Perspectives: Serving proud in distant lands

April 13, 2016

A group of six current and former military personnel shared their experiences and insights in serving overseas to a group of Heartland students and employees.

The panel, moderated by Liberal Arts and Social Sciences chair Tom McCulley, offered attendees an educational experience on what it’s like to serve overseas in a culture that’s different from life in the United States. Panelists included:

  • Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Bonesz
  • Lieutenant Colonel James Hubbard (retired)
  • Sergeant Dale Day
  • Sergeant Kyle Rinkenberger
  • Specialist Lindsey Cotner
  • Specialist Logan Gustafson

Students submitted questions ahead of time on a range of topics from overseas living conditions to the benefits of serving in the military. Having come from different branches of the military and encountering unique experiences, each panelist was able to offer their own perspectives.

Choosing a Military Branch

When he was 16, Sergeant Day became interested in the Marine Corps after working with two marines in a lumber yard. “There was something about the way those guys carried themselves that stood out to me,” he said. “I wanted to be like them, find my life purpose and prove my worth.”

Another marine, Sergeant Rinkenberger, joined after watching the World Trade Towers fall on 9/11. “I needed a life change and the world was changing at that time,” recalled Rinkenberger.

Lieutenant Colonel Hubbard was looking for a job to pay off his student loans when he stumbled upon the Air Force. “In 1982 there was ‘Reaganomics’. A lot of money was going into the service and they were looking for engineers,” he told the crowd. “I had the degree and was looking for experience. I planned to stay for five years and ended up with a 24-year career.”

Life Overseas

Overseas deployments for the panelists included Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Japan. Students were curious to know how the panelists adapted to life away from home.

In terms of accommodations, panelists agreed, “It was no Holiday Inn.” Living quarters included anything from a dry river bed to tent cities. Lieutenant Colonel Bonesz recalled during his second tour of Iraq, conex boxes (military shipping containers) were turned into housing units. For others like Specialist Cotner, her facilities had time to develop. “I got to Afghanistan in 2010. By then, there were restaurants and nicer living quarters.”

Culture was another major element to adjust to when away from home. Specialist Gustafson experienced culture shock while serving as a prison guard for Guantanamo Bay. “I was a 19 year old from Bloomington, Illinois working with some of the world’s most dangerous people. It was definitely something to get used to.”

Panelists also revealed what they missed most while they were deployed. Sleep, hot showers and family were all top mentions. Lieutenant Colonel Bonesz gave a one-word response: freedom.

Lieutenant Colonel Hubbard elaborated, saying, “In America, we have lots of opportunities and things we can enjoy. Other countries don’t have that. There are a bunch of things we take for granted.”

No matter how good or hard life overseas was, Sergeant Day said you had to focus on the mission. “As soon as you sign on the dotted line, you’re government property,” he commented. “Whatever means were necessary to meet the mission, that’s what you had to do. Expect the worst and rejoice in the best that comes.”

For What It’s Worth

It was a unanimous “yes” when McCulley asked the panelists, “Was it all worth it?”

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything," said Sergeant Rinkenberger. “It made me who I am today.”

The panelists agreed that no matter what experiences they had to go through, there’s great benefit to being in the military. Among them were discipline, unique skillsets, long-term employment opportunities and respect.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits is the comradery and connectedness among military personnel.

“The men and women you serve with become your family,” said Lieutenant Colonel Bonesz. “It’s a bond that’s never broken.”

Sergeant Day agreed. “It’s a family across all generations and time.”

Written by: Becky Gropp