What makes a veteran? Each year on Veterans Day, we take a moment to acknowledge the sacrifice of those who have served our country, but do we really understand their stories?
“The thing about the military is you never really are out. It’s part of the process. It becomes who you are,” said Phil Richardson, Red Mountain Theatre Company’s production manager.
In his role, Richardson is charged with making sure the production staff is in the right place at right time with the right resources. The skills he learned during his stint in the Army—the leadership, planning, organization and problem solving—carried into what he does now.
“It’s still very much a part of who I am and what I do and how I react or take on things,” he said.
As RMTC began to work on a new show, the RMTC Veterans Day Celebration, the question “What makes a veteran” emerged. As RMTC’s resident veteran, Richardson was open to sharing his own experiences serving in the Gulf War.
When Richardson enlisted in 1988, he never expected to be deployed overseas. War wasn’t on the horizon, and Richardson knew the path he wanted to follow: Enlist in the Army, enroll in college and earn his degree in theatre.
“I went in as a very young 18-year-old thinking I could do this thing and be done with it,” Richardson said. “It was just a mode to get to college. That would be the end of it.”
He remembered going into basic training, his plan firmly set in his mind, with the commanding officers trying to break down the new recruits with questions like “Why are you here” and “What do you want to do with your life?”
Revealing his theatre-oriented plans didn’t go over well at first—Richardson said he felt like the odd man in the mix—but eventually his officers and fellow soldiers started thinking Richardson might be the person with everything figured out.
Then came Richardson’s specialty training.
“I wanted to do something I couldn’t do in the civilian world,” Richardson said with a smile. “This was a rare opportunity. Let me go drive a tank or do something that I’m not going to bring home.”
This lead to Richardson being trained in explosive ordnance disposal, or the military’s version of the bomb squad, but he didn’t stop there. To avoid down time in between EOD training, Richardson filled his time with additional educational opportunities.
From airborne training to air assault training to ranger training, Richardson took it all in, and began considering a career in the military.
“Once I got into it, I really got into it,” he said. “I took advantage of all the different things that could happen. I think that’s part of what made it so exciting and almost got me to that point where military career was an option.”
One month after enrolling in school, Richardson’s reserve unit was activated for the Gulf War. His was one of the first units to arrive in-country in September 1990.
The true military experience, according to Richardson, was being loaded—knee-to-knee and shoulder-to-shoulder—in the canvas webbing seats of a military plane for the 22-hour flight to the desert. He described the experience as one the furthest from first class imaginable.
Once they were in-country, the soldiers were left with long stretches of nothing to do, followed by incredible moments of activity, followed by more stretches of nothing. A perfect day in the desert was one interrupted by a care package from home.
“When a mail call would happen and you would get a letter or, the greatest moment, somebody was sending a box down your way, that was fantastic because you never knew what it was going to be,” Richardson said. “It’s just simple stuff: It’s pictures from home, cards from people, it’s a newspaper of things you aren’t hearing about.”
It was almost five months before he was able to make his first phone call home. Richardson said he just happened to catch several family members during that first call in a moment he described as both great and intense.
Among the hundreds of experiences resurfacing for Richardson, including moments where black oil was literally raining down on his unit, one conversation with his father stuck in his mind as especially surreal.
In the middle of the desert, surrounded by nothing but sand, there was a small satellite communication center. Richardson was able to make another phone call home from this isolated phone strapped to a pole, protruding from an old tire base.
“It was so surreal to be able to pick up a phone in that moment and say ‘Hey,’” Richardson said of the brief conversation with his father. “I just remember that conversation vividly and thinking ‘This is just unreal.’”
As one of the first units activated, the entire Gulf War experience was a strange one, according to Richardson. He described the long build up into January and February, which led to air attacks and a ground offensive that only lasted about 100 hours.
“It was there and done so quickly, and it was a weird thing to be a part of,” he said. “Thankfully it was as short as it was, but it’s just things you shouldn’t have to deal with. It gets locked in. It’s just something that’s always there.”
Although it was over quickly, there was still work to be done, and Richardson didn’t return home until August 1991.
The promise of returning home came and went several times before they were officially given a return date. They had 48 hours to pack up and prepare to leave, and even then, Richardson said the unit half expected the flight to be cancelled.
“It wasn’t until we took off that the entire company on board the plane just erupted,” Richardson laughed. “We were like, ‘This is it. We are going home.’”
The return journey was a much different one from the trip there. Instead of canvas webbing seats on a military plane, the soldiers flew on a charter flight with civilians. Richardson said it was an incredible flight, almost party-like, as the unit celebrated.
Even more incredible, he said, was their welcome home. Leaving in such a hurry, none of the company had time to contact their loved ones to tell them they were coming home, but, luckily, they didn’t need to.
“It was really special because when we landed back in the states, everybody was there. Everyone just found out,” he said. “It was exactly what you would hope was the case for every single person coming home like that. We got off the plane and there’s a band playing and there’s people cheering and waving. It was the perfect movie moment.”
The moment of celebration and respect Richardson experienced is what he said he hopes every soldier receives coming home, as well as what’s conveyed through RMTC’s Veterans Day Celebration.
“The situations soldiers are in and the reasons they are there are horrible. There’s not something good to talk about with an act of war or violence,” he said. “Those are all horrible and regretful things, but somebody put themselves in that position and did what they needed to do at the time they needed to do it. The least we can do when they come home is say thank you.”
RMTC Veterans Day Celebration, an original piece developed by RMTC executive director Keith Cromwell and the band Three On A String, presents a journey similar to Richardson’s.
For Richardson, the production sends some of his military experiences rushing back to him—the moments of patriotism and camaraderie with his fellow soldiers—especially a particular medley Three On A String created for the show.
The combination of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with the pledge of allegiance, he said, is a powerful message he suspects will stick with people for a while.
“Being a veterans event, knowing it’s focused on military and then putting this medley together,” Richardson said. “Even as I was listening to it, I was like ‘Okay, this is going to be good.’”