SSG Justin Bohannon (Army, OIF Veteran)
I think one of my favorite things about each veteran I cover, is how unique each individual is. We all come together in lock-step when it comes to the mission, the honor, sacrifice and integrity that goes into what we do. However, the backgrounds are all so uniquely different. It's a perfect picture of what America should look like. Different people, from different backgrounds, from different cultures, all coming together in solidarity to support the greatest cause in the world... freedom. I won't insert my opinion too much in this introduction other than to say, "Justin Bohannon is my brother." The fact that he's black does absolutely nothing to change that fact. Do I recognize that he has black skin? Well... I mean, it's kind of obvious. Do I recognize that he comes from a completely different culture than I do? Sure, but so did a lot of my white and hispanic friends in the Army. To pretend I know their perspective or even understand their vision of life, would be just plain foolish.
Justin texted me a couple days ago when I let him know his transcript would be ready soon, "Perfect timing my man haha." I was focused on the blog so I didn't realize what he meant until I was watching my Spurs play later that night. All of the players were wearing "Black History Month," t-shirts. I chuckled a bit. Is it ironic that the first black person I cover is a February project? I can assure you that wasn't part of the plan. But maybe, just maybe... the timing is perfect. What better man to give us his perspective this month than a young, successful black man that's built everything he currently has and served this country with honor? My actual goal was to leave race out of this blog, but the subject was hard to ignore. The day I covered Justin for the blog he was speaking at a Catholic Church summit meeting on the subject of racial tension, in lieu of the recent shootings where young black men were killed in police shootings. This blog isn't really about that summit but a couple of questions regarding that meeting were brought up throughout the course of the interview. Most of all, I was concerned with Justin the veteran infantryman. I wanted to get to the heart of him and his struggles during reintegration, while finding peace in the foundation of his successful non-profit, "Make A Vet Sweat." I'll let Justin take it from here.
Why did you join the Army?
JB: To be straight forward, I actually joined the Army because the Marine recruiter was an asshole. I talked to him two separate times because my oldest brother was a Marine. I was all about the Marine Corps because my oldest brother was a god to me. He went into the Marines and that’s what I wanted to be. But, things changed for me when the Marine recruiter was a dick. I went over to the Army recruiter and I told him I wanted to kill people so he signed me up for the infantry. It was the perfect match (laughs).
Can you talk about your time in the brotherhood of the Army and what that was like for you?
JB: Serving in the Army Infantry is one of the most unusually beautiful things ever. The unusual part is you have a whole bunch of high testosterone, alpha-male young adults mostly in the age range of 18-22. You’ve never seen true beauty until you’ve seen hardcore alpha males showing sensitivity and emotion to their brothers. That kind of love is an incredible thing that you know nothing about until you serve. Some of these moments come sober and some of them not so sober (laughs) but it’s always beautiful. It’s awesome to see people ready to die for the person on their right and left because of the brotherhood. Everyone’s coming from different backgrounds but you go through a lot together and during that time your trust grows for one another. It’s so incredible. The band of brothers mentality is by far the most unusual, beautiful thing I’ll ever experience.
What units did you serve with and how many deployments to where?
JB: I served for six years with the 101st Airborne out at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. I was assigned to an extremely prestigious unit called the Rakkasans. With that unit specifically I deployed two times to Baghdad, Iraq. I got recruitment orders when I got back to go to Glendale, Arizona where I was a recruiter for four years. When I finished my ten years, I got out and became a Texas National Guard Infantry Instructor.
Why is the brotherhood of the infantry so unique and how would you explain that brotherhood to a civilian?
JB: I think of the brotherhood of the infantry as gladiators. I think of it as the gladiator culture. I think of the man with a sword walking into the coliseum to face the other warrior with a sword. That’s the culture. Your entire environment as an infantryman is a whole bunch of guys that are the same exact way. You are constantly working to make each other better at getting home alive. You’re constantly trying to better yourself as a warrior. It’s an environment created with challenges in mind, competition is a constant, and rivalries aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
When it comes to training, sleeping, eating, and really the entire regimen; you know that it’s all built on being the best warrior. You might not come back home and the guy next to you might not come home. That lends itself to the strongest brotherhood anyone could ever imagine. There’s a mentality where you face the possibility of death and everyone is okay with that. I might see you in heaven, I might see you in hell, but we will all see each other again (laughs). If you die, at least you died doing something you love with the people you love the most.
So what was it like for you post-deployment and then getting out of the Army?
JB: Post deployment was tough because so much happens overseas that you don’t really process until you get back. When you’re overseas you don’t think about those things because your mind is constantly on the next mission. Our operational tempo was pretty damn high over there so there’s really not much time to think. I lost a really good friend of mine on a mission, Andrew Kemple, and I knew I had to move on right away. I didn’t have time to dwell on that. That’s part of the deal in being over there. You might lose some friends. I realized that and had to process it quickly and move on. There was no time to be weak, complacent, or feel sorry for myself. So you don’t really deal with any of those losses or pains while you’re over there if you want to be good at what you’re doing. I settled down when I got home, slept the deployment off, then I faced the things that hurt me over there.
Getting out of the military was another beast. Even the little things affect you. Something as simple as knowing you were getting paid on the 1st and 15th of every month. You take that for granted. Medical insurance, dental insurance, a roof over the head. All those things are taken care of. I had a job and I knew exactly where I was going every day. I had leadership that was always telling me where to be and what to do. All I had to do was actually go do what I was told. When I got out of the military, I specifically had an issue of the “what’s next?” While I was in the Army, everything was a countdown. You sign a contract and you know you have five years ahead of you. You go on deployment and you know you have a year ahead of you. You countdown constantly. You get back and you know you have a year before you’re going back to Iraq. Everything was a countdown to another countdown. You always knew there was something to do next.
When you get out of the Army, there’s no more countdown. Instead of that countdown mentality, you’re always looking forward wondering what’s next. That’s scary. What am I going to do? Where am I going to do it? Who the fuck am I? Who is Justin Bohannon? I wondered all those things when I left the service. For this huge part of my life I’m Staff Sergeant Bohannon with all my awards on my uniform and all my accreditations. I get out and all I am is Justin at the local community college taking some general elective that I don’t really care about. I lost my identity. The awesome thing is that my family was always encouraging me to create things moving forward. I always strive to create something greater than the present version of myself.
What do you remember about Andrew Kemple?
JB: Andrew was a fellow Rakkasan who passed away after being the target of a sniper. He was young and bound to be a great soldier and leader. He very quickly made the rank of corporal, he was a complete stud, and a strong leader doing the right thing out there for us. He amongst many drove me daily to save as many troops as we could, and most of those guys made it home.
What was the toughest thing for you in being overseas?
JB: My toughest moments overseas were when I realized how emotionally numb I was based off of how complacent I became. It was always tough when we lost someone. It gets really bad when you stop caring about your own life over there. There were moments when I’d get out of the truck and not want to put my kevlar on because I didn’t care. Even scarier than that was looking at my guys as a squad leader and watching them get complacent. I was always guarding against that. Being a leader in those situations is pretty nerve-racking.
What was the toughest thing about being in Iraq?
JB: Trusting people was the hardest thing in Iraq. You have to trust the information that’s given and it’s not always trustworthy. You have to trust that the interpreters are communicating correctly. There were five or six situations while I was in country with other units in our AO (area of operations) where an interpreter turned on our guys and shot one of them. I was aware of that all the time. Trusting people that weren’t soldiers over there was by far the most difficult thing for me.
What was the hardest part about deploying to Iraq?
JB: The hardest part of leaving for Iraq was leaving my family. I had the thought that if I died, I died. That’s part of going to a combat zone. As an infantryman, you learn to accept death as a possibility. But when it came to my family, daughter, and my girlfriend it just made things really hard. You hate seeing them worry all the time. You accept the fact that you may or may not come back but if you don’t, they’re going to be the ones to have to live with that. That’s tough.
Why is terrorism such a complex battle?
JB: It’s not a traditional fight obviously. Terrorism is a battle against an enemy that wears no uniforms. This isn’t Nazi Germany we are fighting against where the uniforms look completely different. You’re fighting against terrorists who are dressed like regular civilians. If you’re not from that part of the world it’s hard to distinguish who is Syrian, who’s Iranian, and who’s Palestinian. So back to the whole trust thing, you had to trust that the Iraqis you were dealing with would alert you as to who didn’t belong. Obviously, they could distinguish who was working against you and who was working with you.
You might see a woman that looks pregnant and she actually just has a bomb strapped to her. We had a situation over there where a woman blew herself up right in front of us and killed seven of our Iraqi counterparts. She looked pregnant to us but she was really carrying explosives. You can’t just attack everyone over there if you think they look dangerous. You have to police those situations and be very careful in your approach. It’s not traditional warfare.
What’s the toughest part about coming home?
JB: There’s a real sense of freedom when you’re overseas. You don’t have to deal with any of the politics. You don’t deal with anything that everyone is dealing with back here like those little points of drama. Birthdays are happening, relationships are being built, your kids are growing up and the only thing you remember is what you left behind. Things change and people change. You get back and so much is different. Coming back home to a new world is tough. Coming back to a wife or girlfriend who is used to you being gone for a year is tough. Thinking you can step back into that role right away is definitely a mistake. There’s a transition that goes both ways for both the deployed and the person left behind on deployment. Suddenly my kid had to get used to having that male, dominating presence around when I’d been gone for a year. Adjusting to that role was tough. Over there it’s easy. One shot, one kill… live to see another day.
Did you feel at all detached when you got back from deployment?
JB: Absolutely. I felt completely detached when I got back from that first tour of Iraq. I think military-wide when you get back from an overseas deployment you have a sense of depth to you that you can’t find in other people. There’s just a little more depth to someone who’s seen combat. You’ve seen things, done things, made incredibly tough decisions under stress, you roll with punches and have to make things happen. You’ll notice when you get back that regular civilians have never had to deal with those things. Even though PTSD is a thing that can happen to anyone, I don’t think the average civilian understands what PTSD is like. You don’t walk around in civilian society with a sense that you could die at any moment. When you’re overseas, that’s an every day reality. It can happen at any moment to any one of you or your guys. At the end of the day, that stress can help you handle day-to-day events much better. We need to learn to use that as a strength and not let it paralyze us.
ASK A VETERAN
This question is from Sarah C. of Rockford, PA. Sarah asks, "Did returning to your personal relationships differ from what you had anticipated?
JB: Yes! My girlfriend got married while I was gone (laughs). That's a pretty typical grunt story right there. All of my relationships were affected. My sense of humor and perspective of the world completely changed when I returned. Things got a little out of control and ultimately that's why I chose to remove myself from all of my social circles. I needed to work on myself. My family and friends definitely saw a difference in me. I was very quiet and to myself but I'd turn up (get aggravated) really quickly (laughs). To see death and be ready to accept with honor, changes your mentality entirely. It was an honor to go into combat though and defend my country. Only a very small percentage of people will understand what that's like.
Do you remember a particularly memorable moment in your time overseas where you felt like you were really helping others?
JB: I remember we were out on this bridge and there was a woman who was pregnant. We were suspect of course when it came to pregnant women because of some other incidents with explosives. But, she was bleeding all over the front of her dress. The interpreter explained to us that she was indeed pregnant. We were able to bring in a MEDVAC and utilize our resources to help her out. They got her to the hospital where she had her baby. That’s what it’s all about. Helping the people of that nation out and giving them a great impression of the United States Army. I felt really good about what we were doing. There were some situations where crossfire between us and insurgents left some people dead that probably shouldn’t have died. That whole community is upset so it’s really nice when we got to go in and do something positive for them. My second tour of Iraq was better in the sense of community involvement.
What was your mission when you were over there on that first tour?
JB: We were running the FOB that was over Saddam’s trials at the time. So, our primary job was security and making sure those trials went smoothly. They’d fly him from another base and the Special Operations teams would drop him off. It was actually a pretty cool job.
What does it mean to be a paratrooper and why is that so special?
JB: Obviously, the military tries to command the land, sea, and air. The best way to bring soldiers into a country is very often through the air. The ability to drop those guys in with a full combat load and have them ready for whatever operation may ensue, is an incredible capability. Jumping out of a plane is awesome. I was afraid of heights the first time and I still remember this Drill Sergeant I had from Seattle who was Jamaican. He says to me, “Alright, roster number 119 I’m going to kick you out on three.” He kicked me out on the count of two (laughs). I remember I screamed at first and then there was this awesome adrenaline rush. It’s such an incredible feeling. Being a paratrooper was a honor.
What’s your outlook on current cultural issues?
JB: My outlook is that America has failed other ethnicities for many years. The real elephant in the room is our history. It’s a history that we try to look past and brush aside. I’m not even talking about slavery necessarily. Let’s talk about everything post-slavery. If you were black you couldn’t marry a white woman, you were treated like a lesser being on public transportation, you couldn’t drink at the same water fountains. How many blacks and hispanics were blocked out of proper educations for a long time?
The counties, districts and communities are who fund public education. When you look at the majority of specific races, they are living in certain areas where education is lesser. The “bad” parts of our cities aren’t funded because there isn’t as much promise in those areas but how do you improve if you don’t have the opportunities in those areas? It’s a cycle. It’s easy for people to speak out about these situations that have never been in the cycle like I have. It’s very different when you’re actually in the cycle. My brother is APD (Austin Police Department) and we were having a big discussion on race. We got into the fact that it really hasn’t been that long since we weren’t even allowed to vote.
A lot of these issues are systemic problems now, just being passed along. They aren't as big of a problem now obviously as they used to be but they're still there. My grandparents still remember a lot of the restrictions we had going against us. My grandma was still alive when the Jim Crow laws existed. My parents were affected by the viewpoint. A white person’s grandparents nowadays had all the rights in the world. That mentality is passed down to their kids and then their kid’s kids. It’s a cycle. There are so many things that haven’t been fixed throughout the years that these problems become systemic. You can’t just say “the past is the past” if the past is still affecting part of today.
If you could tell your unit brothers anything what would you say?
JB: If I could tell my fellow Rakkasans anything, it would be that you can be whatever the hell you want to be in this world. Just because you served in a particular MOS that doesn’t dictate the rest of your life. Create your potential, create your life, and create your own destiny. Don’t constrain yourself to what you did in the military. Look at yourself and figure out how you can reach your maximum potential. Form a plan of attack and go after that potential. Utilize that potential to make America a better place.
What were your experiences like as far as racism went in the Army?
JB: What I noticed in the Army was that there were so many people from different places with so many different backgrounds. My grandpa served in the Air Force throughout Vietnam and he gave me some incredible advice. He said, “Ya know Justin, there are people who will serve with you who’ve hardly seen a black person in their life. You have to be that living example to them so moving forward they’ll know how great we can be. If you give them a good example, they’ll be the first to stick up for you if you need them.” I always served with that perception. Where I noticed a lot of other black guys react differently to certain situations, I saw everything as a learning experience, not as a negative experience. It’s all about mentality.
I remember one time we drove to a friend’s place in Kentucky and that wasn’t the best idea. This friend of ours who was white drove us to this spot. There were four or five situations where the people at this party would say “hi” to them but not to us black guys. They got served first and we’d still be waiting to order. Instead of taking that experience negatively, I was just grateful for the military and how race wasn’t a big deal to the guys in my unit. The rest of the world may not see things that way, but my Army brothers operate at a higher standard. So I can say that I didn’t have a whole lot of negative experiences in the military regarding racism but then again my attitude was always in the right place. There were a lot of things I could’ve taken as racist. The fact is we can pretend that the Army is all about the uniform but it’s hard to change a guy’s mindset when he’s lived twenty years a certain way. Basic training isn’t going to change that mentality.
I had a friend in recruiting school who would always say the most offensive, obnoxious things. He was infantry so you already know what that’s like. The stuff he said he didn’t mean to say it in that way but it was extremely offensive. I had a bunch of other black guys walking up to me telling me they were going to whoop his ass, but I told them they’d have to get through me first. He served in Iraq with me and he had my back. While he said some things that were definitely out of line, I knew where his heart was and I knew he loved me.
Talk about the superhero mantra that gets attached to soldiers through the civilian world.
JB: I think it’s true and I think they should. I think when you think of a superhero you think of someone that stands for the weak, defends the country, someone that puts their life in harm’s way to protect things that are greater than them like a civilization or way of life. I mean just look at what you have with The Veterans Project. All of the guys you’ve covered so far have incredible stories and have done some heroic things. So, they are all superheroes to me. They’ve all gone out of their way to better the world.
What are the biggest issues with veteran suicides and how do we make a change in this area?
JB: There are a lot of issues with veterans and suicide. The highest percentage of suicides are amongst those who never served overseas. Factors that lead to these suicides are substance abuse and sometimes neglect. The highest rate of suicide are those who’ve never been to the VA or those who’ve only been once for help. Those who feel like they’re not valuable are the ones killing themselves at the greatest rate. There’s this misnomer that if you haven’t served in combat, you’re not a veteran. I’ve done two tours during some very hot times in Iraq and I can tell you if you’ve served 180 days on the active duty side, you’re a veteran.
I’m going to treat you as a brother if you’ve signed your name on the dotted line, regardless of your time overseas. A lot of these guys don’t feel worthy of the moniker of veteran, yet they carry a lot of the same baggage that we do just from their time in the military and getting out to a society that’s not always so welcoming. What these statistics tell me is that the biggest problem isn’t the combat time. The biggest problem is guys getting out of the military and feeling lost. They don’t know how to reintegrate. The Army needs to be better preparing guys for that transition, and we need to do a better job of preparing ourselves as we leave the service.
What was Justin Bohannon like before the Army?
JB: Before the Army I was a troubled youth. I was a daddy’s boy whose daddy was never around. I was a middle child so I always kind of felt left out, like the oddball of the group. As far as talent went, I always felt like my brothers and sisters were much better at everything. I was just a hard worker and I built myself upon my own ability to keep working in order to get what I wanted. I was admittedly a bit of a shit-bag growing up though. I didn’t feel like people cared about me so I didn’t care about how I was acting.
My mom raised all five of us under one roof by herself. She was a very hard worker. My grandfather was a very prominent figure in my life as well. He was a pastor at a church for 32 years as well as a veteran. My mom did the best that she could with what she had. I always had the clothes I needed and I was always fed. I might not have had new things ever (laughs) but I didn’t need all that. Everyone in my house played sports and we were all very competitive. I learned so much from my older brothers in their failures and successes as athletes. I was able to grow from watching their decisions in life.
Who’s your support team when you’re having bad days?
JR: My brother Jeremy and his wife Lissett always lift me up when I’m down. My mom’s always there for me too. Those three specifically are amazing. I talk to them quite often when I’m having down times. I’ll be straightforward though and tell you I don’t have many bad days anymore. I absolutely love my life and everything about it. It’s hard to be down when I’m constantly seeing improvements through "Make A Vet Sweat" and my personal training. When you’re giving back to others you don’t focus on yourself too much. I don’t really have bad days anymore. When I was going through my rough times before I was giving back to others, I wasn’t talking to anyone. Well, actually I was talking to Jack Daniel’s… and Jameson… he was a badass too (laughs). Those days are no more, though.
So how can fitness benefit the veteran community?
JB: Fitness itself is one of the most naturally therapeutic treatments for a lot of different ailments. The main aim of what we are doing with “Make A Vet Sweat,” is to combat PTSD. When you look at the symptoms of PTSD like anger, aggression, isolation, social anxiety, depression, insomnia and appetite there are fixes for these symptoms. Research shows that working out combats each of those individual symptoms. Fitness and working out pushes your endorphins, changes your mindset, mood and charges you up for the rest of your day. When I look at the veteran community, I see a lot of minds that have been tainted by the rigors of combat. Even though working out is a physical thing, it has a huge connection to your mentality and spirituality. By improving your physicality you're improving those other things as well. I believe that fitness can completely change our community and heal many of those affected by PTSD, in a natural, holistic way.
How do we build a bridge between the civilian and veteran communities?
JB: We build a bridge between civilians and veterans by doing exactly what you’re doing right now. You’re forcing veterans to think about their lives and talk about their experiences. Veterans don’t talk enough. I think we get into our little shell and we get way too inclusive. We stick to our fellow veterans and never venture outside of that shell. We don’t talk about our experiences, the goods, the bads, and the uglies. The more we talk, the more I think we will feel better about opening up. It’s okay if people want to judge you. Let them judge you. We need to talk if we want to heal.
Why is there particular pride in the Raakasan flag?
JB: There’s always going to be the rivalries between the Marine Corps Infantry and the Army Infantry. Most of us are internally very competitive, especially in the infantry. The Army in particular really, really has a major emphasis on unit pride and pride within yourself and your own career. In the Army, unlike the other branches, we wear all the patches from all the schools we go to, on our chest. We wear our rank and we wear where we deployed to. We like to show pride in our uniform and our accomplishments. When you talk specifically about the Rakkasans, we are the most prestigious unit within the Army.
WWI they started the Rakkasans as a glider unit. There was this concept of an airborne unit without necessarily having all of the equipment. We were glider testers. I mean think about how dangerous and experimental that was (laughs). Then from there this unit has been involved in every single major conflict, to include being the first American unit to step on Japanese soil in WWII which is how we got the name “Rakkasans.” It was an airborne mission, we jumped in, and the Japanese would should, “Rakkasans!” which meant “falling down umbrella.” We adopted the name and the Tori, which in Japanese culture symbolizes the gateway to honor. I'm very damn proud of my time with the Rakkasans.
What about being a personal trainer is therapeutic for you?
JB: It’s hard to be depressed, down, or sad when you’re giving back to others. I just read this quote. “You make a LIVING based on what you get, but you make a LIFE based on what you give.” There’s something about helping others and watching others succeed through your help, that’s so satisfying. I love being able to assist others in their life and watch them accomplish more than they'd ever imagined.
My introduction to Justin was through Donny O'Malley, who I'd covered for the project during one of the Irreverent Warrior "Silkies Hikes." Justin's overwhelming passion and bravado kind of smacked me in the face. I could instantly see there was something different about him and I was inclined to learn more. His positivity was instantaneously recognizable and I could tell it wasn't even slightly forced. Donny quickly let me know how imperative it was that I cover him.
Justin is black and I am white. Those are facts, but this distinction matters very little in a combat zone. I remember walking out of the summit after a long, intense discussion over racial tension and smiling at Justin as he smiled back. Most of the people in that summit would never understand the closeness of our bond. There are certain aspects of Justin's life I will never understand, just as there are certain aspects of mine that he will never understand. The most important particulars of our moral code are what tie us together as brothers. We both stood for something bigger than ourselves and at the end of the day, we stood together overlooking our country's imperfections and scars. We both stood ready to defend that which was, and still is, most important to us... our freedom. That type of bond is surely sacred and something that absolutely transcends the bounds of skin color, cultural backgrounds, even ideologies. There will always be some degree of tension in our nation, continued racism, bigotry, hatred of others, just as we find in all of humanity. The important thing in our nation and the bond that makes our country so beautiful is something that's been carried on the backs of men like Justin. These men are the young warriors who've accepted the possibility of a violent death at the hands of an enemy who wants to destroy everything we hold dear. Justin Bohannon is my brother and will be forevermore.
Big thanks to Orange Theory Fitness for letting me hangout for Justin's training session, thanks to Big Tex Gym, and Marriott Resorts for letting me photograph. Follow Justin's work with his non-profit @makeavetsweat on Instagram.