One nation, one veteran’s​ story
10 mins read

One nation, one veteran’s​ story

From rural Iowa to the mountains of Afghanistan to USD, Gregg Taylor took his self-proclaimed life of “mediocrity” and decided to start over. 

His new beginning: a combat engineer in the United States Army. 

At age 18, despite his father’s hesitation, Taylor became a fourth-generation enlisted Army soldier. He didn’t know if it was the right decision and he questioned his reasoning. Now, at 25, he said he knows it was his way of searching for motivation. 

“I had been mediocre in my life up to that point; I didn’t try my hardest at everything I should have,” he said. “I needed a fresh start and I knew I was capable of a lot more than what I was giving at that point. I enlisted in the Army … and just went full in and gave it everything I had.”

After enlisting, Taylor was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-17. He was just a small-town kid, he said, and had no idea what to expect overseas. 

“What I learned about Afghanistan is that it is a complicated country in a lot of ways. There are a lot of really great people there fighting for their country … and we try to help them in certain ways…” Taylor said. “It’s a real struggle and to see that up close was really shocking.”

Engineering without building

Taylor chose to become a combat engineer because he said he had never heard of it and wanted to do something different. 

“I don’t really know why (I chose that),” he laughed. “I think they showed me some weird Army video and … I thought, ‘Combat engineer. I’ve never heard of that. Am I going to be building stuff?’”

Actually, he didn’t build anything. Instead, he was responsible for mobility, counter-ability and survivability. 

He and his team swept routes to ensure they were clear of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), bombs constructed and used in ways that differ from traditional military uses. 

“We did route clearance, which is basically just making route and making sure it’s safe for other forces to travel on and even civilian people,” Taylor said. “You want to make sure that regular people can travel in their own country from place to place without having to worry about IED or other threats.”

Search for IEDs and finding friendship

Thousands of miles from home, searching for IEDs, Taylor found something else: his best friends. Knowing they are going through the same things, he said, and having constant support builds the biggest bond. 

He still keeps in contact with his military friends even after being on leave for almost three years. 

“Everyone experiences it together, so to go through it together is how you get through those situations. You have to be there with your unit and friends and support them and carry each other,” he said. “I never had friends like that up to that point so I talk to them all the time.” 

MORE: University to construct monument to honor USD’s Medal of Honor recipients

The downside of a bond that strong, Taylor said, is when someone doesn’t make it home. It’s something the entire unit feels. Though he didn’t lose anyone in his unit, he said he still feels the sadness and sympathizes with those who have.  

“There are people that don’t come back and it’s tough,” Taylor said. “(For soldiers) to talk about their experiences together … and just to have that camaraderie (is important).”

Talking with fellow soldiers or veterans is important, Taylor said, but unfortunately, most of the hard times and battles are fought alone. 

He focuses on staying active and tries to remain involved so he doesn’t sit trapped with his thoughts, he said. 

“When you become stagnant and stop doing things is when people start to get a little down. After you go to that point it’s hard to get out of it,” he said. 

Among many things, Taylor said the Army taught him resilience and motivated him to keep pushing himself. 

“It changes you personally,” he said. “One thing the Army taught me is that even when things are bad you have to keep pushing and keep going and give it everything you have. That’s the most beneficial thing that has helped me in life.”

Transitioning from combat to civilian life can raise challenges for veterans. According to BBC news, nearly 17% of all combat soldiers suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the number continues to rise. 

In 2004, only 6% of veterans suffered from PTSD. Taylor thankfully does not suffer from PTSD but still faced challenges while transitioning back to the real world, he said.

“For some people, it can be really tough, especially when you get out of the military, because when you’re on a course like that you are surrounded by your brothers and sisters,” he said. “They are there for you all the time, whether you are fighting with them, love them, laughing with them or whatever, you always have that.”

Missing that group of people who understand what they are enduring makes transitioning that much harder for soldiers, Taylor said. 

“You don’t have that group to fall back on and to talk to, cry with, laugh with and everything else. It’s tough at times,” he said. 

Taylor said he encourages all veterans who are struggling to seek help. It is hard to battle alone, he said.

“I have had friends who have committed suicide because they have gone through that and haven’t reached out,” he said. “There are people out there who are willing to talk to them and to not be alone.” 

Back to school

The transition back to education is another challenge. Taylor said he knows a lot of veterans who do not go back to school because of the fear of being “old” students. 

“Honestly, your professors don’t care. They are going to be there to support them whether you’re 18 or however old you are,” Taylor said. “I encourage them to go. It might be weird at first, but you get used to it and then it’s not a big deal at all.”

He was worried about the age gap at first, Taylor said, but quickly realized it is only weird if he made it weird. 

In fact, he said most people didn’t realize he was older until he started talking about his high school cell phone. 

“I was talking about how in high school I had a flip phone and no one knew I was older because I look younger,” he said. “My cover was kind of blown I guess, but most days I don’t even think about it.”

MORE: Student veterans share stories

Now, Taylor, a junior history major and a member of the ROTC program, is one of seven student veterans enrolled at USD. After coming to USD, he realized his Army story wasn’t complete. He decided to start training to become an officer.

Officers are responsible for the “big picture” side of the army. Taylor said he never planned on becoming an officer but soon realized he missed the camaraderie of the Army. 

“Being previously enlisted, I didn’t have any of the leadership side of things. I was low in the hierarchy of the Army,” he said. “So I can improve my leadership, whether its tactics or bigger picture stuff. I just missed the challenge and the camaraderie and community of the Army and the professionalism of it all.”

Celebrating peace

As Veterans Day approaches, he likes to note that it was originally celebrated as Armistice Day, the history buff said.

Armistice Day was a celebration of peace from World War I, and Veterans Day, to Taylor, is still a celebration of peace. 

“(I think there is a) misconception that the Army wants war. To me, you have a strong Army and military so you can conserve peace,” he said. 

His decision to join the Army was exactly what he needed, Taylor said. It pushed him and taught him responsibility. It continues to motivate him in every aspect of his life. 

Before and during his service, he had doubts. Everyone fears the worst, he said, but it’s important to use that fear as motivation. 

“You can play the whole ‘I’m big and bad’ and everything, but there is always a certain fear that you won’t come home with everyone or that you will fail in some way… and that fear never really leaves, at least for me,” he said. “It’s good to have that. You don’t want to get complacent in those situations ever.”

The military isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, Taylor said. But it’s not the only way to serve your country.

“Everyone in their community serves their country in some way. It’s not just the soldiers who are serving their countries,” he said. “It’s the teachers, firefighters, journalists, we all have a job in our democracy.”