For many of us, it can be easy to forget about Memorial Day. It’s a day off of work or school, an excuse to have a barbecue and go through a case or two of Budweiser with your friends. But for Louisiana’s servicemen and -women, the holiday calls for remembrance of some of the most trying, dangerous, and rewarding years of their lives. In the spirit of the occasion, DIG spoke with a few of our state’s veterans about their lives in and out of service.
By Leslie D. Rose
During a random day of class-cutting, then 17-year-old high school student Ebony Carter (now Carter-Gray) stumbled upon the library as a hideout. Within minutes, the door was shut and she was instructed that students were there for test taking, but not just any test—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery – two days later, a recruiter was at her door.
Now a member of the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Lafayette with the rank of Major, Carter-Gray has been enlisted in the Army National Guard for 20 years. The daughter of an Army First Sergeant who served in Vietnam, Carter-Gray said she can’t imagine what fighting in the jungle was like. But as someone who was stationed for a year in the desert, she knows Iraq.
“It’s the eeriest thing ever,” she said. “There are things blowing up—loud noises. The scariest part for me were in the mornings when it was dark and there were sandstorms going on and you could hear prayers from the mosque—it was eerie and unsettling because things didn’t smell the same and it physically didn’t feel the same. After a while, the things blowing up and the prayers and the smell become your everyday. You could literally be in bed, hear an explosion and roll back over—and things just normalize.”
Carter Gray says that soldiers are so resilient and resourceful that they will start things to make war zones feel like home. For instance, she went salsa dancing every Friday and took up a daily regimen of working out to Insanity. There were also music shows and poetry slams, and a soldier friend even recorded an album in his tent.
But Carter-Gray advises while life can resume, there is nothing normal about war—only soldiers.
Outside of uniform, she is a social worker with a master’s degree and the doting wife of popular Baton Rouge trumpeter John Gray.
Known for her bright smile and fashion sense, on her days off she is ultra femme, and it’s often quite surprising to people that she is a member of the Armed Forces. But she said that the women she knows in the military are as tough as they are pretty.
“There are some kick-ass women in the military, but there aren’t enough women in leadership positions,” she said.
However she attests that the hardest thing about soldier life isn’t being in the minority of soldiers, but having to separate yourself from your community in efforts to provide protection. Having grown up in Maryland, Carter-Gray said she was not envious of her fellow soldiers having to enforce martial law during a time of such community grief.
“I don’t envy that position at all,” she said. “Because I am soldier, that doesn’t mean I have given up what I stand for, or any of my convictions, but understand that when I am getting called to do something, that’s my job and those things have to go on the backburner.”
Carter-Gray said she has learned a lot along the way.
Having enlisted young, she is passionate about giving advice to and mentoring potential soldiers. For that notion, she encourages interested people to consider attending college and going the ROTC route; for non-college potential enlistees, she suggests trying out a variety of trades and requesting military mentorship from a soldier who works in that field. She also advises that interested people ask the recruiters lots of questions regarding everything from full benefits and actual terms of service to ways to create plans for activation.
By Claire Salinas
Josh Furr was a typical Baton Rouge kid who grew up and moved away from home to start college. But in the back of his mind, he always knew he would do something even bigger.
After spending two years working on his computer science degree at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Furr knew it was time to pursue his goal of joining the military. He joined the Army, and after two months of basic training and six months in Advanced Individual Training, he was shortly deployed to Afghanistan for a year. Upon arriving overseas, Furr faced several challenges that began to reshape his mentality.
Part of Furr’s job was to stand watch in a tower overlooking the area nearby the base. The job was too big to delegate just to the soldiers on the base, so the army set up contract positions with local civilians. But more than once, these civilians turned on soldiers.
“That puts you on edge at all time,” he said. “You put up the barrier, like this is the job and that’s it.”
Although Furr was often put under the stress of protecting himself and his fellow soldiers, he had a bit of quiet time to observe his surroundings while on watch in the tower.
“You would see kids out there playing, just like kids running around the neighborhood,” he said. “We were watching people with binoculars, and one time I saw a little girl and boy fighting over an empty bottle of water. It really hit home with me and made me realize I don’t have anything to complain about. I’m living like a king here in America, while they fight over an empty bottle just to get a clean drop of water.”
Now back in the states, that image of the kids fighting over the bottle has stuck with Furr, and leant him a higher perspective on things often taken for granted.
“Anytime people complaint about things like this coffee isn’t good enough, I’m just like, that’s not really something to complain about,” he said.
After serving out the last three years of his military contract in North Carolina, Furr returned to school to finish his computer science degree. Since then, Furr has found his experience in the military has helped him to stay more focused on his goals.
“You’re put under a lot of physical stress in the military; they run you a lot and you work out every morning – they expect a higher level of focus,” he said. “It’s made me more serious about my life and more focused. In the military they teach you how to block out all the noise.”
The level of discipline required of Furr during his service has made the transition to a college mindset a lot easier.
“When I was in Afghanistan we worked almost seven days a week. After you spend four years getting up everyday at 6 a.m. to run and then you have a 12-hour workday, anytime you’re sitting around not doing anything you’re thinking, ‘Is there something else I need to do?’”
By Nick BeJeaux
Larry Jones, former airman and Coast Guard Commander, continues to serve his country nearly a decade after retiring from the armed forces—mostly in support of his fellow veterans.
Jones entered into the military in 1966 in the Air Force, at the height of the Vietnam war. While he never experienced combat, he helped facilitate communications and intelligence between troops and also as an Office of Special Investigations special agent and criminal investigator.
“I don’t have any jungle stories, been shot at, hit or purple hearts or anything like that,” he said. “I handled cases that involved drugs, robberies, rapes, and murders, much like any detective in a police department.”
In 1983, Jones transferred to the Coast Guard, which put him through Officer Candidate School. He was subsequently commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade and spent his last 24 years in the armed forces defending the U.S. coastline. Jones retired in May in 2007 as a Commander and today uses his skills as an investigator and a leader to help veterans navigate the Veterans Affairs system.
“Today I deal with benefit claims, medical issues, problems at the VA—I’m a Veterans Service Officer, so I get involved in just about anything related to veterans benefits,” he said.
Jones says that the problems within the VA system that came to light last year (patients dying while waiting for appointments, cooked books, etc.) were not as severe here in Louisiana as they were in other states. Still, that doesn’t make navigating the bureaucracy any easier.
“The bottom line is that many vets don’t understand how the VA works or how to negotiate and work within the system, so what I do is help them figure out how to be successful within the system,” he said. “I know how the system works very well, so when they run into problems, they come to me and I do the best i can to advise them on how to get what they need.”
Coming up on May 25, Memorial Day is a solemn time for all for veterans and the families of the fallen alike, Jones being no exception.
“I’ve lost many high school friends and college friends over the years that have been killed in wars, or on active duty—not necessarily in combat. You think about those friends that you’ve served with that are no longer around from time to time and it’s best to pay your respects to them. I try to help out families as best I can, making sure the benefits of their loved one are passed on to them.”
However, Jones says that media saturation combined with an eagerness to honor our troops has blurred the lines between Armed Services Day, Veterans day and Memorial Day.
“We had Armed Forces Day last saturday for people currently serving, Veterans Day is for those that have served and Memorial is for those that sacrificed everything—I think Memorial day is where we need publicity,” he said “I think people get it mixed up. Memorial day isn’t to help veterans. It’s to go to the cemeteries, pay respects and be thankful that we’re living in the country.”
By Nick BeJeaux
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Clyde Chustz served in the army as a Convoy Sergeant during the Vietnam War; a station that would lead him to the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and to where he is today.
“I was in transportation; sometimes I served as a Convoy Commander, other times just as a driver,” he said. “We were hauling all kinds of stuff all over Vietnam; munitions, supplies, everything.”
Chustz never saw combat in Vietnam, saying in hindsight that he was extremely lucky to avoid firefights, bombings and other attacks. But at the time, everything was always very tense. The volatile southeast-asian weather didn’t help either.
“Were were on duty 24 hours a day – even when you were asleep, you were still on duty,” he said. “It was very hot, and it rained all the time. Every time we went out we were driving through hostile territory, but we never saw anything. We were incredibly lucky.”
But some of Chustz comrades and friends weren’t so lucky.
“All the time we would hear about convoys that were ambushed; and during one of those ambushes I knew some of the men that were killed.”
Chustz is not oblvious to the fact that the Vietnam War was unpopular here in the states. While he declined to share his own views on the conflict, he did say that when he came home he was treated with respect.
“Some soldiers weren’t treated right when they got home, but that never happened to me; no one called me ‘murderer’ or ‘baby killer’ when I go home,” he said. “People would open doors for me,constantly say ‘thank you’ – I felt it was a lot for them to do and I appreciated it.”
After Chustz left Vietnam in ‘68, he got lucky once again. He was eventually hand-picked to serve as a driver at the White House, bust it still took him a while to prove he wasn’t a spy.
“Again I got lucky as hell; but here I was thinking it would take me a few days to get started, and I was wrong,” he said. “It took ten months for me to get clearance and my wife to get clearance. It was very excited the entire time though, especially when I finally got there.
While he never drove for a sitting president, he did have the opportunity to drive for the next best thing.
“Oh, I got to drive for many people, including Ronald Reagan – my favorite president,” said Chustz. “I never drove for him while he was president, but when I did drive for him he struck me as the nicest person. I remember on one drive, we spoke for a solid 30 minutes, at least.”
Today, Chustz drives across the United States as a commercial trucker. When asked about his feelings on Memorial Day almost half a century after leaving Vietnam, Chustz, a humble man, repeated again that he is no hero and says that all honor should be directed to the fallen.
“I’m not a hero,” he said. “The real heroes are the men who fought and died, or came home wounded. The infantrymen were the real fighters. 50,000 Americans died over there, and they deserve all the credit.”