In 2000, a young James Redhouse looked around at his high school buddies and saw they were joining the Utah National Guard, so he decided to do the same thing. But at 17 he needed his parent’s permission, which his mother somewhat reluctantly gave. One year later, in the early fall of 2001, the world changed. Eventually, Redhouse was sent to Iraq, where he suffered wounds that would send him home and earn him a Purple Heart. Today, he’s still a member of the National Guard and, when not training, works on the Dixie National Forest. In December, he will receive his degree in civil engineering. That’s when he’ll go from being a Forest Service civil engineer trainee to just civil engineer.
Joseph Gatewood, your great-grandfather, served in the Marine Corps as a Navajo Code Talker during World War II. It seems natural that you would follow in his footsteps.
In a way I thought, ‘Hey, my friends are doing it, and it would be a cool thing to do.” But when I looked into it and needed to get my mother’s signature, I thought it was a great opportunity to serve my country. My mother (Rosemary Redhouse) was hesitant on signing it, but she still signed it and said that she would support my decision. Of course, she did because it was me telling her that everything would be alright. I was not saying that I would carry a gun or go off to war because I was told the unit I joined hadn’t been deployed in 20 years. They said nothing likely would happen. And so I signed up. I graduated from high school in 2001, and left for basic training at the end of August. I officially made it “across the tracks,” which means I was officially in training, on Sept. 7, 2001. Four days later, well, we all know what happened.
You were in an odd situation during your training. Given that you could not imagine your unit being deployed, did the world’s events make training harder?
Everything changed. There were guards everywhere. We did not get to watch TV even once. We weren’t allowed to see any newspapers. My mom sent me a couple of Time magazines, which I was able to go through a little bit before they took them away from me. But they kept the world outside. The first time I saw anything of 9/11 was in December of that year. I came home knowing that we would be deployed, and I just thought to myself that I would stick with it and fulfill my obligation. But the interesting thing was that the unit was deployed but not to the war. Instead we went to be security guards in the 2002 Winter Olympics at the end of January. It was the Olympics, yes, but there was very, very tight security.
Then, for a while a least, your life went back to normal.
When I was done with the Winter Olympics, I served a two-year Spanish-language mission in Texas for my church. When I came home in 2004, I was told to be on alert and that we could go overseas. But that didn’t happen until October 2005. I had gone through six months of training, some in Mississippi and also in California, but it didn’t get real until much later. Ten days before leaving I got married. Then I got on a plane in Las Vegas and went to Kuwait then Iraq. I remember the first time I got off the plane in Kuwait the heat hit me and felt like a blow dryer in my face. They put us in buses with black out curtains. We were escorted by Humvees with 50-caliber guns on them. We started off slow then got faster and faster and faster and turned from an escort into what felt like a race. That’s what really scared us.
Later we were flown into a camp on a black hawk. It was pitch dark. I had never been in a place that dark before. As we were landing, there were mortars landing around us. We ran from the flight line to a barracks. I remember there was a guy sitting in the doorway calm, asking us our names while we all were wondering if we should be standing in that doorway.
After that, things moved quickly from bad to worse.
I was placed as a gate guard, and it was an August day, everything was going good. I had been there about five weeks. We were hit by mortar attacks, but they weren’t very accurate so we just kept doing what we needed to do. When you are on gate guard, it is pitch black. Very dark. Time was sort of going by when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a mortar had landed 10 feet behind where I was standing. By that time, I had no time to react. I was standing next to a large concrete barrier and near a trailer when it hit the ground. Luckily enough I was standing behind where it landed, so 80 to 90 percent sprayed forward. Unfortunately, the rest sprayed backwards or ricocheted. It hit five areas of my body. Just me. The other gentleman was sitting in a vehicle, so he was okay.
The funny thing was that movies depict that when bombs or grenades goes off, you see rocks falling and dust falling and you hear ringing in your ears. Well, that’s 100 percent what happens. I kind of smelled burning flesh, and I thought, “Yep, there’s something wrong.” My hand had a small gouge. You could see part of my bone, and it was bleeding pretty badly. I kept telling myself that I can’t panic, and I can’t lose it. I just lay there, breathing slowly and trying to crack jokes with people so time would not go by so slowly. I think they say the adrenaline kept me going. It didn’t wear off for a while. I remember lying there, and the medic yelled out, “Get me a pair of needle nose pliers.” Then he looked at me and said, “There is shrapnel behind your ear. It didn’t penetrate your skull.”
That was lucky incident number one. Number two was the Kevlar I was wearing. A piece of shrapnel had hit the left side of my neck but had stuck in the Kevlar piece. Number three, and I wasn’t told this for weeks afterwards, but I had had a piece about half the size of a CD hit my plate, shattered my plate, but didn’t go through an area right where my kidney is. Then, and there is no nice way to say this, but there was a piece in my male area that just missed the main artery by one-quarter of an inch. You could say another miracle happened. I escaped only with injuries and that’s it, really.
Those injuries resulted in you being awarded the Purple Heart, a medal awarded to military personnel injured or killed.
I was lucky. There were people in my medical wing far worse than me. I had trouble walking. I looked like an old man. Other people couldn’t walk.
I still remember as plain as day when they flew me out on the Black Hawk there was a Marine who was hit, and he was in really bad shape. He was lying next to me until we both went into the surgery center. When I woke up, which took about two hours, I asked the nurse about the Marine. She told me he had passed away. I remember crying for an hour. That’s when it hit me that it was real. I spent a couple of days there and in a Bagdad medical wing. A lot of guys there were in really bad shape, missing limbs and really, really messed up people. It was another wake up call for me.
You spent less than two months in the war zone then returned home. You not only decided to stay in the guard, but you went to school and joined the ROTC program. Why?
In a way, yes, I felt the last tour of duty I didn’t finish. Since day one, when I signed on the dotted line, I felt I made that decision that if it’s time to go, it’s time to go. I’ve never ceased to think that way. I am also very aware of my responsibilities to my family (wife, Elisa, and son Gabriel).
Some of the biggest things I have learned are a sense of loyalty, honesty, leadership, teamwork and overall it shows I can commit myself through thick and thin times. I know I can apply myself just as well to the Forest Service. They know I can do this. They know I can stay faithful, and I will do what I can to make this a better place. That’s why I chose to be an engineer, to make the world a better, safer place.
This originally was posted in 2011.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.