For many years, NCIRE Board of Directors member Steve
Countouriotis served in the US Army Reserve while pursuing a career as a
California Highway Patrol officer. Shortly after September 11, 2001, he retired
from the CHP to serve on active duty with the Army. By the time he retired from
the Army in 2009 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Mr. Countouriotis had
seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Balkans, Central America,
Germany, Thailand, Cambodia, and Korea.
However, the service of the Countouriotis family did not
stop there. Steve’s sister Maria and brother George were members of the San
Francisco Police Department – Maria as one of the first female officers in San
Francisco. In turn, the children of all three siblings joined the military and
saw combat tours in Iraq. The Bridge
sat down with Steve, his wife Debbie, and Maria Countouriotis to talk about
their remarkable family and its tradition of service and sacrifice.
Q: You had parents
and older relatives who were in the military. Your generation has served in the
military and with the police. And now the next generation has served. How did
the tradition get passed on?
Steve: My father served in the US Air Force during the
Korean War, and that had an impact on my wanting to serve. Our children’s
exposure to the military came as a result of being members of an Army family living
on military bases in the USA and overseas.
Debbie: Our children grew up in a military environment, and
as they got older, Steve really felt like they needed to serve somehow. It
could be the military or some other way. He just felt that we’ve had a really
good life, and he wanted them to be able to understand that it wasn’t a
freebie. Pretty much on their own, they made the decision to go into the
military, and we fully supported them.
Maria: The greatest influence on my
son Gregory was his father Greg Corrales, Sr., who had, at the age of 17,
volunteered to join the Marine Corps to serve during the Vietnam War – and who,
I’m proud to note, is serving his forty-second year in the SFPD as Captain of
the Mission District Police Station.
Greg Sr. had only one hope and expectation of Gregory, which was that he
serve four years in the Marine Corps.
Gregory embraced the idea. It was due to his excellent grades in high
school that the Marine Corps offered him one of their few NROTC scholarships in
Debbie: When 9/11 happened, our daughter Alethea and our son
Nicholas were in the Army ROTC program. Demetrius, our oldest son, had already
been in the Marines for a couple of years, and so it was a given that they
Q: How did you deal
with anxiety of so many children in combat at the same time?
Steve: It’s not easy. The way I dealt with it, I went
overseas as well. When Demetrius went over as part of the Marine expeditionary
unit, I was there with the Army. We did the invasion of Iraq together in March
of ’03. He was in the east and I was in the west as we came up into Iraq from
Kuwait. Then a couple of years later in ’06, when Nick and Alethea and my
nephew Chris, my brother George’s son, were all in Iraq with the same Army
unit, I took an assignment in Afghanistan. It made me feel more comfortable
that I was closer there. In September ’07, Demetrius went back to Iraq for his
second tour and Nick deployed to Iraq two months later on Thanksgiving Day. I
was here at home. Then in April of ‘08 Nick got wounded in a firefight. He was
shot in the arm. As Nick was recuperating in the United States, I contacted the
Army and requested that they send me back to Iraq for another tour. I knew that Nick wanted to get back to his
unit in Baghdad; he had to. And sure
enough, as soon as the cast came off his arm, he said, “Send me back, doc.” So
he went back. But I was following behind him. So, we were in Iraq together for
the remainder of his tour. I was near
Mosul in northern Iraq and Nick was in Baghdad. And then Alethea’s husband
Jared deployed with the Army to Iraq, so now there were three of us over there.
My son, my son-in-law, and me, from ‘08 to ‘09. Of course, the person who has
been really stellar, and a rock throughout this whole thing, has been Debbie.
She’s supported every one of our deployments, sent packages, letters, getting
her friends and family members to write and send us packages. She’s been super.
Q: Debbie, how was it
for you? You had a husband as well as children and nephews fighting together.
Debbie: Of course, you’re extremely proud. You’re also
worried that something could happen to them. But then you put it in perspective
and say, you know, something could happen to them driving down the street, or
when they’re out with their friends. For me, the hardest part of the day was
from about 10 at night to 7 in the morning, because if there’s a death
notification to be made, the Army will not do it during those hours. So you go
to bed at night and say to yourself, “I talked to him today, he’s OK, let’s
hope I talk to him in the morning.” The other time it was hard was coming home
from work, because they would never notify you at your place of employment; it
would always be done at home. So I would wonder, “When I pull up to the house,
is there going to be a strange car parked there?”
Q: Steve, you and
Maria have a somewhat unusual background for an American military family.
Steve: Yes, our mother was Japanese, and her family were
samurai going back many generations. In fact, her brother, my uncle Tetsuo, was
trained as a kamikaze in World War Two. His mission was to die fighting the
Americans. Initially he trained as a pilot, but the Japanese military ran out
of airplanes. So he then trained in a two-man submarine loaded with explosives.
Their mission was to ram American warships. My uncle’s classmates from his
kamikaze class – I think just about every one of them died in the war, or they
took their own lives. My uncle did not take his own life, because he was the
only male member of the family still alive after the war. He had to take care of the family and their
property. We still keep a connection with members of our Japanese side of the
Maria: We are first generation Americans on my mother’s
side, second generation on my father’s side.
My mother was very much influenced by the number of orphans that
resulted from the war in Japan. After the war, at the age of 21, she shunned
all attempts at arranged marriages and decided to attend Columbia University to
study child psychology. It was while she
was in Nagoya, preparing for her trip to America, that she met and fell in love
with and married our father, who was with the US Air Force. My brother Steve was born in Japan.
Q: Do you think
there’s a connection between your samurai heritage and your own service in
police and military?
Steve: I think our samurai background has played a role in
why so many members of our family have joined the military and police.
Maria: Yes. Our
samurai values are part of who we are – and not because my mother recited to us
the samurai warrior’s code, or anything like that. When my brothers and I were
raised, we weren’t told that we needed to pursue careers that were going to
involve danger and sacrifice and challenge. My mother was the most influential
person in my life; standing up to be the
protector has always felt natural and right to me.
Steve: In law enforcement and in the military, it’s service
before self. As a CHP officer, I swore an oath that I would lay down my life
rather than swerve from the path of duty.
Those are pretty strong words. I don’t know of many occupations where a
new employee says that.
Maria: I didn’t grow up thinking I would become a police
officer. I did know that I always wanted
to do something that was useful to society – find a career where I could make a
difference, connect with people, and do my part. In the late 1970’s, I tested
and was accepted to become a San Francisco police officer, following close
behind the footsteps of my older brothers Steve and George. I became one of the
first women cops in San Francisco, definitely one of the trailblazers.
Q: Only one percent
of Americans today are involved in the military. Is that a difficult gap to
bridge with your friends and neighbors who haven’t served, and whose children
Steve: There’s a huge disconnect in America. Until the early
seventies, most of our wars were fought not just with volunteers, but also with
conscripts. We’ve had a draft for all the major wars until now. And that made
everyone in our country pay attention to what was going on.
Maria: My son Gregory was in Iraq part of five consecutive
years, from 2004 into 2008. During those deployments, he wrote me
heart-warming, insightful stories of his wartime experiences. With Gregory’s
permission, I shared certain emails with just about everybody I knew – friends,
co-workers, family, and acquaintances.
People repeatedly wrote me back to thank me, saying things like, “Please
continue to share these stories. Through you, your son is the only one I know
who’s in this war.” By sharing his intimate stories, I heightened awareness of
the war and helped to bridge the gap.
Debbie: Of the kids that my children went to high school
with, there are only a couple who have served, and it creates a unique bond
among them. When they get together, they have things to talk about that their
other friends just have no clue about.
Steve: My own experience – when I first came home to
Petaluma after Iraq, and then from three additional deployments since then, two
to Afghanistan and one more to Iraq – none of my neighbors asked me, “How was
it?” or “Can you tell me about the war?” To this day, none of my neighbors has
expressed any interest in talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Maria: It’s so easy for Americans at home to forget that
there are people serving. We can turn on the TV and turn it off. We can open up
the newspaper and choose to read about what’s going on in the Middle East, or
we can choose to read something else. We can keep the war shut off, and a lot
of people choose to keep it shut off.
Debbie: On those occasions when I’ve had someone be kind of
negative about it, I just look at them and say, you’re entitled to your
opinion. Because when people feel that way, you’re not going to change how they
feel. Getting into a debate or an argument with them about how my child is
doing something that is giving them the freedom to express what they’re saying
is not worth it, because they don’t look at it that way.
Q: Why should we care
about Veterans health care?
Steve: I spent 13 years overseas. I was a commanding
officer, and soldiers would come talk to me about their feelings of loneliness
and depression. What it showed me was that deployments, especially to hostile
fire areas, can affect our troops physically and mentally. But I think the real
motivator for me to get involved with NCIRE was the incredibly high suicide
rate, especially among soldiers. I believe that the Army had 341 suicides in
2010. My battalion in Iraq numbered 363. So, in one year, the Army lost to
self-inflicted death almost the equivalent of my battalion. And I see faces. I
look back in my mind to my formations, my companies all lined up. I can just
imagine all of them gone in one year. And a lot of these soldiers are taking
their lives because of depression, because they’re dealing with post-traumatic
stress. We have to do something.
Maria: For me, I know how easily one of the casualties could
have been my son. It could have been one my nephews or my niece, or my niece’s
husband, or my brother. Just because our family has survived almost unscathed,
and benefitted from their service with lots of personal growth, we cannot
ignore our service men and women who have given, and have been hurt.
Steve: All you have to do is go to downtown San Francisco
and see the homeless. Sadly, many of them are vets. Why? I think that maybe
when they came home, they had some issues. War changes people. On your twelve
to fifteen month tour, you see a lot of horrible things, some pretty sad
events. When you come home and no one is interested in hearing about what you
went through, you start to keep it inside. And you stop talking about it. I
believe that has a negative effect on people, especially if they internalize
the issues that they really need to work out with professionals. And then some
of our vets have difficulty sleeping. And that affects their job performance.
Maybe they’ll take drugs to help them sleep. Maybe drink. But they served their
country, and they did things that others did not want to do. And I feel that we
as an American society owe it to our vets to take care of them when they come
home from doing their duty.
Debbie: This could be your child, grandchild, brother,
sister, niece, nephew. It could be someone that you work with. They’ve
volunteered their service, and I think it’s the least that we can do to
acknowledge that, and help them make that transition back into society. And if
they’re hurting, we need to help them.
Steve: You know, in previous wars, soldiers spent a lot of
time together after they came out of the combat zone. They were on a troop ship
in some cases, and they spent a number of weeks on that ship, and then some
time on base, and then they went home. They had time to talk, and joke, and decompress.
Now, with jet travel, you’re in a combat zone and then 24 hours later you’re at
home. Our troops are not doing the decompression that’s so important. With our
National Guard and Reservists, they’re even more removed than our active
military. When they come home, they demobilize, and they are put back into
civilian life with no transition at all.
Debbie: I feel fortunate. Because our family has each other
– Steve, our three children, my son-in-law, my two nephews, it’s like they have
their own built-in therapy group. When they get together, the conversation
inevitably turns to something that happened when they were deployed. And they
feel very safe talking about it. As a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, and an
aunt, I am very thankful that they have that, that they have each other.
Maria: When you see someone in uniform or someone who you
know has served, thank them sincerely and tell them you appreciate what they’ve
done, or what they are still doing. And they will know that you are somebody
who is a friend. Somebody who, maybe if they want to talk, will listen.
Q: Any final
Maria: I think it’s important for people to not stereotype
Veterans. We need to respect them, thank them, and not make the assumption that
they’re damaged. In fact, many of our Veterans with deployment experiences come
back much more mature compared to others their age without military experience.
They have a greater understanding of human nature, and experience with coping
effectively under extreme circumstances. They have been tested, and proven to
be able to think under fire. These experiences translate well as leadership
skills in civilian life.
Steve: If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s
an extremely fine line between order and chaos. And keeping order requires men
and women who are willing to lay down their lives. There’s an old cliché
freedom is not free. That’s actually very true. It’s not free. The freedoms
that we have, that we take for granted in some cases, were not given to us.
They were earned. Somebody fought, and some died, so that we could be free and
Debbie: If we had to start this thing all over again, and if
I could rewind time back before 9/11, I don’t think I would change anything at
all; it’s who we are. It’s who my children are, it’s who my husband is, and
it’s who my nephews are. It’s just who we are.