I have only ever worked for organizations that had causes that I believed in.
As a kid, it was the basics: treat others the way you would like to be treated, get involved and make a difference. My mom and grandparents taught us that. My mom dressed me and my brother, Jeremy, in blood soaked bandages, gave us crutches and pushed us in wheelchairs in protest to get a new crosswalk next to a busy highway near my local elementary school in Washington back in 1979. Yeah, she was one of “those” moms. She went to China back in the early 1980’s. We had a series of foster brother and sisters growing up. Entire families would stay with us when I was young.
My first job was in 1991 at the age of 16 when I was a sophomore at Winston Churchill High School in Eugene, OR. I got a job volunteering with Terri Raines at her wildlife rehabilitation center- “Cougar Country”. She had a fully grown female cougar, “Melina”, in a cage in her backyard in a quiet neighborhood off of River Road. She had a bobcat, raccoons, foxes and other mammals. She showed me how to capture wild animals and how to take care of them. It was grunt work but to get in a cage with a semi – wild bobcat was sure exciting. She taught me to captured wild animals, she nursed them back to health and then released them back into the wild. She was a great role model and I admired her. Wildlife rehabilitation and habitat conservation is a cause I believed in still to this day and that is where it comes from.
This was just a few months before she went to Australia when she met, entranced, captured and brought back to Oregon, her future husband – Steve Irwin. I went to their wedding 26 years ago in the church behind the old public library in Eugene. One of the first times I ever met Steve was at the New Zoo which was an event at a park between Eugene and Springfield in Oregon. It is a public event where various wildlife organization talk to the public and educate them about the animals. It was all going great until we went back to Steve’s hotel room at the Campus Inn in Eugene. It was Terri, Steve, a lady with a 10 foot python in a suitcase(i forget her name), Rita from Willamette Wildlife and myself. The woman with the snake in the suitcase rolls it to the bed and places the suitcase on the top and unzips it slightly to give the snake some air. Rita sits down next to the suit case . Rita is a wonderful woman that ran Willamette wildlife in Eugene. She works with birds mostly. So as I am looking across the room the python sticks its head through the hole and bites Rita on the abdomen. It was a big snake about 10 to 12 feet long. Rita smelled like birds. For the next 5 minutes it seemed I helped Steve pry the snake off of her with a tooth brush. That will sear right in your memory for life. I am sure Terri remembers. I know Rita sure does. I went to work for her years later at Willamette Wildlife and we talked about it. I worked for Terri’s Sister as a flagman over the summers. Terri asked me to go to Australia after high school and work at Australia Zoo, but instead ended up joining the US Marines in 1993.
That experience working with Terri and helping her rescue animals and working to educate the public taught me important life lessons. Like how to follow my heart to believe in a greater cause outside of myself for the greater good; thereby facilitating change. Exactly like my mom did. I never forgot those lessons.
I also carried those lessons and that passion forward with a sense of duty in the Marines. My military occupation specialty was MOS -1833 Amphibious Assault Specialist. I went to boot camp at the San Diego Marine Corp Recruit Depot. Stood in the yellow foot prints. I was placed in in Lima Company – Platoon 3063. From there I went to Marine Combat Training at Camp Pendleton. I then went to Camp Del Mar at Camp Pendelton for my MOS school. I pulled recruiting duty twice in between boot camp, MCT and MOS school.
At Camp Del Mar is where I met the one leader that influence me entire life. He was my crew chief at Amphibious Assault School. Sgt Justin LeHew. He was an iconic marine. It was his professionalism, honor, discipline, knowledge, work ethic and his character that is the US Marines. He was the type of US Marine on the poster on the recruiting office wall. Plain and simple. He influenced me greatly.
Sgt LeHew was the person that broke the news to me that my father had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. My Dad had called command and spoke to my commanding officer to get a message to me. Near the end of the training cycle once we graduated, we were given our permanent duty station assignments. I was supposed to be stationed on the West coast. I had received orders to be deployed to Camp Le Jeune North Carolina. further away from my father. Sgt. LeHew told me right away. He did not wait to tell me. They normally withhold that sort of information until right before you got deployed again with orders. He understood the gravity of my situation. My father of course, wanted me not to worry about him.
Sgt. LeHew as a role model that set me on a path of the person i am today. His matter of fact get shit done attitude no matter what the mission is to adapt overcome at all cost to complete the mission. Most importantly he taught me compassion within leadership.
I have never very forgotten that. Ever. I have thought about what he did for me for years. All that knew him would follow him to the gates of hell and back with that sort of leadership. I would have.
And he did, now Sgt. Major LeHew. TECOM Training & Education Command
That is him to the photo to the left that I have titled, “What is your major malfunction PFC Yielding?” was back in amphibious Assault School 1994. He was awarded the Navy Cross, Legion of Merit , Bronze Star (valor) and Meritorious Service Medal. Chesty Puller or Daniel Daly personified. Now in the final “Crucible” in US Marine boot camp is the LeHew Challenge. Part of the final test to become a US Marine. I will never forget the compassion he showed me personally. I am eternally grateful for what he taught me. He is as Simon Sinek puts it, one of those ” Johnny Bravo” type of people.
Here is a link to a pdf to his story in Star and Stripes. I can hear the tone of his voice in the quote in this story when he say’s ” We need to find who this leg belongs to.”
He was the most disciplined Marine I ever met.
I reported to my permanent duty station in Camp Le Jeune, North Carolina. Specifically at Court House Bay at the 2nd AAV Battalion with Alpha Company in 1st Platoon.
While in the 29 Palms during a Combined Arms Exercise in August of 1994, I sustained an injury to the left side of my skull and face. The left side of my face was shattered and underwent facial surgery to repair the orbit of my left eye. Plates and screws were required to put me back together again. There was a bright flash of light, I sustained a concussion and I have permanent double vision. I had other “changes” due to this injury that I did not notice for years.
The bones healed. I returned to regular duty in and was deployed on Operation Strong Resolve to Norway for a NATO operation to hold a exercise in the cold weather in the dead of winter.
We took our Amtracks loaded up with gear down to the beach and one my one drove straight into the ocean through the surf and out to the USS Shreveport. The back of the ship has a huge gate with a hollow space inside that you drive the Amtrack into the ship. It is called a well deck. We then spent weeks at sea crossing the Atlantic ocean. Sailed by the Azores towards Morocco and on to Rota Spain. We got off the ship for all of 20 minutes to have our commanding officer bend us in the Spanish dirt and run back on the ship. We went up the coast of Portugal and into the bay of Biscay off the coast of France and headed through the English channel. We went to the northern Atlantic in February… it was not smooth sailing. It was really cold once we landed in Sunndalsøra, Norway. The entire end of the fjord was frozen solid. The entire village came out to greet us. I took the photo below from my AAVP-7 whole in the drivers seat. Not many people get to invade Norway. It was a awesome experience.
Eventually a few years later, when i returned home my fathers disease had progressed to the point that her could not comb his own hair. He could no longer lift his arms. My brother took care of him. I petitioned to receive a humanitarian transfer in the Marines from my active duty station at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The transfer was to be closer to my father with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).
A few months after the transfer while stationed at the 4th Support Landing Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington, I was hit by a 18-wheeler commercial truck on I-5 at 55 mph while stopped in rush hour traffic. In a small hatchback car. The semi-truck’s front right tire landed behind the driver’s seat of my car. I crawled out of the wreckage and passed out on the hood of my car only after asking the guy I had been shoved into if he was “ok”. I started physical therapy and it was clear to me that I would not be able to return to my regular job as an Amphibious Assault Vehicle Crewman on a AAVP-7.
The 1996 flood in the Pacific Northwest happened as i was trying to recover from the initial car accident. I was working as a heavy equipment maintenance chief at the 4th Landing Support Battalion went we responded to the Nisqually Indian Reservation for the flood. The letter of recommendation from the tribal council I received is shown to the right It was one of the last things that I did in the Marines and one of the most memorable. My back was becoming more and more unstable. The USMC gave me a choice go back to Camp Lejeune or an Honorable Discharge. I knew it would be a long recovery with risks and would not allow for me to stay near my father, so I chose the latter. It was a hard choice.
Following my Honorable Discharge from the Marines. I underwent a spinal fusion to repair the damage to my spine in April of 1996. I almost died during surgery. I was stuck in a body brace used a walker moved in with my mom and used a cane for almost two years afterwards. It was not easy.
I realized that I could not perform a physical job due to my physical condition. I am still plagued by a vascular problem caused by the surgery and I had the double vision from the Marines. I decided to go to Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara in the fall of 1999. I thought I should try photography because it only required one eye to look through the view finder.
If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.