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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 1999. 

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 would fight.

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 family.

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 haven’t served?

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 thoughts?

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 stay free.

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.

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August 4, 2014