Connection after Air Force

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Writing students Tyler Digiacomo, Dan Gadzinski, Elena Hensel, Nathan Oprinca, and Jenny Evan interviewed Air Force veteran Eric Wuestenberg.

As my senior year in high school was coming to a close, I was beyond excited to enlist in the Air Force and serve our country. I was a decent athlete in high school, but my grades were not all that great. I was never really interested in school. I just didn’t apply myself. Being a 1.9 GPA student, going to college was not even something that I even really looked at as an option or was even interested in. As I and my close friends on my football team, who also had poor grades, were thinking beyond high school, the Marine Corps was where we were headed. I first was interested in the Marine Corps in the 10th grade. They would send stuff to my house; recruiters would come over and all that. I had taken the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, on which I scored very high. I got a 92 out of 100. This led to the Air Force calling and saying that I could do whatever job that I wanted to. And of course, I wanted to look tough in front of my football friends, so I couldn’t do a job like handing out towels or working in the chow hall. So that is exactly what I told my Air Force recruiter. I told him, “If I want to go to the Air Force, I can’t just do a job that my friends are going to look down upon.” He then told me that he had a couple of example jobs for me, one being EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). I was going to be in a bomb suit diffusing bombs while my Marine Corps buddies were going to be shooting guns in infantry. That, for me, was absolutely perfect. I knew that all my friends would be jealous of me and my toughness. The EOD is what lead me to the Air Force. The majority of my associates in high school went into service of some form – whether it was being a police officer, a firefighter, or the military. After a few years most of my friends that went into the Marine Corps got out, but I stuck with it. I absolutely loved the Air Force. And the EOD is what lead me there.

At the start of my journey, at basic training, everything was pretty easy. I mean, boot camp was boot camp. It wasn’t really anything too difficult, I think. Anyone that’s gone through military basic training will tell you it’s not as tough as you thought it was gonna be. That really wasn’t resilience, but for me it came in when I got to Tech School. EOD has a washout rate of 97% so right out the get-go I had to learn how to do everything that was thrown our way. We entered the class with 100, but only three graduated. They would have us in the lab diffusing bombs for 72 hours straight. During that time, they would try to stimulate work stresses by playing loud noises, so we would be ready for the actual field. They can’t have a bomb tech out there that’s going to crack under pressure. You’ve got lives of Air Force men and women at stake, so my attention to detail has to be off the charts.

Most military folks will say, “Uh yeah, I did two tours in Iraq,” which are about nine months to a year in length. EODs deploys more than other MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). I did 112 tours that were six to eight weeks in length. So you’re deployed and then you’re back on base often, to stay as fresh as possible. They don’t want you out there defusing bombs for nine months straight. Your body can’t take that type of beating. It’s difficult for your family to get used to the fact that you’re gone so much. Most of the base would be gone for nine months, but I would be coming and going six times in that time frame.

I think what surprised the most is the different combat situations and different weaponry. With improvised explosive devices, you never know what you’re going to come across to disarm: Pressure plates, cell phones, pressure cookers, etc. There was no normal.

Afterward, I was cross-trained in ammo to build weapon systems and different explosive devices. It was interesting, but I would go back and forth between the two career fields. Sometimes I would go on a nine-month deployment as an ammo troop, and then do a rotation as an EOD guy.

I’d say the last thing I faced was being a single parent in the military. I had a supervisor, who in a kinda joking way, said, “You know, if the military wanted you to have a family, they’d issue you one.” They certainly don’t issue single parents in the military. You can’t join the military as a single parent. You have to be married or give up your parental rights to either your parents or find somebody that could take over. They set up the military not to have single parents for a reason. Having a child that was solely dependent on me, while I did some of the most dangerous work in the military, was difficult, not only to myself, but my child, who had to go back and forth between my parents while I was deploying.

I served for a total of 13 years, 6 months, and 11 days. I do not know the hours and minutes, but I could probably calculate it. I was medically retired just shy of 14 years, and it was probably one of the most difficult things I had ever gone through in my lifetime. While I was still in high school the anticipation of going into the Air Force was killing me; I thought to myself, “When is it coming, when is it coming?” Waiting for my 18th birthday (August 4th) and by August 8th, I was gone. That was all I had ever done was the Air Force. It was about a two-week notice between when I was notified of my pending retirement and being processed out of the Air Force. I was ill prepared for medical retirement; I had anticipated serving for at least 20 plus years. What caused me to retire was explained to me as “I was too broke to serve.” The repeated tours had taken a toll on my body, and I was no longer as efficient as I once was. They tried to guilt you into retirement or at least to not try and fight retirement. There are not a lot of EODs that are Master Sergeants in the Air Force. You have to have someone who is combat ready and is capable of quick deployments. With me being basically sidelined, I was taking up a slot, which meant the other folks that are serving in my capacity would have to serve more often because I was unable to. When they put it that way to you, you don’t want someone else have to pick up your slack. “Look, all your counterparts are having to do more rotations because of you not being able to, and with you retired we can have someone else step up and fulfill your role, and they rotate the same amount.” Realistically, I suppose it’s not true the way they tell it to you, but at least that is how they sell it to you. That’s the last thing somebody in the military wants is to force someone else to pick up their slack. I am supposed to carry my own weight. So that’s how they do military retirement; at least, that’s how it was for me. It was a blessing in disguise for me really being a single dad. My son was just about to start elementary school, so you know it was time.

Once I got out, I figured I would just go into business management of some sort, and I would just manage people. At the point of my retirement, my role in the military involved managing 200-250 young men and women, so I figured I could just slide into a business management role. However, when I retired in 2009, the economy had tanked and there was a lot of competition for positions. Almost everywhere that I interviewed during the two weeks before my official retirement wanted education behind my experience.

Then, one day, I was having lunch at a Subway in Abilene, Texas, and a guy pulls up with a fancy car, wearing a fancy suit. He said he was in finance, so I ended up going to school for business and finance. Coming out of the University of North Texas and getting into the finance market, I made a ton of money lending money. I was able to buy the fancy suit and drive the fancy car, but there was something missing. The sense of duty and commitment to serving others that I had in the military wasn’t there, and I missed it terribly.

While working in finance, it wasn’t always huge conglomerates or big hospitals; small business loans were our bread and butter. Every day someone would come in wanting to start up a business, and a lot of the people I worked with were veterans. Veteran-owned businesses were a big push around 2009 or 2010 and, every time I lent money to a veteran, I would lend them money at no cost. Basically, whatever the bi-rate was, I sold it as-is and made zero commission. Our division supervisor came up to me and asked why I was doing so well, but not making commission on certain deals. I explained to him that they were family. Every veteran who walked in was family, and I wasn’t going to make commission on family. What he told me still sticks with me today; he said, “If you can’t make money off of your family, who can you make money off of?” It was then I realized that finance was not what I wanted to do. All the money in the world, but I worked a lot of hours and didn’t really get to see my son. I didn’t have that sense of family; my connection to veterans was missing.

Not long after, a friend of mine who worked for Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency contacted me. He said they needed the experience I have and my sense of commitment to serve. So, I came up to Michigan and interviewed. I didn’t realize I was going to be tied to schools at all. I just thought I was helping veterans, but I didn’t care what the salary was. After two years in the Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency, I made my way over to take over the Veteran Support Services at Oakland University. Now I get that sense of duty, commitment, and service that I missed.

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