Having served in two wars, most recently the war in Iraq, Westchester resident Chris Shaw has learned not to take the little things for granted.
“Don’t take water for granted, or a shower and toilet for granted either,” Shaw advises.
Shaw, 39, returned from the Iraq war zone January 9th, after serving in the region for more than a year as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It was his second activation for military combat, as he also served in Kuwait for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990.
In the war in Iraq, Shaw served with the U.S. Army 42nd Infantry Division as a UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter crew chief, based out of Forward Operating Base Camp Speicher in Tikrit, located about 200 miles north of Baghdad.
Shaw, a staff sergeant with the California Army National Guard, logged more than 338 combat flight hours during his time in Iraq, performing missions such as battlefield circulation, air assaults and VIP support missions.
In early April, three months after coming home from the war, Shaw returned to work as a police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) West Los Angeles Division, where he has served since July 2000.
Growing up in Southern California, Shaw’s career ambitions included both law enforcement and military service, but it was the latter that came first.
“When I was five years old I knew that I wanted to be an Army man, policeman and fireman,” Shaw said. “I wanted to do all three and I did.”
After graduating from high school in 1984, Shaw fulfilled his desire for “stability” by joining the Navy, where he pursued aviation. He says he gets his passion for aviation from his grandfather, who served with the Air Force in World War II and the Korean War.
While serving with the Navy in 1990, Shaw saw his first wartime combat, when he was deployed to Saudi Arabia and later Kuwait, where he served on a special warfare helicopter.
During his more than four months of service in Operation Desert Storm, Shaw performed combat aerial operations and combat search and rescue missions.
In the 15 years between the two wars Shaw served in, he says the advancement of technology has helped make the experience a little easier for soldiers. Soldiers today rely on the Internet for communication, but that technology was not available to them in 1990.
After his service in Operation Desert Storm, Shaw received various military honors including, the Air Medal, Kuwait Liberation Service Medal, Navy Unit Commendation and the Naval Reserve Meritorious Service Medal.
In 1993, Shaw transferred from the Navy to the California Army National Guard, based out of Los Alamitos.
Two years later, he fulfilled one of his other childhood ambitions by becoming a police officer with the LAPD.
But in his 19th year of military service in late 2004 and less than two years before his service with the National Guard was up, Shaw was activated under presidential order to deploy to Iraq.
“I was so close,” Shaw recalled before heading to Iraq. “My service was almost up.”
Shaw was primarily stationed with the 42nd Infantry Division at Camp Speicher, which was formerly Saddam Hussein’s air force training base.
For eight months out of the full year Shaw was stationed in Iraq, he and his unit lived in a tent in the middle of the desert. The experience had its share of trying moments, such as scorpions climbing on pillows, he said.
Among Shaw’s primary responsibilities in Iraq was “battlefield circulation,” in which he flew seven hours a day to transport soldiers back to the air base who were returning home or going to camp for rest and relaxation.
His secondary mission was to aid in air assaults. He also took part in VIP support missions, where he would transport celebrities such as singer Jessica Simpson for performances for the troops.
Shaw and his unit were occasionally called to aid in “hero missions,” where they transported bodies of fallen soldiers or civilian workers.
While serving in Iraq, Shaw said many of the positive accomplishments of the military seemed to be kept out of the media spotlight.
Efforts of the military to deliver packages to Iraqis, including soccer balls that brought joy to their faces, were overlooked for the news, he said.
“I didn’t see the media emphasizing much of the positive stuff,” he said. “There are Iraqi people who do like us and are glad we’re there.”
After Shaw was finally called to leave Iraq in November, he realized how fortunate he was to have returned alive from a war that has taken more than 2,400 American lives.
“I made it back,” he said. “All 16 helicopters from my unit made it back.”
For his service in the war in Iraq, Shaw was honored with various military awards, including, the Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal.
When he stepped off the plane back in his native land, Shaw said he was in “such a daze” to know he had returned safely, but he celebrated the occasion by doing some partying.
“I’ve probably gained 20 pounds since I returned,” he said.
Shaw was honorably discharged from the Army in December and will complete his service with the California Army National Guard Thursday, July 13th.
He says he wants to continue serving the community once his military service ends, but after two wars and more than 20 years in the military, he says he is thankful for the opportunity it has provided.
“It was a great opportunity,” he said. “I made it.”