Talk about pucker factor: Kuwait 2003, the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a white rental van with only sandbags on the floor for “armor” against IEDs and car bombs.
“I drove it like a bat out of hell,” said retired Command Sergeant Major Tim Culver.
Volunteering for active duty post 9/11, Culver returned to duty as a combat medic. A career firefighter, he’s got 30 years of combined service in active duty and the Reserves.
“I was working at the fire department and was in the Reserve, and I knew I would get a call so I volunteered as a medic.”
Culver was mobilized at first with the 91st Division and then joined CJTF7. There, he built clinics. Then, Culver volunteered to remain past his re-deployment date to further assist in the restoration of Iraq. The clinics have since been turned over to the Iraqi government.
Daily life in Camp Victory was loud, hot and sandy. Culver described it as if you were standing near a blast furnace and sandblaster at the same time. Generators ran constantly providing ample background noise to the daily mortar attacks, rocket explosions and small arms fire of life over there.
“You had to learn to sleep through it the best you could with your weapon loaded and in your sleeping bag,” he said.
There, hyper-vigilance was the new norm. Mundane tasks, from eating to trying to read a book, were completed while constantly alert.
Recently married before his report to duty, Culver sent his new bride letters saying that everything was okay in Iraq. It’s what many deployed soldiers do.
“I just wanted her to be happy and I didn’t want to worry about her worrying. I kept it to myself for a long time.”
Culver’s NCO evals say he is the kind of man that “possesses the moral courage to stand up for what is right,” and “maintains overt pride in his organization and country, following through on specified and implied tasks.”
Culver comes from a long line of military men going back to Edward Culver who fought in King Philip’s War in Connecticut from 1675 – 1677. Culver is proud of his service. His status as a veteran is, in his words, “Humbling.”
In 2004, Culver was assigned as the first enlisted advisor to the Iraqi Armed Forces Surgeon General. While in theater, Culver provided medical support for more than 155,000 coalition forces, also personally managing more than 1,100 emergency situations.
Culver was assisting fellow soldiers in Baghdad when he was injured by a car bomb. Despite his own injuries, Culver helped with medical triage at the scene where 23 people died from the explosion.
Culver returned to civilian life with a chip on his shoulder and his body wrecked from the car bomb which left him with a traumatic brain injury as well as knee, back and shoulder problems.
Talking about it all, his thoughts turned to recent memories, like the time he was summoned to assist a soldier who shot himself in the stomach and soon after died from his injuries.
“I was having a tough time physically and I had a harder time admitting it,” he said.
Culver hid the true extent of his injuries during physical fitness drills at the fire department. But, it only lasted so long before the masking pain medications left him unable to drive.
“I was forgetting the names of people I knew and forgot directions.” Culver said. “The fire chief said a few times, ‘You changed,’ but he wouldn’t say how. Finally he asked one day if I wanted to see a counselor. I kept thinking, ‘I’m a tough guy; I can handle this.”
While the man appeared physically ‘whole’ he wasn’t. However, he didn’t want to be a burden.
“I didn’t think any of my issues warranted counseling. I had all my fingers and all my toes and I played the tough guy.”
Finally going for help, Culver was not happy with the result of the visit to a counselor.
“He said, ‘You went to war. There’s nothing wrong with you.’” Culver said. “I was pissed.”
At his lowest point, Culver made a noose in the hose tower at the fire station.
“I was lost,” he said. “I was going to hang myself.” The memory of his own brother, a Marine who took his own life, haunted him and he didn’t go through with it.
The final deployment had a domino effect on Culver who eventually put in for disability retirement at the fire department. The wait for his retirement to start cost him his house, which goes on auction Sept. 7.
The whole affair of life after Iraq has left the man who managed completely unmanageable situations over there feeling like a “vegetable” back here. There are moments when he is open with his “Veteran-ness,” but he also has those times when he’s apt to keep that close within.
“I used to fix things. I used to get angry at my boys, yelling at them. Now I’m just a vegetable. Because of our house and finance situation, I feel like a total failure and that I have not taken care of my family as I should. I feel like I have to fight to get back what I put in, and I don’t like that,” Culver said.
Moments of respite come on his Harley Davidson Street Bob.
“I love getting on my motorcycle,” he said, standing on Bay Street in Port Orchard. “There’s lots of freedom there.”
Culver also begins to thrive while helping other veterans in his job as a Service Officer at VFW Post 2669. He volunteers his time to help others navigate the system and support networks despite his own setbacks.
Always the Sergeant Major, Culver vows to give back as much as he can to those who have served and continue to serve. “Sometimes I think the motto should be ‘Semper Gumby,’ always flexible,” Culver said while offering some parting advice to his other brother and sister veterans.
“Never give up.”