DKC DEI’s Sharonda Davis in conversation with Chris Cutter, VP at DKC News SF
May is Military Appreciation Month and DKC Voices wanted to acknowledge those who are currently serving in our armed forces and the many veterans that have served our country. Sharonda Davis, DKC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director spoke with Chris Cutter, a Vice President in DKC’s San Francisco office, and U.S. Army veteran.
Sharonda: What branch of the armed forces did you serve in and for how long?
Chris: I served in the Army for two years.
Sharonda: What made you decide to enlist?
Chris: I dropped out of college halfway through undergrad and joined the Army largely to pay for college. The GI Bill and Army College Fund were the big incentives for me at the time.
Sharonda: Do you remember how you felt once you signed your contract?
Chris: Yeah, I was nervous. It was exciting to start a new adventure, but the fear of the unknown was strong, too.
Sharonda: Do you remember how you felt when you got dropped off at bootcamp?
Chris: [Laughs] Oh yeah, everyone remembers their first day. I was terrified. It was super intense. You have no idea what to expect. I didn’t know, for instance, if Drill Sergeants could hit you. (They can’t.)
Sharonda: Good reporting right here! I included those questions because when people sign their contract and get dropped off at bootcamp, it’s probably one of the most hopeful times. Okay, what is something that is surprising about active duty that most people do not know?
Chris: I think one thing that was a surprise to me at the time was understanding that if you’re in the military you fall under a completely different set of laws called the UCMJ (Universal Code of Military Justice). The joke was that you are government property so if you get a sunburn, you can be charged with ‘damaging’ government property. There’s an immediate realization that military life is different from civilian life in important ways.
Sharonda: That makes sense, I’ve heard about JAG lawyers and the UCMJ so I’m sure it gets interesting sometimes.
Chris: I was very naive, obviously. [Laughs] I thought, “Uh oh, I might get hurt here.”
Sharonda: So how has serving in the army impacted your life?
Chris: It’s made a big impact on my life. In a practical sense, it helped me buy a house and earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. The friendships I made in the Army and the camaraderie I experienced have made my life far richer. In a human sense, it was a hard-to-replicate experience. I made friendships and interacted with people who I probably would not have had an opportunity to meet otherwise.
It’s also made me an advocate for veterans. I didn’t make a career of the military, but it did open my eyes to the challenges of veterans face. And since transitioning out of the Army I’ve tried to help out with veterans’ groups.
Sharonda: Most definitely, I 100% agree with you, our veterans are not treated the way they should be upon release.
Chris: Yeah, upon release, that’s the key. You wear the uniform and people say, “Thank you for your service,” which is appreciated, but if you want to show your appreciation the best thing to do is to make sure veterans’ programs are fully funded.
Sharonda: I’d love to see a more efficient VA. I’ve gone with some folks to the VA and …seriously all day like this? This is crazy.
Chris: Yeah, this is how it goes. All the time, everyday.
Sharonda: What is something you think people should know about from your perspective?
Chris: Veterans face all kinds of mystifying challenges with the VA. It’s difficult to access benefits, even if you qualify, and the bureaucracy can be maddening, to put it diplomatically. One thing people should understand is that when a veteran contacts the VA today, for any reason — to discuss educational benefits, to get healthcare, to ask questions about programs — the first questions they are asked all concern suicide. “Are you having suicidal thoughts or urges? Do you need help?” Every single interaction with the VA begins with these screening questions. The fact that the VA thinks this is necessary shows how much our veterans are struggling.
Sharonda: Would you mind speaking more about the health care piece in particular. I feel like most people genuinely don’t know about that.
Chris: Sure, it’s pretty complicated but there are a lot of things you can be exposed to in the military — chemicals, injuries, accidents. It’s a dangerous job. I don’t think there’s enough attention to taking care of veterans once they get out the military. Even things like training exercises and exposure to chemicals can be highly dangerous compared to civilian jobs.
Fortunately, I’ve been in a position where I’ve rarely had to access the VA for my healthcare, but it is heavily bureaucratic and slow-moving. It’s disappointing that it’s not a priority to take care of veterans who we put in harm’s way to defend the country. They keep up their end of the bargain and then they come home and fight a second fight with the VA for their benefits.
Sharonda: I have heard some of the VA interactions with former colleagues and with older cousins. They were injured in Desert Storm and the VA didn’t approve their surgeries until the 2010s.
Chris: Exactly. That should’ve been approved, automatically, decades ago, in my opinion. Unfortunately, we often put the burden of proof on a veteran to ‘prove’ an injury was connected to service time. I think vets should get free healthcare for life in exchange for their service. Full stop.
Sharonda: Yeah, you need time to decompress from war. It used to be you take a ship home and spend a little time on the base. Now it’s literally you’ve gone from war and dealing with enemy combatants to “go be normal with your family.” I agree with you that it needs to be better, we need to get members of Congress to talk about it, and communities to provide greater support for veterans. We have these young people sign up to serve in the military and they don’t return the same. Some for the better and some not so much and we cannot discard those that served.
Chris: 100% I was lucky enough not to go to any war zones or not be put in harm’s way but it’s just that, luck. I could’ve been sent somewhere. I remember literally sitting on a C-130 on the tarmac about to fly to Haiti for a year and there was a diplomatic breakthrough as we were sitting there so we never lifted off.
Sharonda: Oh Wow
Chris: It’s just luck, you never know. It’s disappointing that we celebrate veterans with such pageantry and public respect but then we won’t pay their medical bills.
Sharonda: Pay their medical bills, make sure they have homes and work.
Chris: Yes! We could be doing so much more. I wish our society recognized mental and emotional damage. The things you can’t see. Many vets struggle with scars that are hard to see.
Sharonda: Are you able to share where you traveled?
Chris: I was stateside my entire enlistment. I did basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, did AIT in Northern Virginia (Fort Belvoir), and spent the bulk of my enlistment in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in the 101st Airborne Division. That’s the unit that rappels out of helicopters. The 101st is very active, and gets deployed all over the world, but I was fortunate. I almost went to Korea, Somalia, and Haiti but stayed stateside the whole time.
Sharonda: What was your rank when you left the military?
Sharonda: Specialist Cutter
Sharonda: How’d you get a two-year contract?
Chris: I qualified for most of the jobs in the military, so I asked them to show me the list of two-year jobs and picked the one (generator mechanic) that sounded best at the time. My plan was to complete a 2-year enlistment and get maximum help for college.
Sharonda: Is there anything else you’d like us to include?
Chris: There is a huge disparity in what people think we do for veterans what the VA actually does. For those who want to better support veterans, I’d suggest tracking how your Congressional representatives vote on VA funding legislation. There is, for example, current legislation that has passed the House but is pending in the Senate to provide benefits for vets exposed to burn pits in Iraq. It’s unclear if it will pass the Senate. And for vet organizations that I personally recommend, Swords to Ploughshares and The Fisher House Foundation both do amazing work for veterans.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this.
Sharonda: Thank you so much for chatting with us, Chris, and thank you for your service.