Joe Parsons was 17 years old when he signed enlistment papers with the U.S. Marine Corps. "My mom wouldn't sign off on me going infantry, so I figured, 'I'll show her and go field radio operator' –which is basically infantry with a heavier pack," he said.
At the time, it would have been easy to dismiss her maternal concern. It was June of 2000 and the U.S. was still riding the tail of a long post-Cold War high that left America's global dominance largely uncontested. Outside of a handful of Tomahawk cruise missiles lobbed at Bosnia, a humanitarian dust-up in Somalia and a hundred-hour "Desert Storm" operation in Iraq and Kuwait, military members and their families had enjoyed a fairly tranquil decade.
"I had to do something (after high school) and the military seemed to fit," Parsons explained. Having grown up in Hulett, Wyo. (population 400) Parsons said "I was looking for the first plane ticket out of Wyoming," and he found it with the Marines.
Frank conversation with a Marine recruiter helped the adventurous young man reach his decision. Recalling one talk with the recruiter, Parsons said he was told, "the first three months are going to suck–it's boot camp. Then you're going to go to this school and that school and it'll suck but it will be better, and then you're going to go into the fleet and that's when you do the cool stuff."
First came boot camp in Camp Pendleton near San Diego, though. "Memory fades, but looking back on it, to me it wasn't a big deal," Parsons said of that experience. "(The physical training) was intense, but it wasn't anything I didn't feel like I could handle," he said.
By contrast, "the mental aspect of it was pretty tough being 18 and just graduated high school," he said. Parsons had no contact with anyone back home during those three months and was meeting everyone around him for the first time.
After boot camp, Parsons went to Field Radio Operator School in 29 Palms California, east of Los Angeles. Because he finished in the top half of that class, Parsons said he "basically didn't have a choice" and was sent to Microwave Communications School, where he also excelled, finishing as one of the top two recruits.
Parsons' exceptional performance got him assigned to Satellite Communications School in Fort Gordon, Ga. "I'd never been back East, so that was a cool couple of weeks," Parsons said. Parsons vision of being able to "travel the world, meet new people and see cool things" was coming true.
After satellite communication training, Parsons was stationed at a Marine base in Okinawa, Japan. Sept. 11th came the evening of Sept. 10 in Okinawa. As the towers fell, a long-dormant U.S. military began stirring from its peacetime slumber.
By late 2002, the U.S. was contemplating an invasion of Iraq, and Parsons was sent to Kuwait on the military's largest aircraft, the nearly 250-foot-long C-5 Galaxy troop transport.
"We were there before everybody knew we were going to war," Parsons said of that time. In the morning temperatures regularly dipped below freezing in Kuwait and Parsons spoke of a nervous energy among the troops stationed there. "You hear it compared a lot to practice for a football game. Nobody ever got to play that game–we just went out and practiced for years and years and years and years," he said.
Then, about a week before the invasion, the soldiers in Kuwait got confirmation that they would soon be deployed. "You're nervous, absolutely scared, yes. But you're ready to do what you need to do," Parsons said. Parsons and other soldiers were only allowed to write (censored) letters home, so he wasn't able to talk with his parents or friends before the invasion.
"You never have trouble sleeping (though). You're always going so much and are so busy," he said of that week of waiting.
During the 2003 push into Iraq, Parsons was in charge of setting up mobile satellite communications for the First Marine Division as it spearheaded toward the capital. The equipment, he said, was like a scaled-up version of "all those news vans you see on location with little pop-up satellite antennae."
The satellite link served as a direct line of communication between Marine Generals on the ground and the Pentagon and White House.
As the troops streaked across the country, Parsons said he saw a country in upheaval. Members of Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Guards were abandoning their uniforms and regalia on the road, trying to sever their ties to the old regime.
"Most of these places (palaces and military bases) were gutted by the time we got to go through," Parsons said. "On the way up, you're passing just lines of vehicles with all of Saddam's (Hussein) and all of the palace's stuff in it. I mean, crystal chandeliers and everything," Parsons said of the looting. "(Iraqis) had been repressed for all these years."
In late 2003 or early 2004, Parsons said he signed on for a six-month extension of his contract "because we were short-handed in our platoon." During this time, Parsons said he was one of only three people in Iraq who knew how to operate a certain piece of equipment, "So I was stuck on base the entire time making sure that piece of equipment was up and operational."
That base was in Fallujah, a city that would soon host some of the bloodiest fighting of the early war. "We knew there was a build-up, but we didn't know exactly what was going to transpire. We didn't know it was going to be house-to-house going through the entire city," he said.
"We were getting mortared at sunup and sundown every day. You knew that something was going to give," Parsons recalled.
"My extension was ending just as Fallujah was starting to blow up," he said. At the end of his extension, a helicopter flew him from Fallujah to an airbase, where he transferred to a C130 troop transport to Kuwait. From there he boarded a commercial airliner that had been rented by the military and used as a troop transport for returning personnel. A few time zones later, he was back home.
The After Years
Courtesy Joe Parsons
Two soldiers next to the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. The doors are inlaid with 24-karat gold.
These days, Parsons is District Manager at the Saratoga Encampment Rawlins Conservation District. He keeps in touch with friends he made in the military and went on a backpacking trip in the Snowy Mountains with one of them several years ago.
While the technical training he received in the Marines doesn't play a big role in his current job, he says "the work ethic helped. Showing up every day and making an honest effort (was something I took away from service)." It also gave him perspective: "(I know now) even on your worst day it's not as bad as some of the days other people have had."
Parsons said he'd been approached by several young people who were considering enlisting and had spent a long time pondering what to tell them. "It's not all commercials and movies, but it's a viable option for a lot of people, and for me it worked out," he said.
"I was happy I did it," he said. In the same breath, he concluded, "I'm glad it's done."