At JEA Senior Living, we are proud to employ Veterans and all those who serve and have served in our nation’s military. This week we focus on celebrating the service and military career of one of our incredible team members, Steven Duffy. Steve is a Technical Support Specialist at JEA Senior Living who adds immense value to all of our team members through his technological insights, quick jokes, and easy-going attitude.
We recently sat down with Steve for a conversation about his background in the military, how his service impacted him, and his unlikely start in a technology-driven career.
Hey Steve, it’s great to talk with you. First and foremost, thank you for your service and also for sharing your story with us. Since you’re incredibly busy, we’ll jump right into the questions.
If I can ask, what was it that motivated you to join the military?
For me, it was a few different things. I come from a military family, so I guess you could say a childhood fascination. The biggest motivator was my father. He is a Korean War veteran with the United States Navy. Ever since I was a little kid, I would hear his stories about the military and how he talked about his service. My future in the military was pretty much written in stone.
How old were you when you enlisted?
I was 18 years old when I enlisted. It was just a few months after high school and the year was 1985.
Which branch of the service did you join, and why?
To be honest, as a kid – and even a teenager – I was fascinated with the “cloak and dagger” aspect of the military. Groups like the Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy Seals, and Marine Force Recon.
While in high school, I weighed my options, talking with recruiters from every branch of the military to find the best fit. The Army was offering most of the things I was interested in, along with the most direct route to achieve my goals.
Could you tell me a little about your time in basic training?
Basic training was eye-opening, fun, and frustrating. It was a strange transition to get used to. But it gives you the initial pace and helps set the tone for what the rest of your military career will be like.
One minute you find yourself sitting in a hotel room in Modesto, CA, and less than 24 hours later, you’re in Fort McClellan, Alabama. Everything that you are used to – that you could cling to for safety and security is gone – you’re thrown into organized chaos, which is the military.
When I was in basic training, we were constantly reminded by our drill sergeant about the importance of qualification with the rifle. From the moment we met our drill sergeants to the end of our two-month training period, it was constant. Rifle qualification was this holy grail thing that they were always on you about. So, the day we went to the qualification range and to complete the qualification, everyone is hoping that they qualify, the first time.
Thankfully, I did. This was the moment during basic training that I realized, “This is going to work for me. I can do this”.
What was your primary job after training (MOS)?
My primary MOS was what they called an NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) Defense Specialist.
This was during the cold war, which created a huge focus for us on dealing with biological and nuclear weapons that posed a threat from Russia and other world powers. It was mandated in the ’80s that every unit from the company level, to the brigade and division levels, would have a qualified NBC specialist. This opened a lot of doors for growth during my military career – even allowing me to reach my goal of becoming an Army Ranger. NBC Defense Specialist was my MOS throughout my entire military career.
Where did you serve the majority of your time in service? Where were you stationed?
I was stationed mostly in Fort McClellan (Alabama) and in Fort Benning (Georgia). I never went anywhere else as a duty station.
Having never been to the Southeast, it was definitely a culture shock and took some adjustment. One of the biggest differences being the weather. Growing up in California, I thought I knew hot weather. But when the humidity rolled in it was like, “oh boy, now that’s heat!”.
Where was your most memorable deployment?
I took part in quite a few deployments in the 6 years that I served, some big, some small. While some were boring and monotonous, others were non-stop craziness.
Without a doubt, my deployment into Panama for, Operation: Just Cause, was the most memorable to me. At the time I was serving with the Army Rangers in December of 1989 to forcibly remove General Noriega.
Land navigation course completed, Ft. Sherman, Panama, 1988
Waiting for helicopters to leave Ft. Sherman, 1988
Do you remember arriving and what was it like?
It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. You join the military and there’s always the possibility of doing dangerous things and going into combat; it’s always something in the back of your mind. But then it actually comes down to it.
One minute you’re just someone in the military and in the next, you’re in Central America in the middle of the night with people shooting at you and gunfire all over the place.
Odd, exciting, and mostly surreal. I mean, I was just some kid from California.
What rank are you most proud to have earned, and why?
I left the military as the Army as an E5 Buck Sergeant, which is a Non-Commissioned Officer rank. It’s a hard road to reach this rank and is certainly not without its traps and pitfalls. This is the rank that makes me the proudest.
To be so young at the time and also in a position of command, it was incredibly fulfilling. The day I passed my NCO board, I was incredibly proud to receive my sergeant stripes.
Which medals or citations are you most honored to have received, and why?
I would have to split my answer into two:
The first being when I received my Jump Wings. As a kid, I always looked up to the special ops and wanted to be like them. So, my initial step was starting Airborne School to get my parachute qualification to become a paratrooper. When I graduated from Airborne and received my jump wings, it was a huge boost of confidence. Even though I still had the rangers ahead of me, the experience helped me realize, “I can actually do this!”.
The second is when I graduated from Ranger school and received my Ranger Tab. Now for some people, Ranger school is a breeze and they walk right through it. That wasn’t the case for me, and I struggled through every second of it. So, when I graduated and received the congressional award of being named a United States Army Ranger with the 3rd Ranger Battalion out of Fort Benning Georgia, it was life-changing. This is an honor that I carry with me through life. It was a really good day.
D-Day celebration, Normandy Beach, France, June 1990
Tell me about some of the special people you met.
The military is fantastic, it’s a lot like going to college in a sense. It’s a mixing pot, with people from all over the U.S. and the world. You’re all thrown into this new environment together and you need to learn how to coexist.
Learning to get along with people who are different from you, teaches you a lot about things that you got right, along with your misconceptions. You learn that people are all just people; regardless of where they are from, their beliefs, their upbringings, their differences, you truly become a family with your unit.
In the military, your primary focus is looking out for your buddy. The friendships that were built during my service are long-lasting. I can still fall into a conversation with any one of those guys and it’s like we’re right back there.
What was the best and worst 'military' food you were served, and why?
Let me start with the worst. That was definitely the time I got food poisoning from eating BBQ Beef in the Ranger Battalion Chow Hall, on the night before deployment. Yeah, it was less than fun.
Back then, people believed that by eating in the Chow Hall you were taking your life in your hands.
However, over time (about 3 years later) they turned our chow hall into the second-best in all of Fort Benning. They even provided our own pastry baker, which was an amazing show of appreciation for our service. It was incredible to walk in and have a fresh-baked sticky bun that was the size of a football, or one of the best omelets in your life – which eventually became my staple breakfast.
Tell me a funny story you experienced that could only happen in the military.
As an Army Ranger, I believe that the unofficial creed could have been, “work hard, play hard”. You work so hard all week long, that you really appreciate the weekends and the opportunity to enjoy the nightlife.
I remember one Friday night in particular. Our commander wanted to do this mission, a paratrooper jump, followed by a run through the woods. When we heard this, our hearts sank – that was our whole weekend gone.
So, we’re all upset, waiting at the airfield for the aircraft to show up on a Friday night around 7 p.m. The plane never showed, and we all hoped that the mission would be scrubbed.
Nope. Right when we thought that we had our weekend back, our commander arranged for several large buses to be brought in. Instead of jumping out of airplanes, we practiced driving these buses around the airfield, and practiced our jumps. Out. Of. The. Buses.
I remember thinking that at 9 p.m. on a Friday, I could have been in college, hanging out with friends, or doing anything else. Yet, here I am, jumping a whole 8 inches out of a moving bus.
Then I thought, “There’s only one place that this could happen. The United State military”. Elite Airborne Rangers jumping out of buses, it was a very silly thing.
After your service what did you do in the weeks afterward?
After making the decision to leave the military, I thought about going to college and trying out for the track team. In high school, I had run cross-country and track and really enjoyed the experience. Pairing this with a career interest in law-enforcement drew me to go back to school.
My interest in law-enforcement came from a few missions where I was able to work with the U.S. Marshals. From these interactions, I thought that I would really enjoy law-enforcement. My intention was to go to college, get my degree, and eventually become a U.S. Marshal.
But as anyone knows, life takes its turns and sometimes you veer off of a set course. Once I got out, I went to a community college and ran for them. Along the way, I realized that maybe law enforcement would not be for me.
So how did you get into Information Technology?
After realizing that I was not interested in pursuing law enforcement, I discovered an interest in technology. This was in the early ’90s when the personal computer market was taking off and I.T. networking was becoming a huge thing. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this interest was a turning point towards my future career.
My first experience with a computer was during the last two years of my military career. My initial thoughts were, “computers are a huge waste of time”.
But while I was in college, I started meeting these people who would have been considered “nerds”. They were constantly talking about all of the cool things they could do with computers. After learning a bit from them, I realized that my knowledge of computers didn’t even scratch the surface. Over time, my interest in technology became an obsession.
I already had a working knowledge of electronics from my father. He had worked in the electronics industry for the better part of 20 years. But over time, I also developed expertise in working with computer hardware, software, and networking infrastructure.
I finished my time in community college and then started working in the tech industry.
What was your career like after the military?
Returning home made me feel like that teenage kid again. Instead of dealing with the culture shock of the military and its new routines and rigors; in less than 24 hours, you find yourself back home and dealing with the culture shock of civilian life.
The first year of civilian life was difficult and very odd. After living in the world of the military where things are so structured and efficient, it was difficult to now be back in this free-form society where everyone just says and does whatever they want.
I was viewing these differences and the transition as negative and had to keep reminding myself:
- “This is what you wanted” and,
- “Your nostalgic and cherished memories of the military are just that: memories. Civilian life is not necessarily “negative”, it’s just very different”
What was the most important lesson-learned from your service?
There is a myriad of lessons learned from my time in the military. If I have to choose, I would narrow it down to my top-two.
- Everyone has the capacity to make something of themselves – everyone has inherent worth and value. However, the growth potential and how far someone makes it is on the individual to make it happen. The military will give you the tools, but you have to make it happen.
- “There is no can’t” and “There is no quit”.
Without a doubt, the dirtiest words to the U.S. Army Rangers are: “can’t” and “quit”. In fact, after being in the Rangers you become instilled with a hatred for those words. These words are removed from your vocabulary and you learn to never say them.
To some people, this might sound militant or overzealous, but really, it’s not. You cannot let self-doubt creep into your head, it serves no purpose. I personally found this to be very important in anything that you do. Stay confident and self-assured.
Thank you for sharing your story and talking with me today, Steve. And thank you for your service in the United States Military. Happy Veteran’s Day!