SHERIDAN — Occasionally Chris Rojo runs into old service buddies from his Montana Army National Guard unit at the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Center where he works. He said it’s not the same as running into just any old friend.
“It opens up some old scars. It definitely does,” he said.
Rojo, a registered nurse, served two tours of duty as a medic in Iraq — one as a boots-on-the-ground medic and the other on helicopters, stabilizing wounded service members en route to the nearest hospital.
Rojo now lives with his wife, Nanciann, in Sheridan where they both grew up. Rojo moved back to attend nursing school at Sheridan College in 2012. They have three children: Isaac, 8, Gabe, 4, and Nanette, 1.
Rojo said he was always drawn to the idea of military service. An older cousin who served in the Navy encouraged him, and Rojo approached recruiters as early as his freshman year in high school.
“I was always infatuated with the military,” Rojo said. “Any chance we got to drive by the armory down there at the [Sheridan] College, I was always looking to see what was out there.”
After graduating from Sheridan High School in 2003, Rojo entered basic training. Hardly more than a year later, he received orders to deploy to Iraq, where he stayed for one year.
On one mission during this first deployment, Rojo was part of a medic team responding to 80 patients who were wounded during a suicide bombing. Rojo and the other medics worked hard, triaging, stabilizing and transferring patients as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital. But the injuries were severe and roughly half of the 80 Iraqis died.
“I really just kind of walked around in a daze for about three days afterward, just trying to process it and convince myself that it had actually happened,” Rojo said. “And as a 20-year-old kid that’s just out of high school, that’s — that’s a lot.”
Rojo then turned to school, using the college tuition benefits to which his service entitled him. Rojo enrolled at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. There he would be close to the Montana Army National Guard base and would get to pursue the subject he discovered he loved back in high school — environmental studies.
A few years into Rojo’s time at Carroll, a friend notified him about an opening for a flight medic position with a Helena-based unit. He jumped at the chance.
“I thought well, OK, yeah. Those were the cool guys in Iraq,” he said, thinking back to his first deployment.
His experience had taught him that the faster that ground medics could transfer a wounded service member to the medical evacuation team, the higher their survival chances were. He wanted to sign on.
Rojo trained at the Fort Rucker Military Base in Alabama during the summers, while still attending classes in Helena during the school year. When his bachelor’s degree and training were complete, he deployed to Iraq again from 2011-2012.
Rojo loved the flight medic work, but it was grueling. He often worked on call for back-to-back, 24-hour shifts. He could sleep or go to the mess hall, but if his primary response team was called off base, they had to mobilize and be airborne within 15 minutes.
His team, he said, often cut that time down to five minutes.
Rojo worked at all hours. In order to avoid giving away the helicopter’s position, he had to keep his work area in the back of the aircraft dark, using night goggles to see while he inserted intravenous fluids into his fellow service members.
Rojo said that despite the challenges he has endured, he is glad he served. For him, the wording on a popular veterans T-shirt, which borrows from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” sums up the experience well: “They were the best of times. They were the worst of times. And I’d never trade them.”
Rojo said any young person considering military service should research all of their options and talk to veterans about their experiences before committing. He also hopes to see more doors open for female members of the military and more veterans seeking support to deal with the mental and emotional challenges of re-entering civilian life.
“Getting out is hard, period,” he said. “Don’t go through any of it alone.”