When Samuel Popple reminisces about his time in Iraq, he remembers the repetitive sound of gunfire and roadside bombs throughout the night. But after nearly 22 years, the retired soldier from Axtell, Nebraska, said it became a sound he got used to, and that if he had to choose, he’d do it all over again.
After graduating from Axtell High School in 1984 and becoming a father to his first son in 1986, Popple knew he needed financial stability to raise his family. With another child on the way, he chose to pursue the fighting force on New Year’s Day in 1988.
“I always wanted to join the service. In 1988, I made it happen,” he said. “I grew up in a small town of 500 people and didn’t really have the courage to go to college. I wasn’t really going anywhere in my life, so I joined the Army.”
He completed two months of basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and chose the military occupation specialty of a heavy-wheeled mechanic. From there, Popple went across the Army post for advanced military training, a school-like setting that focused primarily on his specialty for 15 weeks.
Following his training, six months into his enlistment, Popple was sent to his first duty station in Manheim, Germany. As part of a transportation company, he worked on tractors and 40-foot trailers. While stationed, he became promotable for the fourth enlisted rank in the military, also known as corporal. Despite the excitement of his newly established career, Popple said he yearned for his family.
“It was difficult. My wife at the time was pregnant with my second son. My youngest son, Mitchell, was at home, 2 years old. It was difficult,” he said. “It took me a couple months to get them over there. I was in Germany three or four months before I even got them there.”
In 1988, Popple’s wife at the time gave birth to their second son. Three years later, they left Germany for Fort Knox, Kentucky, an Army post-training brigade where he became a father to his third son. Two years later, Popple was promoted to sergeant and left for Korea –– a hardship tour, meaning a year without family. At the station, he was placed in a field artillery battalion known as a multiple launch rocket system.
As a mechanic, Popple said he became a jack of all trades. He was then stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, where his fourth son was born. Toward the end of 1999, he received orders to report to Honduras and was promoted to staff sergeant while en route. His journey included several other stations as well, like Fort Riley, Kansas and Aberdeen, Maryland, where he made sergeant first class.
“To be in charge of a multiple that supported another field artillery unit, we had [M119] towed howitzers,” he said. “To be in charge of that, to be the fifth person in my company and to have all these new soldiers, NSOs, privates coming in and training, you get to kind of mold them the way you want to.”
However, that was not the true test of Popple’s leadership abilities. In 2006, he was sent to Iraq for a 15-month deployment. He was removed from the mechanical skills he was familiar with and put in charge of a combat maneuver platoon of 25 soldiers. Popple was tasked with choosing the soldiers in their company to conduct combat patrol.
“It was scary at first because I had never been in a combat zone like that, ever,” he said. “When I chose my non-commissioned officers and soldiers, I looked and saw who had multiple deployments in theatre and chose them to have on my team. I sought the guidance of my subordinates.”
His first time out on patrol was a night Popple said he’ll never forget. The words no soldier wants to hear echoed over the radio: shots fired.
“We started hauling tail around the corner. A soldier runs through concertina wire so now I’ve got concertina wire all wrapped up in my hackles of my trucks,” he said. “I’m on another major road where the shots were fired. I’m lying on the ground and had to cut those wires so I didn’t tear up my truck. That is the scariest thing that I’ve ever gone through.”
Patrolling is a military tactic that allows units to carry out a specific objective. One night, Popple and his team received reports about an IED on a road. After coming across a propane bottle with wires attached, they called an end to the mission. But immediately following their find, Popple received a radio call that the IED was still active in place.
“Our trucks are equipped to jam cellphone signals but I look over to my right and see a cellphone tower, which is more powerful than what we got,” he said. “So, my lieutenant and NCO’s jump the median and start going back the other direction, and boom.”
According to Popple, the IED was placed to injure ground personnel, as it damaged their Humvee with nut and bolt marks. He received word that his men were OK and passed along the information to the battalion.
Popple returned to Fort Riley in 2008 with the daunting experiences he faced in Iraq at the forefront of his mind. He retired from the Army on Oct. 1, 2009, because of his limitation with being promoted. Looking back, Popple accredited the military to his personal growth and maturity.
“It definitely formed me. The wealth of knowledge to learn all the different things you get to work on, between wheeled vehicles, track vehicles … it has shaped me,” he said. “I’m a stronger person. I learned, even as being a senior noncommissioned officer in the military, you learn from your soldiers as they learn from you. So, yeah, it made me a better person.”
The absence of brotherhood was something Popple said he experienced immediately following his retirement in 2009. This longing was unfilled until four years ago when he discovered the Bellevue chapter of the American Veterans Motorcycle Club consisting of veterans from all military branches.
“I miss the brotherhood of my soldiers, the cohesion of my teams. And I’ve found that again,” he said. “The brotherhood, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my brothers and I know there’s nothing my brothers wouldn’t do for me. The cohesion that I missed initially after I retired, I have found. So, I’m whole again.”