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Serving Far from Home

by on November 11, 2019 5:00 AM

It is not an easy thing to do at any age in any circumstance: picking up, leaving your family and friends to join the military. When people sign up, they never know where they might end up having to serve, and many loved ones back home worry that the worst might happen.

Besides the potential sacrifice of putting your life on the line for your country, there are countless other sacrifices that people make while in the military, from putting their lives on hold for years at a time to living in tight quarters on a large ship in the middle of an ocean, and many more.

But it is a sacrifice that many make to protect the country and preserve its freedom. For those who were never in the military, it may be hard to imagine what it is like to be away from home, serving our country.

‘I would 100-percent do it again’

Richard Sponeybarger was still in high school when he signed up for the Navy. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do after he graduated from Huntingdon Area High, and one day a friend told him that if he signed up to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, he would get out of psychology class for a day. That sounded like a good idea to the high school senior.

“So he got me,” says Sponeybarger. “So I went to take the ASVAB and the Navy recruiter got ahold of me and told me that if I signed this contract, they would set me up with a job, benefits, everything like that; you get $12,000 to sign. So I was like, ‘Why not do that for a couple of years?’”

His buddy who talked him into taking the ASVAB ended up joining the Army, and both were off to serve their country at 18 years old.

Sponeybarger’s parents, George and Maria, met while George was serving in the Army, so they knew what it meant to serve.

“Dad was like, ‘This makes sense.’ He was in the Army, Pap (has grandfather) was a Marine. But my mom was not happy about it at all. She actually tried to talk to my recruiter, and asked ‘Are you sure that he needs to go?’” says Sponeybarger.

But he had already signed up, and left for boot camp the summer after high school graduation.

Sponeybarger adjusted quickly to boot camp and he responded well to the tight schedule. He made friends that he will always keep in touch with, and he says it was cool to stay connected with them on social media as they all went to different jobs in the Navy after boot camp.

The biggest shock to his system came during his six-month deployment on the super carrier USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf. He knew it was going to take some adjustment as soon as he stepped onboard the ship.

“Walking into the hanger bay, cause that is how you get on, it was like walking into a downtown area; there were so many people bustling. I finally got used to that and as we started over to the Persian Gulf, I didn’t fully understand the finality of it. … You think you are going on a six-month trip and then when you are there for three weeks and you don’t see land that whole time and it is like, “So this is it,’” says Sponeybarger. “After about week three, people are looking around, thinking, ‘Are we ever going to go back?’”

The tight quarters were difficult to deal with, something the only child wasn’t used to. After all, here were about 5,000 people on the ship with him for six months. His only personal space was in his bunk area, and he says, “You were never really alone anywhere on the ship.”

He had a locker and his coffin-rack-style bunk to call his own in a berthing area that housed 180 people.

But he got used to it and says he grew from the experience. The camaraderie he felt with the rest of the crew helped make the experience something he looks back upon fondly. They would make up games and find ways to entertain themselves, and Sponeybarger smiles when he talks about it. He was busy with his job as a nuclear machinist and felt good about the work he was doing, but still he missed the comforts of home.

“Once we crossed over through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf, just the heat and humidity was shocking,” says Sponeybarger. “It would be maybe 125 degrees outside. And in between the steam pumps, it got up to 140. It got so hot your eyes hurt.”

But at other times, the beauty of the ocean was sight to behold.

“Especially around sunrise or sunset, you’d go out for a cigarette, you see nothing but water, and depending on where you are at in the ocean, the water does change,” he says. “In the Pacific Northwest, the water is choppy and you have big swells. In the Persian Gulf, the water is just glass and it almost seems more barren then a desert.”

Sponeybarger stayed in contact with friends and family from around the globe through Facetime and other social media. He called his parents when he could while in port to keep them up to date.

His mother “would leave me messages on Facebook. ‘I hope you are doing well,’ and ‘I hope you are getting enough to eat.’ You know, mom stuff,” says Sponeybarger. “I tried to reassure them all the time that everything was OK, because I do understand the imagination can be daunting sometimes. You think about all the scenarios that people could be in. So I tried to keep them up to date day-to-day what is going on. But even when things weren’t going the best, you can’t say that.”

After his deployment, his dad surprised him with a display of emotion that he will never forget.

“I remember coming home right after deployment. He is not the most emotional guy, but when he saw me he gave me a big hug and picked me up and everything,’ says Sponeybarger. “That was nice.”

‘I know I kind of fell into the situation, but I would 100-percent do it again. The job I learned, the people I met along the way, are bar-none my best friends. They became like family,” he says.

Now, after six years in the Navy, he is back in central Pennsylvania, attending Penn State. Things have come full circle, and he is living with his buddy who talked him into taking the ASVAB test in high school. He started growing his facial hair out a few weeks before he was discharged and now sports a long beard, a little different than his sailor days.

‘A deeper appreciation for people who served’

Dr. Sabrina Sumner went to Air Force boot camp a little later in life than most. She was 26 when she made the choice to join the military as part of the Health Professions Scholarship Program as a way to pay for medical school. Taking orders took some getting used to, but she adjusted.

As part of the HPS program, she entered boot camp after she got accepted into med school and then did some military training while she attended Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Atlanta.

“That was a shock. Despite that fact that I had all this military in my family, nobody prepared me for what I would experience walking in that door,” says Sumner. “The first thing I remember is you get separated from your stuff, which makes people nervous. And then my hair was down, and it always has to be up so I was desperate to find a hair tie. You were told to keep your head down and read the operating instructions. You weren’t allowed to say anything unless you were told to say it. So, completely different, especially when you are 26 years old, you are not 18. You are an adult at this point, able to do the things that you want. And now, somebody is screaming at you and you didn’t even do anything and telling you the way it is going to be for the next six weeks. It was quite a change.”

But the Air Force was a natural fit for Sumner, despite the fact that her poor eyesight wouldn’t allow her to fly. Her father was an F-16 pilot for the Florida Air Guard and she says he was proud, but at the same time cautious, when she decided to join.

“I think any parent is going to be cautious about your child being in the military, because obviously they can then be called up into harm’s way. So I think it was a mixed reaction; I think everyone was proud,” says Sumner.

After Sumner graduated from medical school, she entered the military full-time, doing her residency as a captain at Kessler Air Force Base in Mississippi; it was a time when she struggled with being alone. A prior relationship fell apart after she decided to join the program, and she led a secluded life on the base.

“I was single the whole time, so being in the military, I think one of the sacrifices from a family standpoint that I was enduring is that when you are sequestered in lower Mississippi on a military base, you really don’t get to see who is out there. So dating is very restricted. Of course, you can’t fraternize with anybody,” Sumner says.

Dr. Sabrina Sumner, an Air Force vet, with her two children. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert.

“I can tell you, at your reproductive time of life and you are 26 and you are going into 11 years [of service]. That is a huge deal. It definitely interfered with relationships. Most guys would turn the other way when you told then that not only are you a doctor, but you are an officer,” says Sumner. “In that way, it was definitely hard.”

After a three-year residency in Mississippi, the then-33 year-old was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. She served there for four years as a way to pay back the scholarship she received as a medical student. So while she was now in an urban area, there were still plenty of realities of being on a military base that were restrictive.

“I think it is a major sacrifice to be attached to any base, because you are essentially being told where to go. And for some ranks, you have to have a pass to leave the base; you have to have permission to do certain things. You have to get permission for pretty much everything you want to do from a personal standpoint, and that is major change,” Sumner says.

Family is important to Sumner and she struggled not being able to be close to her sister after she had a baby, and being apart from people that she cared about.

But Sumner had a number of interesting experiences while at Andrews. She served mostly in an internal medicine clinic, but also at an Army hospital, working rounds like she does now at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

Sumner’s last two years at Andrews she served as a flight surgeon, where part of her duty was to fly with squadrons.

“As the flight doc, there were so many things you could do; it wasn’t just seeing patients in a clinic, it was how could I help then in their day-to-day flying operations?” Sumner says.

She also spent a month serving in a trauma intensive care unit in Germany, working directly with service members who were injured during battle. It is something that changed her forever.

“It is one thing to see an ICU full of people who smoked and drank and had strokes because they did bad things, but it s quite another thing to see an ICU full of 20-year-old guys ... who are now paralyzed, some had their genitals blown off, their face blown to bits. … Those are things that you will never un-see,” Sumner says. “They sacrificed so much. Seeing it is hard.”

Eventually at Andrews, she met and fell in love with Andrew Leaky, the man who later became her husband. They were married while she was still serving and had a son six months before her time in the service was up. She would have stayed on, but as much as she loved serving her country, she decided that with a family, it was time for her to move on.

“That is another sacrifice that I would have had to make, leaving my child ..,” says Sumner. “I know people who left their kids and deployed as moms, and families that both people were in the military, with both people separated at different times. So I am sure that is a much different and greater sacrifice.”

While she was pregnant and still serving, she says the Air Force made sure she was not pushed into situations she could not handle. For example, she would not be called out of country. But she still had to work hard.

“I was running mass-casualty trainings where I was outside in my flight suit seven-months pregnant, making sure that we triaged the mass-casualty victims correctly. So I was still doing a physical job, but it was in the scope of whatever you could handle,” she says.

After her son Austin was born and her time in the Air Force was up, the family moved to the State College area to be close to Andrew’s family. Austin is 3 now; she also has a 1-year-old named Luke. Someday they will be interested in hearing their mom’s stories about serving, and what it meant to her.

“Initially, it was a way to pay for school and I was of course proud to do it,” says Sumner. “But I think at the end of that 11-year stint, you are just happy to be a patriot; you have a deeper understanding of the freedom provided to you and a deeper appreciation for people who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice, and people like moms separated from their kids while they were serving, people who probably sacrificed more than I did.”



Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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