CAMP SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - Watching a line of M1 Abrams tanks spearhead their way across the desert and get their first taste of battle during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 provided U.S. Army recruiting offices the visual impact they needed to reel in impressionable young men and women considering joining the military.
Those “Be All [That] You Can Be” videos are what caught Christopher Davis in 1995 while attending college in Oxnard, Calif.
“I was feeling stagnant and needed a change after getting my [associate’s degree],” said the 39-year-old Davis, who is assigned to the California Army National Guard’s 223rd Regional Training Institute at Camp San Luis Obispo as their 31B Military Police Course manager.
“Those videos were pretty cool and I liked the idea of riding instead of walking so I chose to be a 19K Armor Crewman,” laughed Davis. By joining he extended a strong family heritage of military service after his father served in the Air Force in Vietnam and his uncle in the Navy.
It didn’t take long before Davis realized what he had signed up for.
Immediately following graduating as an armor crewman he was quickly scooped up by the 1st Cavalry Division and sent to the border of Kuwait and Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein’s continued aggressions. The massive American force buildup and response known as Operation Vigilant Warrior and Desert Strike in 1996 quickly put an end to hostility, and after five months, Davis returned to Texas.
The first three years of his service gave him the foundation he was looking for to begin his military career.
“I was proud of my unit’s history, for the awe inspiring show of force we displayed while deployed and the bond between me and my tank crew was strong. I got promoted to specialist and had the chance to train new soldiers. I hadn’t felt that kind of accomplishment since college.”
It was during this time that he got the call his father, Michael, a veteran Ventura, Calif., police officer, had passed away due to heart disease. decided to not extend after three years and returned home to help look after his family.
“I transitioned directly into the California National Guard in 1998 and was assigned to the 185th Armor in Madera, the closest armor unit to my hometown,” he said. “At the time there was a stigma about the Guard. Well my first impression wasn’t good. I heard the unit still had the old M60 tanks.” The M1 replaced the M60, which saw service from 1961 to 1997.
Because Madera is 250 miles away and he wasn’t qualified on the M60, fate led him down a different track. He quickly transferred to the 144th Field Artillery in the city he was born and there he joined other unit members who were working full-time as cadre at the Angel Gate Academy at Camp San Luis Obispo.
While at the “boot-style” academy for troubled teens he became friends with members of the 649th Military Police Company, who had troops serving as instructors for Angel Gate. When the attacks on Sept. 11 shocked our nation he watched that unit move into action.
“The response was immediate. I watched them load up and depart for Barstow-Daggett Airport. Most of them were civilian law enforcement and very professional. It was that mentality and show of force that reminded me of my days with the Cavalry. I joined the 649th that December.”
A year later the military police company got the call to deploy to Iraq. On Christmas Day, before leaving the state for more than 14 months, he proposed to Erikka Lynn Gretter, another member of the unit and kept the information classified.
Davis, with his fiancée, returned to his “old familiar stomping grounds” in Kuwait but this time as a sergeant with deployment experience.
“We arrived in March 2003. The war had already started two weeks ago. Memories flooded in as soon as those aircraft doors opened and the dry heat hit my face,” recalls Davis. “We hadn’t been off the plane for an hour when the first Scud missile alarm went off. The unit scrambled to don their protective masks. Calmly, having had extensive experience in this area from the days we spent in our [protective chemical] suits, I put mine on. That was an eye opener for everyone and made me realize even more how important my previous deployment was.”
A week later the unit began a nomadic existence, living on a sickly landfill while managing the detention facility at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq for three weeks to bedding down for a week in a parking structure at the Baghdad International Airport while the city was cleared of enemy still willing to fight. Daily gunfire and explosions kept them on edge. They lived on what they could lash and stuff on their vehicle convoys. They became extremely resourceful.
“We found a garden hose and made showers. In that parking structure we really found out the benefit of having National Guard soldiers in your unit. Civilian job skills were crucial in making that place a home. We had electricians, plumbers, builders, you name it.”
Finally the unit settled in Baqubah, just northeast of Baghdad near a military airstrip and eventually sent their SWAT team to raid a local police station for more permanent accommodations.
From April to March 2004 Davis and the 649th policed the city like some of them did back home as civilian cops, with some slight differences. They endured record high temperatures, chased motorcycles, took grievances, paid informants, reinstated Iraqi law enforcement officers and dispatched them on patrols, held against ambushes, and survived rocket and mortar attacks.
“We were just a magnet at that station and in the city and this was back when we drove around in soft-skinned Humvees without doors on them because it was hot,” said Davis.
He was also part of a criminal investigation cell that got involved in stakeouts, stings and undercover operations and his actions during those assignments earned him the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest individual military award in the U.S. Army.
However, Davis and his brothers and sisters in arms did not escape without experiencing the worst part of war.
“My partner, Sgt. Josh Dhanens, in the CID lost part of his leg while transporting one of those high value targets identified in that most wanted deck of cards. His Humvee was hit by an IED. He still drove five more miles and got evacuated.”
Davis, who just finished a 12-hour shift, decided to rest versus help transport the suspect. Thirty minutes later he heard the explosion. Because he headed the CID he drove to the blast site and investigated the scene then continued on to give his battle buddy a proper send off to Germany to get fixed up.
He had dodged a bullet so to speak.
Not all of the 649th were that fortunate.
On Aug. 11, Staff Sgt. David Perry, California National Guard’s first casualty of the war on terror, died from an improvised explosive device dropped in front of the police station.
“Everybody’s mindset changed after that day,” remembered Davis. “No more taking it easy. We needed to add more protection around us. Like the wakeup call with the first Scud attack. It got real that night.”
Up to that unforgettable night the unit had, for the most part, remained unscathed but now it appeared that open season was declared on the San Luis Obispo company. Scuffles, IEDs, firefights, flying shrapnel and close calls with bullet holes became more frequent.
“The unit was earning its fair share of purple hearts. My fiancée’s convoy was hit. The trailer she was pulling got struck by an IED. It was just getting worse and worse,” said Davis. “We resorted to scavenging for any metal we could weld onto our vehicles for extra protection.”
In January, the troops who deployed after 9/11 met their full mobilization commitment and had to head home. For a month and a half the remaining soldiers held down the fort including his fiancée.
For all you fans of war stories that have a romantic tale this isn’t one of them.
“I got a hug from her on my birthday in November. That was pretty much it.”
Christopher and Erikka kept their relationship very professional. They did see each other on occasion but were mostly separated by platoon assignment, job detail and shift work.
“It wasn’t till we came home and could really talk that I found out several times she was the one I would speak to over our radios while I was out conducting undercover operations or chasing someone down. She knew it was me but I didn’t know who was manning our observation posts. I could just imagine what was going through her head knowing I was out there,” said Davis.
They did share a special moment one night. While pulling security on one side of the station, Erikka was using the covetous sole satellite phone having a rare timed conversation with her parents when they began taking machine gun fire. Christopher just relieved a buddy on watch at another security point when the tracers started flying. Naturally Erikka’s mother wanted to know what that noise was in the background.
“Hold on mom,” said Erikka putting the phone down. She and Christopher engaged the enemy until the firing stopped. Erikka picked up the phone and continued with the conversation.
Finally March arrived and with it their active duty replacements. The unit turned over the keys to their police station, which had reinstated or trained more than 500 Iraqi police officers and for the most part built a presence in that region of an agency that protects and serves.
“We worked side-by-side with the new guys while we transitioned out. We told them what had been working and what to watch for. That didn’t go over well. Most of our guys were civilian law enforcement so they treated the populace like they would at home. We had won over hearts and minds if you will. Our guys were just good at reading people and had established a working relationship that was friendly but respected.”
“I guess things changed after we left,” said Davis, “because they got hit immediately.”
For Christopher, Erikka and the unit they turned their focus on more important business. They were heading home. In Balad they finally had a chance to truly relax and have a slice of pizza.
“When our plane took off it performed a combat lift off, something that we never had felt before and it was so dark you couldn’t see the person next to you. Once we were clear the lights came on and the entire place erupted in cheers,” smiled Davis.
In late March 2004 they finally arrived at Los Angeles Airport with a few families members there. However, as one of the first units to return home from the war and the reception was epic.
“Everyone there was up on their feet. It was great watching the younger troops get that kind of appreciation,” Davis said.
They met the rest of their families at 3 a.m. after a three-hour bus ride to Camp San Luis Obispo. Davis and Erikka went their separate ways and didn’t really meet again till they returned to their first drill weekend 10 days later.
“Because of the circumstances of how we never really could connect over there and coming back home, it really put a strain on the relationship. It was almost like trying to meet someone over again,” said Davis.
Love prevailed, however, and they got married in June 2006. Davis returned to Angel Gate, which later dissolved, and transferred to to the Grizzly Youth Academy. Erikka decided to hang up the uniform in early 2007 after 8 years and return to school.
“We thought it best that only one of us be in the uniform.”
Shortly Davis followed suit and took a break from the military. The couple moved to Florida for his job in, of all things, investigations. They returned briefly in November 2007 to be part of a ceremony in awarding the 649th for its valor in Iraq. Memories flooded back and stories were retold. He felt that bond between brothers-in-arms again like he did with his tanker crew. He had another unit to be proud of again. The pull was strong. It was in his blood. He couldn’t escape.
“At the airport after the ceremony I ran into Master Sgt. [Cari] Beetham, one of the military police school instructors at Camp San Luis Obispo. She offered me a job on her cadre and it was because of her that Erikka and I packed up, moved back after being gone for ten months, and I swore back into the California Army National Guard in December,” said Davis.
Beetham took Davis under her wing and provided the groundwork he needed to jump back into the game. She also helped him save a life.
“She offered me a new career path. She is the reason I’m successful here at the school house. Another reason I’m proud to know her was we responded to a vehicle that swerved off the road near the camp late June 2008. While I gave the woman inside the turned over car aid Beetham was bracing it to make sure it wouldn’t roll over. We worked as a team to keep the woman alive and assist the arriving emergency responders to get her to a hospital,” said Davis.
For their efforts they were the first California National Guardsmen to be awarded California’s Medal of Valor, Special Act Award for Davis and Special Service Award for Beetham.
Davis found his niche as an instructor and eventually replaced Beetham as course manager when she left in 2010. He has a lot of experience to draw back on while teaching in front of National Guard and Reserve soldiers from around the nation that attends the school.
One subject he can teach is how to add stress to your life by proposing to your girlfriend and then deploy to a combat zone together.
Being in a relationship with a former military policewoman that you can literally say was your battle buddy has its tough moments.
“I’m old school. I had asked all the family members for permission to marry her,” Davis said thinking back. “Throughout the deployment on those rare satellite phone calls back home it always ended in ‘please look after each other’ and that was what drove us to keep it professional because you just didn’t know day-to-day what would happen,” said Davis.
It also has its perks.
“Erikka speaks my language,” laughs Davis. “Being married to someone who understands acronyms is a huge help in any conversation. We have our own little military community we both can hang out with and she is proud of all things military because she has been through it.”
Erikka is now a stay-at-home-mom with their two boys, Breydin, 3, and Teagan, 1.
Sgt. 1st Class Davis has more than 16 years in the military and closing in on his retirement faster than he would like. It is just natural to reflect upon your time in the service, how quickly it passes, and how it has shaped your life.
“Certainly during those key dates throughout the year where the military is honored I think how thankful we are for what we have considering what we have been through. As veterans we are proud of those we have known, the mentors, the people who help you through the tough days and proud to have known those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Davis.
“You also think about the impact you had and the difference it made in others lives. Did you occupy a key position and make it great? Did you push yourself? It is those exceptional moments in your career that dictate your actions later in your life, those life-long learning events that have the most momentous meanings behind them.”
Davis has his share of memories and looks forward to making more in a job he loves and an organization he is proud to be a part of.
He is a veteran.