JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. — As I sit in my freshly furnished apartment in Hampton, Virginia, I think back on my first year of being in the U.S. Air Force asking myself, why am I here?
The 30th anniversary of Desert Storm was Jan. 17, 2021, and I have come to the quick realization that my biggest motivation for joining the military in the first place was my father, former Staff Sgt. Larry Shanes of the U.S. Marines.
I always wondered what motivated and pushed him to join the military, but the one question I constantly ask myself is, “Who was Larry Shanes before he was ‘Dad’?”
He served in the early 1990s during the Gulf War, but more specifically Desert Storm. I realized I didn’t know much about my father’s job.
My father was not adamantly driven to join the Marines, so he had to evaluate his options.
“I was talking to both Air Force and Marine recruiters at the same time, and the Marines could get me out of town sooner — he had a better job for me — the avionics guaranteed contract because of my ASVAB scores,” my father said. “The Air Force guy had me fixing helicopters, which I didn’t want to do, but it was the only job they could guarantee me. Plus, I was leaning towards the Marines anyway just because I wanted to be the best.”
He would go onto working in avionics, which was called aviation electronics — anything with a wire going to it on the OV10-Bronco as part of the Fixed Wing Marine Observation 1 (VMO-1) unit. Unbeknownst to him, his new unit would play an important role in Desert Storm
The forward-air-control plane was responsible for flying around the battlefield with a ground officer in the back, communicating with the troops and directing fire and troop movements.
While talking to him about his experiences and trying to put myself in his combat boots, it’s almost as if I can feel what he felt during that time. He said that he experienced similar feelings of realization while deployed.
“I think it was the ‘surrealness’ of us doing the exact job we had been trained to do back in the States,” my father said. “But now, we were in a combat situation to do it. They were slinging several scud missiles that flew over base; we had to go in bunkers. I know that was the real thing we had trained for. I mean that’s what you’re trained for in the military, right? Break stuff and do your job. But you don’t really realize you’re going to do it in combat until you’re standing there in the sand. So it’s not a scary feeling, just kind of an out-of-body type thing.”
Even though I’ve yet to see anything comparable to a warzone, I can relate to those feelings of realization during my time at basic military training (BMT) and technical school – since I went through training during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I can empathize with the constant feeling of not knowing what’s going on outside of a military base, not knowing if my friends and family are alright, not knowing when I’ll even get to see my family again.
Hearing my father talk about some of the missions he undertook chokes me up. Imagining a young, 20-year-old version of my dad in the middle of a combat zone is almost too much for me to handle. This was the early 1990s, too. There were no cell phones, no laptops, and none of the modern commodities we’re accustomed to now. My father had to wait to contact people in the outside world.
“The weird part was hearing about all the different nuances to the war when we got back because we didn’t watch TV or the news,” he continued. “And my mom, your grandma, was glued to the TV the whole time we were there. She was telling me about all these battles and all this stuff raging on.”
While my father began to open up about his time during Desert Storm, I wondered what kept him and his buddies going. I started to get a vague idea about what they all saw and felt.
“We were Marines,” he said simply. “It’s what we do. Not going isn’t an option. One of the good things about the training that I went through, was that it’s okay to break down and fall apart, but you do it after the mission. It’s just what it was. And plus, we had each other. That’s why we still meet up. Vince, Earl, Derek, Craig, and Eric – they were all there with me. We relied on each other to keep our spirits up. At the end of the day, we were just working and fixing a lot of planes.
“First and foremost, we were Marine riflemen,” he continued. “We weren’t directly in combat. No one was shooting at us while we were fixing the planes. So, we carried on and carried out the plan of the day. We got it done and were professional Marines.”
When I was younger, I just thought that my dad was out on the front lines. I had no idea the significance of his role during Desert Storm. He was, and continues to be, my hero, so he must have been everyone’s hero, right? Through this talk, I learned new insight on what my dad and his Marine family did during Desert Storm. He was able to become a better version of himself, and because of this, it led him to meet my mom, get married, and raise my brothers and me in a way that he can be proud of.
As I learned his story and visualized his experiences, it was almost as if I saw my own fire, my own motivation and drive to why I joined the Air Force. And I challenge everyone who has a family member, or even knows someone who has served, to listen to their story. We must remember our heritage and use their experiences to fuel our desire for success. It is what brought me to today and what will drive me into tomorrow.