Corporal – Arizona National Guard, U.S. Army
Afghanistan War (2006 to Present)
Sean Stephens of Greenbrae, California is a veteran of the War in Afghanistan and a master at reinventing himself. After a successful career in Arizona as a welfare benefits administrator, Stephens enlisted in the Arizona National Guard, Army Infantry Brigade at the spry age of 38. As a state employee, Stephens was interested in the additional retirement benefits available to those in the National Guard. After multiple injuries and four tours of duty in Afghanistan, Stephens was placed on indefinite medical leave by the Army and released from active duty. Stephens relocated to Marin County, remarried, and is now the proud father of a baby boy. One never to be inactive, Stephens took on a new career as the Veteran’s Service Officer for the County of Marin. He uses his experiences as a welfare administrator and combat veteran to counsel and guide local veterans. Marin County is fortunate that Sean Stephens made his final relocation in Marin and has sunk deep roots.
Sean Aaron Stephens was born in Tempe, Arizona. He spent his formative years in Tempe. Stephens’ father was a police officer and his mother owned and operated local restaurants. Upon graduation from high school, Stephens completed two and half years of college in Arizona and worked in his family’s restaurants. Stephens then went on to a successful career with the State of Arizona, Department of Economic Security, as a welfare benefits administrator and fraud investigator.
In 2006, Stephens decided to join the Arizona National Guard Infantry Brigade. The National Guard is a reserve military force composed of state National Guard militia that serves as a joint reserve component of the U.S. Army and Air Force. Militia members work part time for the National Guard while maintaining civilian jobs. Stephens noted that the U.S. Department of Defense had recently increased the maximum enlistment age to 42. Stephens was 38 and wanted to join before it was too late. At the time, he was married and living in Tempe. According to Stephens, he joined the National Guard because as a state employee, he would receive additional benefits including, doubling up on his retirement points and retirement benefits, as well as educational benefits. Stephens felt that the benefits of the National Guard outweighed the risk of being deployed. Stephens’ wife was very upset about this decision which later led to the demise of his marriage. Stephens’ enlistment with the National Guard was to run through March of 2012.
Stephens’ family had a long history of involvement in the military of which he is very proud. His paternal grandfather served during World War II in the Army Infantry, his maternal grandfather served in the Navy as a naval aviator, and his uncle, a Korean War veteran, served with the Army Infantry, 82nd Airborne, and received the Bronze Star. This strong military lineage seemed to be a partial catalyst for Stephens joining the military. According to Stephens, he chose to join the Army branch of the National Guard because he “wanted to be all [he] could be”. Stephens explained, “the Army was the way to go if you wanted to be part of an organization that gets things done and it has an incredible history behind it. If I was going to do it, I wanted to go in with the best.” At the time of his enlistment, he was aware of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the risks of deployment. Stephens felt the U.S. involvement was warranted given the acts of terrorism related to 9/11. He also understood the mission of the U.S. in Afghanistan was to “go in, clean house in Afghanistan, and rebuild what the Russians had torn down, such as government, infrastructure and schools”. Stephens also felt that the U.S. involvement would enable Afghanistan children to go back to school and become educated on their fundamentals.
Stephens was sent to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia in February of 2006. He claims the experience was incredible. He felt his experience was different then most young enlistees because he was 38, had already had a successful career, and many life lessons to guide him. Stephens claimed that basic training was “90 percent mental and 10 percent physical”. He felt the training was very thorough and the Army gave him the basic skills needed for combat. He never thought at the age of 38 that he would be suspended 100 to 150 ft in the air going from point A to point B, via one rope. Stephens coped with the rigors of basic training by being mentally more prepared than all of the enlistees. Stephens completed basic training in October 2006. Upon his return from basic training, Stephens found out his unit was being mobilized to go to Afghanistan and his marriage quickly fell apart.
Prior to his initial deployment to Afghanistan, Stephens received additional training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina on doing security for a Provincial Reconstruction Team (“PRT”). The mission of the PRT in Afghanistan was stabilizing, securing, reconstructing and developing the country, so it can sustain itself as a self-functioning democracy. Stephens’ role with the PRT was to be security. His job would be to go into a village, secure it, and set up a perimeter. Stephens explained, once a perimeter was established by the PRT, officers would come in to the village and have a shura. Stephens further explained, “a shura is a meeting with the village elders to discuss the needs of the village, education of the children and basic infrastructure.” “His job with security was basically to keep the bad guys out”, claimed Stephens. As a part of security, Stephen’s role was to check all the village members to see if there were any bad guys or members of the Taliban when they arrived at a village. He was also tasked with making sure the “bad people” didn’t take part in the shura, or try to influence the PRT or village elders.
In January 2007, Stephens was deployed to Afghanistan for eighteen months as part of a PRT with the Army Infantry, 11th Bravo. Stephen’s rank was E-4 specialist and he was assigned to the Forward Operating Base (“FOB”) Lagman in Qalot, Zabul Province, Afghanistan. He served in country for sixteen of his eighteen month deployment. FOB Lagman was like a refugee camp with a big landing zone for helicopters. Stephen’s primary duty was as the gunner on the lead Humvee truck for his PRT. Initial duties of his PRT included securing the villages for shuras. At first, Stephens was a little nervous and apprehensive in Afghanistan. However, he knew he “had to give a presence of ‘I belong here’ and you had to do your job”. While at FOB Lagman, Stephens lived in a “B hut”, a wooden structure with walls, floor and a tent roof. According to Stephens, they were very dirty. He felt the food was ok as it was flown in on a regular basis. For entertainment, Stephens noted that they had a boxing ring set up, although the majority of the personnel sat around watching DVDs or communicating with family and friends via the internet and Skype. Overall, he felt morale was good at FOB Lagman. Stephens felt that he and the other PRT members were as effective as they could be. He also felt lucky that he served with such a great group of guys. Unfortunately, several of the men were not as lucky as Stephens and were either injured or killed. According to Stephens, they came back to the U.S. with far less people then when they went over.
Stephens felt that his duties at FOB Lagman were fairly hazardous. He recalled on one occasion that he had a near miss with a suicide bomber. According to Stephens, a man walked up to one of the convoys and tried to detonate himself. Stephens claimed that they didn’t even pay attention to what he was doing. Apparently, the man had a vest on underneath his clothing and tried to detonate himself, but his wiring wasn’t correct. After Stephens and his convoy got further away from the man, he blew up. Stephens claimed that thankfully, the man was not able to obtain his objective, to cause damage to our convoy. Stephens and his convoy went back and secured the area for Special Forces and later, security came in to find the body parts and identify who the man was and for whom he was working.
After a first tour of duty of 18 months, Stephens signed up for a second. He was sent to Bagram airbase in Bagram, Parwan province, Afghanistan for a 120 day tour. The base was an old Russian airbase and all manner of aircraft flew in to Bagram, 24/7. Bagram Airbase has three large hangars, a control tower, and numerous support buildings. It also houses the Bagram Theater Internment (POW) Facility. Stephens’ duties included security detail again and he served as a front gate guard at the pedestrian gate. As the local nationals came onto the base, Stephens’ job was to search them, pat them down, check identification, and check whatever they carried. Once the pedestrians passed through the gate, Stephens also provided directions and instructions. According to Stephens, it was an 8 to 10 hour job and he saw a lot of things. During his time at Bagram, he confiscated weapons, ammunition and cell phones with inappropriate or confidential pictures. While in Bagram, his rank was still E-4 specialist.
In general, Stephens did not feel that he had many problems at the pedestrian gate at Bagram. First, he was bigger than 90% of everybody in Afghanistan. Second, Bagram was a transitional point for prisoners of war and they didn’t have too many problems. Apparently, everyone knew if you got captured you would end up in Bagram and then taken out of the country. “Nobody really wanted to screw around there, as far as Afghans coming onto the post”, claimed Stephens. He also claimed, occasionally you would have to apprehend somebody. He would then contact military police and they would take care of it. Stephens felt the living conditions were great at Bagram. He had a full “B hut” with one person to a room and six people in a hive. Each room had a refrigerator, phone line and WiFi. “It was easy living”, claimed Stephens. He used Skype to call home and to friends on a regular basis. Stephens noted that he frequently sent emails to families and friends with pictures of what he had seen or done in Afghanistan. When he was out of his room and messages came over Skype, the calls were transferred to his cell phone. Apparently, cell coverage in Afghanistan was exceptional in comparison to the U.S.
After Stephens’ 2nd tour was finished in Bagram, he signed up for a 3rd tour of duty without coming home. This 3rd tour was to last 180 days. Stephens was assigned to the Combat Outpost (COP) Herrera in the Jaji District, Paktya province, Afghanistan. COP Herrera was located seven miles from the Pakistan border. This time, Stephens was assigned as a Tactical Trainer with the Embedded Training Team (“ETT”). The ETT is a team of military occupational specialists that have a wide variety of skills. Members of ETT need to be able to operate weapons, as well as possess strong communication skills. ETT members act as an infantryman, operations officer, diplomat, civil affairs professional, engineer, intelligence analyst, supply officer, mechanic, linguist, and communications specialist, all rolled into one. According to Stephens, his primary function with the ETT was to train the Afghan border police. Their sole mission was to train the border police to do their job effectively, and at the same time, maintain peace between themselves and the other villages they protected. Stephens also explained that because they were located on the border of Pakistan, their missions also took them to Pakistan quite frequently.
Part of the training Stephens provided the Afghan border police included, showing them how to do searches, how to stop a car, and how to search a car and its occupants safely. He also trained the border police on how to do house to house searches, and identify possible targets. Stephens noted his primary duty with ETT was to keep the border secure and train the border police to keep it secure. Stephens explained that vehicles were regularly booby trapped with bombs set to go off at the border gate. The ETT and border police learned to watch body language and look at a vehicle to see if it was suspicious. According to Stephens, if a person appeared really skittish or the vehicle looked overloaded, you stop the vehicle and apprehend them. He was taught to be very suspicious of well dressed occupants, recently bathed with perfume. Stephens explained that this meant that the occupants were on a suicide mission and prepared to go to Allah. Thankfully for Stephens, he never saw anyone suspicious while at the border. He claimed, “in those situations it never went well”.
According to Stephens, local national interpreters from Mission Essential were instrumental in the training of the Afghan border police. Usually, there would be a team of 2-3 ETT members, 15-20 Afghan border police, and the interpreters. The interpreters were the ETT members’ lifeline. Stephens recalled one mission during his 3rd tour where a room was discovered in a village that was dedicated to the Taliban. According to Stephens, they were unable to get straight answers from the occupants so they were apprehended. Stephens recalls all the women were screaming, yelling and crying. The village was really isolated and it was long hike into the mountains and vehicles could not make it through. Once the villagers were removed from the village, the ETT and border police brought in an interpreter, as well as an American soldier that spoke the language. Luckily, it was determined that none of the suspects had anything to do with the Taliban contraband and they were released. Without the interpreter, these men would have been arrested.
Upon the completion of Stephens’ 180 day, 3rd tour of duty, he returned to the U.S. to travel and relax. He then signed up for another tour of duty, his fourth and last. Stephens was again sent to COP Herrera to work with ETT and the border police. This time, he was also a Junior Communications NCO and Operations Mentor to other ETT members. During his 4th tour, Stephens worked with the border police on gathering intelligence, how to read and plot out maps, how to relay information by radio to their teams in the field, along with how to set up a command center, office, and radio room. According to Stephens, his job was to help the border police set up their offices, so they had the same type of set-up as the U.S.
Stephens noted that the Afghan border police were very green. “They were really not that intelligent, they were uneducated because their educational system was broken, and they were basically just farmers”, claimed Stephens. They really didn’t know a whole lot. Stephens further claimed, “at times, it became very frustrating”. For example, the men did not know how to do basic exercises. A simple exercise like jumping jacks would take about 20 to 40 minutes to teach and then, they couldn’t even do the exercise properly. Stephens exclaimed, “it was tough, it was really tough”. Another difficult task involved teaching how to relay information and keeping inventory. Things that were very basic to Americans were difficult for the young Afghan border police. Stephens explained that the problem had a lot to do with culture and religion. This is why the interpreter served a crucial role with ETT. An interpreter didn’t just translate, he relayed the information in a way that the Afghan trainees could understand. Stephens also felt many of the border police trainees were confused. In those situations, the interpreters would take over and explain. “The interpreters were essential to our mission and they were always able to get out point across”, noted Stephens. Despite the frustration with training the border police, Stephens felt his trainee candidates were awesome and really open to us being there. There was no resentment. Other ETT teams, however, had catastrophic situations involving execution of U.S. soldiers by resentful Afghan border police.
Stephens recalled one scary event while in COP Herrera where he was almost blown up. Somebody had taken an old Russian anti- personal mine and placed it along with some cassette tapes right in front of his outpost. Stephens was riding on a quad and rushing back to the outpost because it was taco night. The bike ahead of him set it off and luckily, the mine detonated 50 feet in front of Stephens. While in COP Herrera and his other tours of duty, Stephens learned to suppress his personal feelings and tried hard to learn from every experience. He coped by just moving on. According to Stephens, “one down soldier, requires two other soldiers to carry him, and suddenly you have three down soldiers”. As a result, Stephens always paid attention to everything and was on alert. Stephens also recalls shortages in Afghanistan with the ammunition and food. Ammunition was always tough to come by, he claimed. “You had to be very sparing with your ammo, you couldn’t just unload”. He also noted that their food got down to the bare nub a few times because the trucks kept getting blown up and weren’t getting through on the road. While out on missions, the military would air drop the water and food supplies just to get them through until they could get to a supply truck.
After completion of his 4th tour of duty in COP Herrera, Stephens returned to the United States. He was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for three months of medical treatment. Stephens was placed on medical hold until it was determined that he had major medical issues. In March of 2010, he received a medical release and was placed on inactive duty until his service is completed in March 2012. While in the service, Stephens broke his leg twice; once in basic training and once in Afghanistan. His most serious injuries involved his neck, back, and shoulders that were damaged by the heavy equipment he had to carry and the vehicles he drove. According to Stephens, he is officially ninety percent disabled with injuries to his neck and back, he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome in both arms.
Despite the injuries suffered, Stephens felt the sacrifices he made in Afghanistan were justified. He felt they were just doing the right thing and helping this country that couldn’t help itself. He also felt the U.S. was “tearing apart the Taliban and saving ourselves from another attack such as 9/11”. As a result of his service in Afghanistan, Stephens received the Global War on Terror medals, NATO medals, and a few Army Achievement Medals. Stephens rank at the time of his medical release was Corporal.
Upon Stephen’s medical release, he relocated to Marin County, California in March 2010. According to Stephens, he immediately bought a green jeep and went to the volunteer office at the Marin County Civic Center. Initially he thought he would volunteer in the welfare department. Stephens knew he wanted to stay in Marin County and his relocating days were over. He thought he could volunteer and later turn the position into a paid position. Fortunately for Stephens and Marin veterans, he was asked to volunteer in the Veteran’s Office. The Veteran’s Office was a one man office and they needed help, explained Stephens. After volunteering with the Veteran’s Office for about seven months, the Veteran’s Service Officer retired and Stephens was offered the position. In addition, Stephens remarried and now resides in Greenbrae, California. He is the proud father of a new baby boy and plans to stay rooted in Marin County. The days of relocating and reinventing himself are now over. Stephens had found his perfect home and career in Marin County.
Upon reflection on his service, Stephens claimed that there were no scary moments, just tense situations. Stephens did not feel that he could say he was too scared, or that he didn’t want to go into a particular situation because he would let the other guys down. As a result, Stephen’s motto was “to man up and go forward”. The most intense moment in his service was the time the mine blew up 50 feet in front of his bike. Luckily for Stephens, he survived unscathed from that incident.
Stephens also feels that his time in the service changed him and his outlook on life. Today, he is more tense and vigilant. He claims to pay attention to things more than he used to, and it makes it tough to be relaxed. He also feels that as a result of his service and the actions of the U.S., Afghanistan is in a better place than when they first went in. Stephens explained that the U.S. is not the bad guy. He emphasized that the news doesn’t talk about the good things we do. The news only talks about casualties and deaths. According to Stephens, there is a lot more going on in Afghanistan besides people dying. He also stated, we were putting electricity into towns, villages, and homes that had never had electricity. The U.S. military helped establish governments into areas that never had any form of governance. At the same time that all the infrastructure work was ongoing, the U.S. military was also helping build a relationship between the Afghan people and their government.
Stephens also highly encouraged young men and women to join the military especially if you are struggling with who you are. He claims that the military is a great answer for that type of person. “The military not only gives you the opportunity to discover yourself, but it gives you an opportunity to develop skills you never would have been able to develop”, stated Stephens. “On top of that”, claimed Stephens, “you also have the GI Bill that can help put you through college”. According to Stephens, he probably wouldn’t have joined the National Guard had he known he would be immediately deployed to Afghanistan. However, “it was the best thing that ever happened to me”, Stephens said with a twinkle in his eye. The commitment to the National Guard and his military service led Stephens to his final reinvention; father, husband, Marin resident and a proud Marin County Veteran Service’s Officer. Stephens’ roots seem to be deeply attached in Marin.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 24, 2011.