Caring for comrades: Sandy veteran tells story of his time in the military
When Eric Pettis entered the military at age 17, much of his motivation to serve came from his family. He was not the first, nor the last, of his family to enlist. After serving for 23 years in the Marine Corps, then the Oregon National Guard, Pettis, 45, says it was the family he gained from his military service that made his work so rewarding.
"The military history and camaraderie and all different traits of the military piqued my interest when I was young," Pettis said. "There are probably people I'm closer to in the Marine Corps than actual family. The family I got — there are people that I (haven't seen since) 1997 and we plan a reunion, and it's like 1997 was yesterday."
Pettis served in the Marine Corps from 1993-1997 then joined the Oregon National Guard in 1998 and retired from the military in 2018 as a company first sergeant (E8). He technically signed up at 16 but was held back from deploying until he turned 17.
Pettis chose the Marine Corps even though most of his family had joined the Navy for the traditions, the challenges presented by the branch and the opportunities it offered for him to explore places outside of his hometown of Los Angeles. Pettis attributes his seemingly "overnight maturity" as a young adult to being in the military as well.
"It was a good way to see the world," Pettis explained. "I wanted to see everything, meet everybody and do everything."
During his time in the military, Pettis was deployed far and wide, to places including Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Korea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan and more. His longest deployment was in Afghanistan, and that was also the deployment he remembers the most fondly.
"Afghanistan feels like being back in biblical times," Pettis reminisced. "Even in a war zone though, a lot of the people appreciated us being there and helping them."
Pettis said a major challenge of his military life was he often missed his children, who were growing up with him away months, and sometimes more than a year, at a time.
"(It was tough) watching my kids grow up over Skype," Pettis explained. "Being away from your family and your friends — that's always the hardest."
However, having the military as an avenue to help people, travel, gain skills and meet new friends, was an experience he doesn't regret, and one his children hope to have as well.
"There's something every day I've gotten from the military — a skill set, maturity, confidence — (that's besides the education from the GI bill)," Pettis said. "If (people) want a challenge, to have a career and trade when they get out, (the military can provide that). What you get out of it — a trade, on-the-job training, travel — it really is an amazing experience for the little bit of suck that comes with it."
After serving, Pettis earned a degree in homeland security and emergency management. He is currently a probationary volunteer firefighter for Sandy Fire Department and pursuing his EMT certification while running a small firearms store and safety training business on the side in Sandy.
"I get a lot of what I miss about the military from working with the amazing people at the fire department," Pettis explained.
He also has stayed connected to the military in numerous ways, volunteering his time and understanding to multiple nonprofit efforts aimed at helping veterans.
"There are challenges that come home with you," Pettis said, explaining the need for social and mental health services for veterans. "I worked in the Marine Corps doing route reconnaissance, checking roads for explosives. Now I see trash on the road and I make sure traffic is clear to go as far around it as possible."
Pettis mentors with Oregon Youth Challenge and volunteers with a group called Fallen Outdoors, which provides recreational opportunities for veterans. He also makes himself available to all fellow veterans through social media in an attempt to help them know they aren't alone.
"If there's a struggle at two in the morning, they can call me," Pettis said. "The support — the camaraderie — doesn't end when you retire or get out. It's there for life. I find it rewarding I can make a difference for someone or possibly save a life."
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