In the US, Veterans Day is dedicated to honoring all military veterans who served in the Armed Forces.
Today, we extend our gratitude to all veterans and their loved ones, for their service and sacrifices. We are especially thankful to all of our Ridezilla Veterans. Ridezillas JD, Shawn, and James have been kind enough to share their experiences and insights below for us to learn from, appreciate, and celebrate on this special day.
What’s in your back pocket? Special Forces. Major JD Higginbotham (retired), Green Beret
When were you drafted or when did you enlist? During the fall of 1980.
How did you tell your family and friends that you were joining the service? My dad had been in the Navy for over 20 years and I wasn’t sure he would be happy that I joined the Army so I kept my enlistment a secret initially. About 2 weeks before I left for basic training my mother figured it out!
What were some of the reasons that you joined? How did you choose your branch of service? I knew when I joined that I wanted to be the “demolitions guy” on a Green beret team so that meant Army for me. Not sure how I settled on demolitions specifically (rather than commo or medic). It was probably a residual idea from watching the Green Berets movie starring John Wayne!
How did you imagine military life before you joined? How did your perceptions change after serving? I grew up as a Navy dependent watching a lot of war movies (WWII and Vietnam) so I had a fair idea of what military life would be like. After serving a while I realized just how big a machine the military was and how many various options were available. On one path, I could become a hardened warrior, on another, I could be a Controller (accountant) and on yet another, I could be a ski instructor all while being paid by the Army!
What was basic training like? I spent my freshman year of high school at a military boarding school in Virginia so going to basic was a little like going back to school! I was disappointed that many of the other trainees in basic really didn’t want to be there and their actions or inactions resulted in unwanted consequences for the rest of us.
Can you describe a funny moment from boot camp? I learned early after arriving that if you went to chapel service on Sundays and sang in the choir, you could avoid the chores in the barracks that everyone else was doing and you got fed! So, after a few weeks, I recruited others to join me. Before the 16 weeks, basic training ended, we were part of the largest all men’s choir in the world (with over 500 participants each week)!
What are some of the things you remember about adapting to military life? In the Army I got up early every day! Before then I had been a night owl and slept in late most mornings!
Where did you serve during the war? The closest I came to war was serving a year in Haiti restoring democracy.
If you deployed overseas, how did you tell your loved ones you were being deployed? Serving as a Green Beret meant frequent deployments and it didn’t matter if it was overseas, out-of-state, or on a training area on the back side of Ft. Bragg, I was away from home in each case and this was before cell phones so I couldn’t even phone home! My family was used to my hectic schedule.
How did you stay in touch with family and friends back home? While in Haiti, we were able to drive to Port-au-Prince 2 to 3 times a month where I could stand in a long line to get on a phone call home.
What are some things you remember most about your deployment? My wife was home without my help and the two oldest children went through a case of chickenpox!
Can you describe how you felt coming home from combat? Fortunately, I was never in any direct combat.
Is there someone you served with that you remember fondly? While serving I grew very close to many men because we were keeping each other motivated and fighting a common enemy (whether it was the drill sergeants in basic or the drug cartel overseas). But those men were re-deployed to other stations and we grew apart. I still have good memories of them but don’t have contact any longer.
What are some fun things you and your friends did together while you were deployed? One day while deployed in Haiti, my team and I were allowed 24 hours of R&R. We took the day to go to a private beach that belonged to one of the Caribbean cruise lines (that had stopped making port calls). Some locals showed us how to get in, arranged to have some fishermen prepare a huge meal for us (including locally harvested lobster) and we spent the day cliff diving, swimming, and laying in the sun! The entire day cost us about $50 (for the whole group!).
Did you ever get caught breaking any rules? In Special Forces, we had a saying, “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying. If you get caught, you aren’t SF!” So, you can appreciate that I always understand how to break rules, know how to do it without getting caught, and would never admit that I actually did break any rules!
When did you leave the military? What was that process like? During the week before Thanksgiving one year while stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC I was spending time with my parents. Out of the blue, their phone rang, and it was my commander. (I still don’t know how he found my dad’s phone number!) He told me that I needed to come in for a briefing, pack my combat gear, and be ready to deploy the next day! Sure enough, I flew to Miami the next day and participated in a planning effort to evacuate US and allied citizens from a South American country with whom we did not have diplomatic relations at that time. The plan grew into a multi-national, multi-service effort with the Navy launching Army helicopters from aircraft carriers to fly to numerous landing points to pick up civilians then take them to an airstrip where airplanes from both the US and other Air Forces would fly them out. Three days into the planning, the team realized we did not know enough about the airstrip that we intended to use so it was decided that I would deploy there early with two others and we would fill in the intel gaps, then I would initially be the ground commander. We briefed a host of officials from numerous countries on Wed of Thanksgiving week and fortunately at the end, we’re told the conditions in this country had calmed down enough that we were not going to execute the plan. We were released to return home. I was able to get the last seat on a plane back in time for Thanksgiving dinner and really had something to give thanks for. But I also realized that this would not be the last time such a scenario would happen as long as I stayed on active duty in Special Forces. So, after considering my wife and four children, I decided to transition off of active duty.
First, we moved out of Army housing into a nearby civilian community. Then I left active duty but immediately joined the National Guard. I got a job as a bank comptroller but was still living amongst military folks and most of my social circles included people still on active duty. The biggest shock for me was moving to the Bay Area where there are not nearly as many military or ex-military people. I have seen increased respect and appreciation for the military in this area over the past 20 years, but it has not always been that way.
What were your first few months out of the service like? After coming to the Bay area in Feb 2000, I spent another 3+ years in the Army Reserve. I finally retired for good in 2003 after serving 23 years. As America was in the middle of sending more troops to Afghanistan at the time, the first few months for us was like a great burden had been lifted off our family. Particularly, because our youngest child had been born in August that year with Cerebral Palsy and he was still in the NICU at Stanford. It was good to know that this time, I would be home to help with this new challenge!
Do you have advice for others transitioning out of the military? Keep your military service in your back pocket (like a good knife – it will serve you for years to come) but don’t be a one-trick pony. Most companies don’t need the military skills you developed (still haven’t found any companies that care that I can make a bomb out of things under the sink!) so you must be able to adapt and provide value where they need it. Your discipline, willingness to go the extra mile, and ability to go for days without food or sleep without complaining will give you an edge over all others. But if you feel you need to constantly remind people that you are ex-military, or you are critical of others who don’t act like your buddies in the military, you are going to struggle to fit in outside the military.
How do you think your time in the military affected you? It taught me how to push on when my body is screaming to quit. It taught me the powers of observation and the understanding that nothing is impossible if you work hard together with other skilled and motivated people.
What did you learn about yourself? I can! Often when looking in the mirror as a scrawny teenager or trying to play sports I did not come to that realization!
What phrase or word will never be the same now that you served? “Lombardi time” – if you don’t arrive at least 5 minutes early, you’re late! and I will never say “I’m too tired to keep going!”
Is there anything you wish civilians understood about military service? Ex-military people often make some of the best employees. Try to hire them when you have a chance.
What are some habits you developed in the service that you like? Discipline, endurance, working hard without complaining. What are some that you dislike? Eating too fast (like I’m still in the mess hall at basic training) and waking up at the slightest noise at night!
What are some things you miss about being in the service? Knowing what I am going to wear each day! 😊
What are some things you are glad to have left behind? Sleeping on a bunk bed in an open bay with a bunch of other guys!
A perspective for you to take beyond Veterans Day…Major Shawn Higbee, USAF
The one thing I’d like to share with my fellow Ridezillas is simply HOW to think about service in the military (at least in the US). First, it’s a pretty rare thing. Only about 1% of the population does it in our country, given that it is a 100% volunteer force it’s kind of amazing how few people even know someone in the military. Second, people who serve are in most cases committing several years of their lives to whatever the elected leadership of our country thinks should happen to protect our society. Oftentimes in return, they get education or job skills, healthcare, etc, but essentially they agree to disrupt their lives and families, to move to places they might not otherwise choose to live, to live with a lot of rules, possibly take a risk with their life, and participate in violent things that honestly polite society would rather not think about.
There are lots of cases where this turns out really well – for me I got an amazing education, had incredible jobs, got amazing leadership experience, and economic opportunity. While it’s always nice to have people on Veterans Day say “thanks for your service” – honestly, I am not the one you should be thanking. I have a great job, I am healthy, I never experienced combat, and I had a great outcome from my service.
Let’s talk for a second about the cases where it doesn’t go as well. When you see someone who is homeless on the corner with a sign in their hands saying they are a Vet and asking for a dollar, or whatever…Here is the reality you need to understand – the risk factors for becoming homeless are EXACTLY the risk factors for ending up in the military. Generally speaking, the military is full of young people looking for a better life, a better economic outcome, possibly a better home, a better education, and a sense of belonging. There is a wide distribution of outcomes after service – the military in many cases actually affords people better outcomes when they go back to society than they otherwise would have had, and this is to say nothing of the clear sacrifice of those who lost their lives, their limbs, their friends in this abstract thing called “service to our country.”
While serving in the military is a complicated personal choice, and the ethics of being involved in the conflict are also very complicated, how we as a civil society relate to people who have served is actually quite simple.
When you see that person on the street corner, who possibly had a far more physically and emotionally demanding experience in their 20’s than you might have – and that person wasn’t able to create as successful of a life outcome – I want you to appreciate the fact that they made the rare choice to spend time in service to the country you live in. They willingly entered a social contract to give all of us a piece of their youth, to take risks with their lives, and their future.
The socially appropriate thing to do when you see that homeless vet standing on the street corner, whether its Veteran’s Day or any random Tuesday is to take ten seconds, look them in the eye and just say “hey thanks for serving” or ask “what branch were you in, were you stationed overseas?”
While you are at it, don’t be embarrassed to give them 5 bucks either. The veterans who had the GREAT outcome are the ones you already work with every day and frankly, it’s a good thing you didn’t even know we were here because remember we are the ones that HAD the great outcome. The person who is humbling themselves publicly, years later, with scars that might be hidden as you walk by, is the one who needs your thanks and support. I would invite you to pause and share with that person whatever gesture of respect comes to mind at that moment – even if it takes some fumbling to get words out.
This is a stunning conclusion to 12 years in the Air Force
Happy Veteran’s Day!
Major Shawn Higbee, USAF
Controlling your life’s destiny, even when serving is not optional. Sergeant James Choi, R.O.K. Special Forces.
Republic of Korea Army Special Forces “Black Berets” (R.O.K. Special Forces), is a military command of the Republic of Korea Army responsible for their special operations forces. ROK Special Forces brigades work in close relationship with their US Army Special Forces counterparts.
In other words, JD’s and James’ units trained and conducted missions together.
All men in Korea must serve mandatory military duty. Although it was mandatory, I had to assure myself I was the one who took charge of my life. Hence, I chose to apply the Republic of Korea Army Special Forces Airborne Division in 2013 July. Everything was far from comfortable. I had to be highly disciplined, both physically and mentally, to follow the training and adjust to the group that labels themselves as “special.” Sometimes, the series of unending challenges almost made me give up. But, I had to persevere even in the most difficult of situations and to push one more time for not only caring for myself but also my comrades. I miss those days sometimes, yet I never want to go back.
During my service, I received the top rank in the special force physicals, became a licensed parachute-jumper, and carried out peacekeeping operations in South Sudan as the translator to carry the United Nations Mission. I can proudly say that all of these challenged me to overcome myself. Especially in South Sudan, I realized that most of this world is not like peaceful South Korea or the U.S. and that a lot of valuable, kind lives are facing serious life-threatening problems. I finally developed the desire to be a person who can make a positive change in this world. After being discharged, I was not able to return to my old self.