the only seven-year-old in my town that had his social security number and blood type memorized. It was the early Nineties and the Gulf War was ramping up, “I’m Proud to Be an American” was our new anthem, and all I could hope was my uncle didn’t have to go to war. It kept me up at night. I wrestled with the morality and rationale of war, but fantasized about one day being a combatant serving our great nation. I just couldn’t escape the idea and romanticism of war. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said I wanted to be a soldier and a scientist.
Fast forward to high school. I was heavily immersed in the anti-government ethos of the punk rock and hardcore music scene and the Army was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t know why I wanted to rebel against what I considered mainstream ideology; it was mostly ill-informed angst I suppose. I didn’t like the idea of becoming a mindless drone in the military, unable to think for myself, so I decided to dive headlong into my other childhood dream, becoming a scientist. My senior year of High School I applied and was accepted to a local university where I declared an Environmental Biology major.
My best friend at the time joined the Army National Guard. We stayed in touch while he was in basic training, I wrote him letters and attended his graduation at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. I was blown away by the ceremony, the discipline, and the esprit de corps of his graduation. Something came over me. I’d like to say I ran to a recruiter and signed up but that wasn’t exactly true. I went back to my summer job at the pet store and goofed off because I had already been accepted to college and thought that a degree was more important than joining the military. I would often crawl inside of those large igloo doghouses and take naps while I worked at the pet store because I was a model employee like that. One such day, I heard a knock on my doghouse and someone pulling on my leg. It was a guy in a full Army uniform, a recruiter. Shit! At first, I thought I was in trouble but then he introduced himself as Staff Sergeant Ketner from the North Carolina Army National Guard and said he was referred by my good friend whose ceremony I had just watched.
I was really hesitant to even give the guy the time of day but I thought, “What the hell? Let’s hear what he has to say.” The recruiter explained that I could get the Guard to pay for my college with only one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. After thinking it over I went to the Armory and had an actual sit-down conversation with the recruiter. He asked what I wanted to do and I instinctively said Infantry, thinking back to those solo commando missions in my neighborhood. He said, “Well we don’t have any infantry slots,” but immediately followed that up wit,h “Do you like to blow shit up, son?” Heck yeah! I sure do! The recruiter proceeded to tell me about Field Artillery and the new Multiple Launch Rocket (MLRS) program and an $8000 sign on bonus on top of free college and the other perks. I was hooked. I went to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Charlotte, NC shortly after and swore in as a 13M in the North Carolina Army National Guard. I dropped out of college on the first day of school. I had a new mission.
Driving back from MEPS I had a moment that felt straight out of Pauly Shore’s “In the Army Now” as I told the recruiter this was probably the best time in history to join because we were at peace and hadn’t been in a real war in over a decade. One weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, this is easy money… Six days later terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. My timing was impeccable and I would soon realize another of my misguided childhood desires. I was going to war.
There were a few months between enlisting and shipping to basic training and I used that time to get myself in shape. My mom was mad that I dropped out of college to join the Guard but soon forgave me when she saw that I was doing this so that I could actually afford college. She helped to train me because I wasn’t very good at running. I wrestled and skateboarded all through high school but it had been a while since I’d run any distance. I knew I would need to get in better shape before shipping. My mom held a stop watch and yelled at me like a drill sergeant as I ran our local high school track in an effort to hit a minimum 2 mile run time before shipping. I ran back roads in my hometown and tried to put everything in perspective, using 9/11 as motivation to spur me forward when I got tired.
Everything had changed, it wasn’t just for college anymore. It was for everyone in my hometown, it was for our way of life, or so I thought. I really believed in what we were doing and I was ready to serve. Basic training was a blur of push-ups, sit ups, running, and getting yelled at and told that even my sorry National Guard ass was going to war because they weren’t going to waste Active Duty soldiers when they could send us part timers too. I got in the best shape of my life and took it all very seriously.
When I completed Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training at Ft Sill Oklahoma, I rode a bus from Lawton, Oklahoma back to High Point, North Carolina and reported to my new unit. I was in the 5-113 Field Artillery Regiment out of High Point, NC. I enrolled back in college not long after returning home from basic training. I balanced weekend drills, not blowing shit up as often as the recruiter stated, mostly driving a tracked vehicle around Fort Bragg, NC until we were told in May of 2005 that we were deploying. I had to take my college exams early and drop out, again.
We shipped to Camp Atterbury, Indiana and trained for a few months there as well as a couple weeks at Fort McClellan, Alabama before finally arriving at our new home in Kuwait at Camp Arifjan. Before you tell me that Kuwait isn’t a real deployment, you have to realize that our stuff stayed at Arifjan, but an average mission was anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks long give or take. We would depart Kuwait, hit the road and do missions in Iraq, only to return to Kuwait long enough to wash clothes, sleep, and hit the roads of Iraq again. I got to visit almost all of the country of Iraq while on missions. I was blown away at its hazardous beauty. I had found myself in the real-life version of my childhood “danger zone” on the highways of Iraq. I had some semblance of home with me. My little brother Shawn, who also fought those childhood wars, was in my unit in the same line of fire.
Having my brother in my unit was both a blessing and a curse. He helped me feel somewhat at home but I was terrified of losing him. For the first part of my deployment, I was a .50 caliber machine gunner on a HUMVEE gun truck. I wasn’t allowed to do security on missions my brother was on. We weren’t even allowed to stay in the same barracks. When my gun truck platoon was dissolved and I was assimilated in a line haul platoon, I would see my brother at various bases up North in Iraq. We often passed each other on convoys when one of us would be going North on MSR Tampa and the other going South back to base. We would meet up on occasion when we were both back in Kuwait in the barracks at the same time but those times were few and far between due to our high operational tempo.
I spent much of my downtime between missions filming wildlife and jackass stunts with my buddies using a documentary style camcorder I ordered and had shipped to the barracks. I taught myself how to edit videos in the trial and error days prior to the existence of YouTube tutorials and once I was able to cobble enough footage together, my platoon mates and I would watch the most recent installment of our video series together as we belly laughed at the absurdity. We created a show called “The Idiot Chronicles” and it was somewhere between Jackass and the Crocodile Hunter. I earned the nickname and call sign of “Critter Getter” while training in Kuwait. Apparently jumping out of a moving HUMVEE to run down a desert lizard gets you a unique moniker. I used those videos and wildlife exploits to boost our collective morale as well as give myself a secondary mission that took my mind off of the stress we were facing each night during actual missions.
Coming home from war for me was the most disconcerting experience of my life and having these videos to focus on gave me something to look forward to so I wouldn’t give in to the crippling despair I felt when left to my own devices. The videos gave me purpose and helped me give voice to creatures that often got lots of bad press, like rattlesnakes. It became my mission to shed as much positive light on these animals as possible as I sweated in the swamps and backwoods of North Carolina with my “battle buddy” from Iraq, SGT Daniel Charles. Although the war ultimately derailed my childhood ambitions of being a scientist when my unit mobilized 3 years into my biology degree, I felt that being a science communicator through my videos was a noble endeavor.
After hosting and filming wildlife videos for a few years I eventually settled on the name “Catching Creation” and under that name I was able to use my passion to speak on my wartime experience and passion for wildlife in schools and churches offering a message of hope. I wanted people to look to their surroundings and be reminded of the wonder that was all around them. I needed people to know that healing could be as easy as a walk in the woods. My theory was if I infused my own passion and hope with messages of conservation, perhaps when someone saw a toad, they would remember a message about transformation and it could change their lives in a positive way.
I realized that by giving voice to these animals it drew on a strong parallel I was seeing in the veteran community. People groups or animals that often were maligned and painted in a negative brush were both created good and had purpose. They only needed to be seen in the correct light by a trained eye, like mine. My mission was to show that all veterans weren’t dysfunctional, we weren’t all broken, and oh yeah, all snakes weren’t bad.
My goal has always been to show not only the value of the outdoors but the complete healing power of a moment in nature. If you can slow down and watch the migration of marbled salamanders crawling to a temporary autumn wetland to breed, or the way a mother rattlesnake cared for her young the first week or so after she gave birth to them, it could possibly anthropomorphize these creatures in a way to at least elicit a second glance and perhaps spare the shovel to their heads. By showing these misunderstood animals I hoped to also show that as a veteran we can go on and contribute in a real way to society just by being ourselves and letting our passions shine through. Something that many people see as evil or dangerous also has an immense value in the ecosystem and as veterans we have the same value in our communities if we can get past the bad press.
On the ten-year anniversary of our deployment, I and a soldier I served with, Daniel, decided to compile the footage we shot from that deployment and combine it with current interviews with some of the men we served with for a documentary we titled “Hammer Down,” after our unit motto. That film was a whirlwind of steep learning curves and frustration. But in the end, it offered a way for many of us to see that we weren’t alone in how we felt about that deployment. I believe it positively affected many of the men from our unit and I know it was a catalyst to get several of us in PTSD counseling. It showed us that it was ok to ask for help and better still that we had a support network we could lean on. So in the end we weren’t as alone as we felt.
I wouldn’t trade my experience in the military for anything. I feel like in so many ways it prepared me for who I am today. I learned discipline and found a brotherhood, a family I had always longed for. I became a part of a very small group of Americans that not only served in their country’s time of need but went to war on its behalf. I am very proud to have served. I think the solo commando from my youth would approve of the choices I made.
Stan Lake is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker from Bethania, North Carolina. He enlisted in the North Carolina Army National Guard as a 13M MLRS crew member the week before September 11, 2001. He deployed to Iraq 2005-2006 with the 5-113th Field Artillery Regiment in High Point, NC in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and got out of the guard in 2007 after his first enlistment. He spends most of his free time knee deep in swamps chasing snakes and frogs with camera in hand. He currently works for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a claims processor. He’s been married to his wife Jessica for a little over a decade and they share their house with a myriad of animals. You can find his work at www.StanLakeCreates.Com