TxDOT military veterans share stories of serving our country
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TxDOT military veterans share stories of serving our country

Nov. 10, 2023

By Ryan LaFontaine

AUSTIN—As the nation honors its military veterans this weekend, TxDOT sat down with some of the more than 1,300 veterans it employs to listen to their stories.

Mark Bourland, TxDOT engineer

My uncle enlisted in the Army. He was a University of Texas and SMU alum and knew he would be drafted into World War Two if he did not enlist. Because he could type, he was able to enlist as a staff sergeant. So, growing up he told me over and over to learn to type. I enlisted in the Marine Corps and landed embassy duty. I was stationed in Moscow and we experienced minus-40 degree temperatures. (At -40, Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same number!) We had state-provided heating, radiators. Several of the embassy’s radiators burst from contact with the -40 air. The old out-buildings then flooded and collapsed. The embassy had to navigate through that without a local support staff. A story of the event was published in STATE Magazine (the U.S. Department of State’s magazine) and included photographs attributed to me.

Bruce Mathis, TxDOT occupational safety specialist

During the Christmas holidays, amidst my duty as a U.S. Marines security guard assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, I was compelled beyond the call of duty. Moved by the plight of the orphans in the local community, the other embassy marines and I dedicated our time and resources to show support to an orphanage in the area. With unwavering dedication, I organized a fundraising event among my fellow marines and embassy staff, raising funds to provide essential supplies and gifts for the children. These heartfelt acts of kindness not only brought joy to the orphans but also served as a shining example of compassion and humanity in the challenging and unfamiliar environment of northern Pakistan.

Victor E. Blalack III, environmental project planner

After my tour in the U.S. Army, I joined the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves. I was in about a month or so and was asked if I’d like to do some special active duty for training for a couple weeks. I said sure, and off I was to Camp Perry Joint Training Center, Ohio. Not knowing what to expect or being told what the training was for, I pulled into Camp Perry seeing nothing but soldiers in battle dress uniforms (BDUs).

This was in early spring of 1990. Thinking nothing of it--knowing it was a National Guard training facility—I headed to our check-in station. As I walked around I noticed everyone in BDUs had USCG insignias and rank. Seeing how I just got out of the Army with five years in BDUs, I was fairly startled since the USCG doesn’t wear BDUs. Thinking, “What did I get into?” I chuckled and thought, “Well at least I know how roll up the sleeves and march.”

Long story short, this training was to establish the first of the Coast Guard’s port security units (PSUs) and its indoctrination [JD1] into the U.S. Marines’ Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) for deployment to the Middle East in preparation for Desert Shield (Phase 1), later becoming Desert Storm (Phase 2).

Fortunately for me I was assigned to the fourth of five PSUs created, and they only deployed three to Desert Shield. Fortunately, although I was excited to go and serve, I was selected to enter on USCG active duty that summer.  Well, I never got to the sand box, but I did get a large duffle bag full of Army gear, again.

Christopher Beck, construction project manager

On Aug. 20, 2022, as a first lieutenant in the Texas State Guard I was awarded the United States Military’s Purple Heart. I served in Operation Iraqi Freedom III and while medically evacuating an injured soldier I was injured when a mortar round landed near me. The Commanding General of the Texas State Guard, Brig. Gen. Anthony Woods, presented the medal to me. The Purple Heart is the first US Military award ever created. It was instituted by Gen. George Washington during the American Revolution for those wounded or killed in the service of their country. I also received the Texas Purple Heart, whichwas the first of its kind.

Kim Hoffpauir, certified professional travel counselor

I think I always wanted to be in the service. I remember listening to my father's stories about his time in the Air Force and thinking ”I want to do that.” I wanted that fellowship, that extended family, those lifelong friends.  Well, I got exactly what I wanted, and more. Not only do I have memories I will always cherish and friendships that can't be replaced, I am now part of a brotherhood that I wouldn't trade for anything. I was also lucky enough to be able to volunteer with my father in a veterans’ group for many years.

Many times, I have felt inadequate when I compared myself next to my fellow veterans. Most of the ones I know served during times of war and have been recognized for their valor. I served in the Navy during a relatively peaceful time while stationed in Key West, Fla. I used to worry about this a lot until my father put my mind at ease. He told me one of his favorite lines from a poem was, ”He also serves who stands and waits.”

Everyone who has put on the uniform has done so knowing that there may be a time when they would be called upon to put their life on the line. They may never have been faced with a life-or-death decision, but they all chose to stand and wait. To all my brothers and sisters who wore the uniform and served our country, thank you for standing with me.

Kurt Strohschein, HR Division

Our family has six veterans. Our father served in the Army during the Korean War and our oldest brother joined the Navy and all four of his brothers followed him. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any sisters. And we all helped each other along the way, and at one point there was four of us serving in the Navy at the same time.

Charles D. Nesloney, management analyst

In 1991, the US military was involved in a conflict with Iraq.  With the Iraqi Republican Guard stationed at the border of Kuwait and Iraq, the U.S. Air Force conducted a bombing campaign that stretched the length of that border.  This campaign not only laid waste to the Republican Guard but distributed millions of pounds of unexploded ordnance across a large swath of the desert from the Saudi border to the Persian Gulf. 

Jump forward to 2006, the US is embroiled in war and occupation of Iraq after the incidents of Sept. 11, 2001. Supply lines traveling through some of the local Iraq towns were increasingly being delayed or targeted by insurgents. In order to safeguard the lifeline of supplies from Kuwait to Baghdad, the decision was made to move Main Supply Route Tampa away from the crossing at Safwan and move it west to the Kubari crossing. While this put MSR Tampa through the middle of the desert, it also extinguished the ongoing attacks that were plaguing the crossing and also shortened the supply line. The dilemma that was now faced is that this road had to be put through the third-largest unexploded ordnance field in the world. 

As you cross into Iraq from Kuwait, you are inundated with blown-up Iraqi tanks still in their fighting positions from the Gulf War, the depleted uranium concentration that surrounded all these fighting positions as well as the millions of pounds of unexploded ordnance that was trapped across the desert. 

On any given day, as the winds blew, you may discover an unexploded tank round, submunitions, or even a big ol’ bomb.  This made for one of the largest de facto minefields in the world. 

We were charged with providing security for the engineers as they scraped, rolled and made a road through the desert. On several occasions, the blade on the scraper would encounter one of these munitions and after a blast we would be recovering a scraper to go put on a new blade, replace tires or straighten out tie rods. Not only were we a security force but became mechanics when needed. 

At one location, it was discovered that a 750-pound bomb was buried in the sand mere feet from the road. While we all wanted to see it blown, the leadership deemed it too hazardous for the fear of detonating other bombs in the area. In less than a year, we were able to convert 120 kilometers of desert into the new MSR Tampa and provide relief to the convoy drivers at least for the first leg of their journey north to Baghdad and points beyond. 

As the security force for this endeavor, we worried that these unexploded ordnances would be converted to IEDs (improvised explosive devices) but with time and a continued presence, the desert remained undisturbed, except for the daily convoys running through it. I don’t miss driving through that rough unforgiving terrain, but there are days when I am stuck on I-35 and wish for the near non-existent traffic of that desert highway.