For those of you who have uniform fantasies, this week we bring you an award-winning former servicemember, Chris Ramos.
It’s hard to imagine the affable Ramos in the heat of battle as he casually jokes and recalls his overseas missions, but with 18 medals to his credit, including the 82nd Airborne Division Soldier of the Year award, he’s the real deal.
PGN: Where are you from? CR: I grew up in Bethlehem, but I’ve been in Philadelphia since 1991.
PGN: What was life like in the city of Bethlehem? CR: It was great. We were actually transplants from New York, so it was nice to move out to the country. I was about 8 when we moved, so I enjoyed playing outside in the fresh air.
PGN: Any siblings? CR: Yes, I’m the youngest of five.
PGN: What did the folks do? CR: My dad had two businesses: a restaurant and a Latin nightclub. My mother was a stay-at-home mom.
PGN: Favorite class in school? CR: Cinema and photography. I love taking pictures. I studied nursing at community college and then joined the Army for three years. While there, I received the Soldier of the Year award, 82nd Airborne Division. I got out, then joined the Air Force Reserves and went back to college through the Air Force and got a degree in science and information technology. I just retired from the Reserves three years ago.
PGN: Wow, so you put a lot of time in. What made you soldier of the year? CR: I was young and very proactive in the military. You have to do extracurricular things, so I was a member of the church choir and ran on the commander’s cross-country team, I used to do marathons back then. You also have to learn military history. You come before a board and they evaluate your answers as well as how you present yourself.
PGN: What was a favorite part of the history you studied? CR: I think the Civil War was an important part of our history that a lot of people don’t know enough about. It forged a good part of who we are as a nation.
PGN: What was an interesting memory from the service? CR: The medics getting goofy with the medical equipment. I was in Kuwait right before the Iraqi War started. In fact, I was part of the first medical mission and, after that, I was on the first humanitarian mission. When we were working with kids, we’d do things like blowing up gloves and drawing happy faces on them. Silly stuff.
PGN: What was your feeling about what was going on? CR: Initially, it was a nightmare for everyone, certainly for our troops. It was scary: Our government kept talking about “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” As a soldier stationed there, it was like, OK, am I going to die here from a WMD? It was a real fear. You just didn’t know what was going to happen. Then when the Iraqis were shooting scud missiles toward Kuwait, they were aiming for the tower at the international airport. Our military camps were all near the base of the tower so whenever there was an incoming missile, it went right over our heads and all the sirens went off. We’d all have to get up and go to a bunker. They would do it purposely in the middle of the night so that our sleep was interrupted.
PGN: I didn’t even think of the sleep-deprivation aspect of being bombed. What else don’t we realize? CR: There were things that happened at the camps that are unfortunately often a part of wars. Rape and substance abuse, from the serious to the silly. On the serious side, we had a major who got caught putting holes in the walls of the women’s bathrooms and facilities and spying on the female soldiers. And on the sillier side, we had a soldier who was a streaker: He’d just run around the camp naked. We were supposed to be a dry base, no alcohol, no sex, but it was all there in the middle of the desert.
PGN: Lara Logan, who is the chief correspondent for CBS, did some really good reports on the conditions there and said we have no idea how bad it can be. She was on the front lines with some soldiers who were saving moldy bread because they didn’t have enough to eat. CR: Yeah, even at the camps it was bad. For us, the food was being prepared by the Kuwaitis who, though they tried, didn’t know how to make American food and we couldn’t adjust to their food. I remember trying to eat mashed potatoes and they were disgusting. We just stopped eating unless we had friends from home send us packages with tuna or something. I lost over 17 pounds.
PGN: What was a fond memory? CR: Mail call was always something we looked forward to. I had a friend who worked at the Pentagon and she once asked me what I missed most and I said, “Coffee! I miss Starbucks.” Later, I was in my tent and someone from the command center came in and said, “Sgt. Ramos, you have to come get your mail.” I said, “OK, I’ll pick it up at mail call.” He said you’re going to have to borrow an SUV and come get it. My friend had gotten her friends at the Pentagon involved and they sent over all these crates of coffee and coffeemakers and coffee-related stuff. The SUV wasn’t big enough — I had to get a truck! I was the talk of the camp for some time. What was really great was that I had so much, I was able to put packages together and send it forward to the Marines and Army that were at the front. They had nothing. In my tent, there were 12 people. The limited space is divided evenly, but I was by the door and had more room than anyone. So I set up a coffee station and had a mini Starbucks going! Everybody stopped by and I gladly shared.
PGN: Coming out? CR: That was easy, I was never really in. When I was 22, I sat my mother down and had a talk with her. I like to be prepared, so I had all sorts of information for her and was able to answer any questions she had. I told her, I am who I am and it’s not something I hide, so if it’s an issue for you, here are people you can talk to. It wasn’t a problem. I grew up in a very liberal family and I remember when I was young, my parents had a lot of parties. Back then, gay couples used to socialize with heterosexual couples. There were a few of their friends that looking back I thought may have been couples. I had her bring out some old photos and pointed some of them out and sure enough they were gay couples. I must have known instinctively.
PGN: Were you open in the military? CR: Pretty much. I didn’t carry a banner, but never tried to make it seem like I was straight. At one point, when I was going on a mission, I left a picture of the guy I was dating and his contact info with my colonel. I said, “If anything happens to me, call him and let him know. If I come back alive, I want the picture back!” She put it in her desk and assured me she would call him. Fortunately, I got back unharmed and was able to retrieve the picture. Could she have turned me in? Yes, I handed her the evidence, but she didn’t and I respected that. I never had any issues with it. I worked with some stellar people.
PGN: Changing gears, any hobbies? CR: I still love photography. I love shooting in black and white. I also love being at the beach. After being in a war, there’s something beautiful about the quiet of sitting by the water listening to the waves.
PGN: Do you have a partner? CR: Yes, David. We’ve been together 16 years and had a big wedding ceremony five years ago. It was grand. We had 12 people in the bridal party. Our whole families were there from both sides. David’s brothers were groomsmen and our sisters gave us away. It was at the Merion Tribute House, which was fitting because it was built to commemorate the soldiers of WWI. It was beautiful. We plan to do it legally in New York next year.
PGN: What does David do? CR: We both work for The Star Group, which is a marketing and advertising company.
PGN: And I understand you were a flight attendant at one point? CR: I was! After retiring from the military, I did administration and worked as a flight attendant for US Airways.
PGN: Most annoying passenger? CR: What a lot of people don’t understand is that we have a lot of federal regulations we have to abide by. One of them is that we’re not allowed to leave our posts as we’re boarding passengers. I was at the front door and there was a woman trying to board with her child. They were in separate seats and wanted me to help them board. I was trying to direct her to a flight attendant in the seating section but she wanted me to handle it there and then and would not take no for an answer. She held everything up as I explained four times that I couldn’t leave the door. Sometimes you just get those people who won’t listen. I felt bad for her, being frazzled and traveling with a 7-year-old, but there was nothing I could do.
PGN: An award you’re proud of? CR: I’ve been awarded 18 medals, but the highest honor was the Air Medal because that comes directly from the president’s office. You can only be awarded it if you’ve flown a certain number of missions during combat along with other criteria. Like you have to have been in harm’s way, and we were always being shot at, so I definitely qualified.
PGN: Tell me about it. CR: An example was when we secured the Baghdad International Airport. In the beginning, they would bring wounded soldiers from Baghdad into Kuwait on Black Hawks. Once we secured the airport we were able to fly medical supplies directly into Baghdad and pick up wounded soldiers. I was on the first mission to collect the wounded. The pilots do what’s called a combat landing. They have flares going to deflect the shooting and it’s completely lights out. I looked out the window and you could see the bullets, the tracers, whizzing by. We wear a flack jacket in front and one on our backs in case a bullet comes through the plane. The preparation for landing is very scary: We have what’s called an ERO landing — which means engines running onload, where you don’t even turn the plane off, you just land, get the wounded and get out of there. One of the rules is that you never leave the plane. If you get off for any reason, and they come under fire and have to take off, they’re not waiting for you to get back on. There was smoke everywhere and for a moment I thought, this is it, I’m going to die.
PGN: So did you do actual nursing on patients? CR: Oh yes, we took care of hundreds of patients in the air-evac settings. The thing I remember the most was how young they were, all shot up or blinded by shrapnel. If you think of any kind of wounded you could imagine in a war setting, we treated them on our planes.
PGN: So how do you avoid the nightmares and PTSD? CR: You don’t. I suffer from PTSD and see a therapist at the V.A. hospital. You learn how to deal with it, but it’s not something that ever goes away. The nightmares don’t happen as frequently, but in the beginning they’re certainly there. The key is seeking help. It’s going to happen, it’s part of war, so you need to be prepared.
PGN: Are there things that trigger it for you? CR: Well, recently with all the 9/11 coverage, I found it really hard to watch the footage and not think about all the firefighters and emergency-response people and what they went through. It was the same as going into battle and I know they suffer from PTSD as well. There are some things that will trigger feelings for me, mostly sadness, like when they showed footage of the planes going into the buildings over and over again. Sometimes loud noises will do it, or other things will bring back memories.
PGN: What’s a smell that makes you stop and reflect? CR: I love food, so when you go by a restaurant and they have the cooking smells coming out of the vent. I love that. My partner teases me because I have every cooking gadget you can imagine but I never use them. I used to cook every day, but now it’s only once in a while.
PGN: Something that made you laugh until your belly ached? CR: There’s a little app on iPhone that lets you record yourself. My partner sings Frank Sinatra very well, but anything else, forget about it. But he likes to record himself and when he plays them it cracks me up.
PGN: Something people don’t know about you? CR: My brother died of AIDS in 1996. It was difficult because, unlike me who told the world, he was very closeted. No one in the family knew that he was gay except for me. He was originally going to be a priest and then joined the Navy. He later moved to San Diego and lived there for 13 years. It was hard because I had to give them a double whammy, first to tell them that he’d died of AIDS and then explain that he’d been gay. He found out that he had AIDS in January of ’96 and was gone by June. It was crazy. But we got through it. With the AIDS Walk coming up in October, I hope people will participate in honor of those lost to the disease.