Robert’s 23-year military career took him to Bosnia, Iraq and eventually the White House. But when it came time for his retirement in 2017, he looked to use his Army experience in a new career at Springs Rescue Mission.
“I’ve always been drawn to helping people who can’t help themselves — people who just need some assistance in getting things going,” he said. “I felt called.”
Robert has served as Guest Services Director for nearly three years, helping oversee major shelter expansions, the development of numerous programs and the creation of an Isolation Center for homeless individuals seeking quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We spoke to Robert about his military career, what drew him to the Mission and the impact of the virus.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I was born right outside St. Louis, Missouri. When I was 2 or 3 years old, my family moved to southern Illinois. I joined the Army and left 30 days after my 18th birthday, right after I graduated high school. I thought I’d just go in, do my time and get out. But I ended up serving just under 23 years. … By the time I got out, I was in charge of over 1,000 people at Fort Carson.
And the Army became a career for you, didn’t it?
Yes, I went into the Army under a three-year enlistment. I thought I’d just go in, do my time and get out. I wanted the experience, but I never imagined I’d get in and want to make a career out of it. I ended up serving just under 23 years.
What did you do in the military?
The bulk of my time in the Army was focused on transportation and logistics. I was deployed to Bosnia (in former Yugoslavia) when I was 19. … I did a year-long deployment there, and I think I was only 19 years old. I was promoted fairly quick. The Army came fairly naturally to me. It was something I enjoyed, and it was something I was good at, so I decided after that first enlistment that I’d stay in and see how it went. As a 20-year-old I was in charge of 4 or 5 people. … After that I came and did a stint here in Colorado — for three years. Then I got called on recruiting duty right before 9/11 happened. Those were some wild times in the recruiting world. Because as soon as that happened, we were trying to build the Army and basically double in size. I came out of that and went to Hawaii. I was excited about that, but as soon as I got there, I was sent to Iraq during the surge in 2007. … I did a couple of tours in Iraq. The deployment that probably shaped me the most was going into Iraq. We were doing a huge transition and I was working on gun truck operations. I got there a few days after my youngest daughter was born and was there for a year and a half on that deployment. There was more of a sense of purpose during that time. … I got back to Hawaii and was in charge of a company for three years. It was during that time I was selected for a position at the White House. It actually took two of those years to clear me to work at the White House because the background checks are so extensive.
Wow, how did that job come about?
The guy who was in the position had to retire, and there was nobody in the Army who was cleared to replace him. So, they pulled me in. … They had been looking at me for a few years and I didn’t even know it. Then one day they told me this is where I’m going and explained the position to me. I found out literally just a few weeks before I went to Washington D.C. … It was a unique position where I handled all of the transportation for the President, the White House staff and the First Family. I went right around President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2011. There was a lot of travel. It was fast-paced a very dynamic environment.
What was that like to work at the White House? Did you enjoy that environment?
It was a fast-paced, high-stress environment – a lot going on. It was pretty amazing to be able to see things at that level and have the experience of being able to walk through the White House and drive in motorcades with the President and First Lady. For a kid who grew up in a small town in the Midwest, those were things I never even dreamed of experiencing: being able to take my kids through the White House; take my family to White House Christmas parties and the annual Easter Egg Roll; kids got to meet President Obama and the First Lady.
When you think back on your military career, what stands out most?
I think the highlight of my career was my deployment to Iraq. We ran gun trucks and were involved in so much in the country. Me and my guys covered pretty much every inch of Iraq during the surge. I think that was really pivotal for me and also for everything that was going on in Iraq at that time. … Working at the White House was amazing too. One time I was able to take my daughters Girl Scout troop through the East Wing of the White House on a tour. They were ecstatic that they were able to meet the President’s dog during that tour. My culminating assignment was here at Fort Carson. … We were assigned to U.S. Northern Command in 2015, and I was a senior leader in charge of one of the largest units at Fort Carson — over 1,000 people.
How did you first find out about Springs Rescue Mission?
I heard Mayor Suthers talk about volunteering at Springs Rescue Mission. I didn’t think a whole lot about it at the time, but when I went into retirement mode, I went from moving 100 miles per hour to completely stopped. I knew I had to go do something. So, I started looking for places to volunteer and began looking into Springs Rescue Mission and the work they [we] do here.
How did you end up working here?
Around that time, the Resource Center was looking to go seven days a week (this was before the new Resource Center was built). … I started on as staff right after July 4th weekend in 2017, when I was still in the Army. I did that for a few months but was going all over the U.S. for job interviews. I knew this job at the shelter was going to open, but I wasn’t sure about it. I knew that I wanted to do something where my career in the Army and my background could make a difference. I wasn’t sure what that would look like, but I thought that it would probably be in ‘corporate America’ somewhere. … I had a job offer to run a paper mill in the South, but I felt called to stay at Springs Rescue Mission. I interviewed for the shelter manager position and was hired. About a week after I left the Army, I started that full-time position at the Mission.
Do you feel a connection between what you did in the Army and your current role at SRM?
When I first started, I didn’t really see a correlation between the work I had done in the Army and what I was doing at the Mission. … But there are a lot of correlations. I had a lot of challenging positions where I was given a high level of responsibility at a young age: from being 20 years old and in charge of 4 or 5 people to my last job where I was in charge of over 1,000 people at Fort Carson. The Army gave me a lot of was an understanding of putting systems and processes in place to manage that; and I think that structure has really helped me here at the Mission.
Is there anything from the Army that you think is particularly essential to your work?
I think keeping calmness in times of chaos is a strength of mine. When everyone else is panicking, I tend to stay calm. I’m used to running into the midst of chaos. During my time in Iraq, we were constantly going into situations that most people would stay away from. Every day we were on the road in Iraq with roadside bombs everywhere. … All of that has plays into what I do at the Mission. I think I’m able to stay calm and help bring order to the chaos.
How have things been lately with COVID-19 and setting up the isolation shelter?
It’s been really awesome to see how the team has pulled together and to see everyone really step up. I think all of our staff really understand and want to be a part of that, because they know how important their role is for what this community is trying to do.
When you were growing up, were you aware of homelessness?
We lived not too far outside St. Louis, so we’d see homeless people in the city when we’d go. But my first real interactions were in Hawaii. We would bring them food and do a monthly church service for them.
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