Army veteran turned college student shares his experience with PLU audience

Army Sgt. Steve Shumaker served four combat tours — two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan — from 2004 to 2010.

During his 12-year career as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief, he made sure soldiers, passengers and cargo were safe, helped provide medical assistance and stood in the door gunner position. On his last tour, he helped rescue German soldiers who were ambushed by more than 200 Taliban fighters.

After flying more than 1,700 hours on combat missions, Shumaker isn’t a stranger to fear. So when he left the Army for civilian life, he was surprised how intimidating the experience could be at times.

“Since getting out, the transition has been probably the most difficult thing I’ve done,” Shumaker said Monday at Pacific Lutheran University, where he is a junior political science major.

“Losing that identity (as a soldier) in some ways can be pretty traumatic,” he said in an interview with The News Tribune.

The 38-year-old father of four was a keynote speaker Tuesday at the school’s Veterans Day ceremony.

It can be easy for Shumaker to feel isolated on the Parkland campus, where he’s 20 years older than many classmates. He’s even older than a couple of professors, he said.

While deployed, he served 24 hours a day alongside the same crew members. He knew the medic he worked with so intimately, the two didn’t have to speak to communicate.

Even after 15 years of marriage to wife Suzanne, Shumaker said the two don’t have that level of connection.

“I struggle emotionally and mentally with my decision to leave,” he said.

But then he thinks about his family. His two youngest children, 3-year-old and 8-month-old sons, will grow up with their dad at home. His oldest children, an 11-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, had an absentee father during his four combat tours.

Shumaker also gets to lead by example. He studies with his oldest children, who are home-schooled.

He has channeled his passion for the military in a new direction. Once he graduates, he plans to go to law school to study constitutional law.

He pulled two copies of the U.S. Constitution from his backpack Tuesday. He carries at least one copy everywhere he goes.

Shumaker needed help to pursue his goal of continuing his education. He credits the Warrior Transition Battalion, a program offered at Madigan Army Medical Center that helps injured and wounded troops return to service or transition to civilian life.

It was that program, along with the Pacific Northwest’s connection to the aviation industry, that brought Shumaker and his family to the South Sound. Shumaker is from Southern California and has been stationed from Hawaii to Germany. The family now lives in Spanaway.

A back and neck injury sustained during a training exercise ultimately forced Shumaker to leave the Army. The same injury made an aviation career unlikely. That’s when he opted to return to school.

He chose PLU because of its support for veterans, he said, and the school’s willingness to help cover his tuition. Unlike many of his peers, Shumaker will graduate without student loan debt, he said.

While in the Army, Shumaker was awarded the German Gold Cross of Honour for Outstanding Deeds after he and his 13-member crew landed in the middle of a gunfight and rescued 11 German soldiers under attack from more than 200 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The honor is the equivalent of the United States’ Medal of Honor. Three of the soldiers later died from their injuries.

Shumaker was also awarded the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for the same rescue.

Shumaker’s deployments included 12 months in Afghanistan in 2004, 15 months in Iraq in 2007, five months in Iraq in 2009 and his final tour in Afghanistan in 2009 for 10 months.

On this Veterans Day, he wanted to convey one message to former service members.

“They’re not alone, and somebody out there cares for them and is ready to help if (they) need help.”