Prior to 2000, Steve Saint of Custer didn’t have a lot of direction in his life. Saint, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Penn., graduated from high school and traveled around for the next five years, working in pizza shops in Wisconsin and West Virginia.
In West Virginia, a U.S. Army recruiter asked Saint if he had ever considered becoming a soldier for the U.S. Army.
“To be honest,” Saint recalls, “I led the recruiter on for a year.”
Every week the recruiter called or stopped by the pizza shop where Saint worked or would take the low-on-money Saint out for a steak dinner or give him a carton of cigarettes. The recruiter finally asked Saint if he ever intended to sign up for the Army or if he was just using him for the freebies.
“I figured I had done it to him enough and told him to get the paperwork,” Saint said with a laugh.
In September 2000, Saint became a member of the U.S. Army. He was sent to basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C., and to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama for more training. He later trained at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Saint became a member of the Army’s 60th Ordnance Co., which operates and maintains ammunition supply points. Saint dealt with shipping and receiving and destruction of ordnance. He was a truck driver, a job he said he was good at and enjoyed while deployed.
“In the States it’s pretty monotonous, pretty boring,” he said. “A lot of it is training stuff.”
During Operation Enduring Freedom, Saint helped set up Patriot Missiles to shoot down the Iraqi Army’s Scud Missiles.
“It’s kind of like a regular job. Your boss finds out you’re reliable and he pushes a lot of stuff off on you because he knows you’re going to get it done,” Saint said. “I moved up rank pretty quickly.”
Before the war, however, Saint spent a year in Korea, returning in August 2002. He was supposed to get six months off before going to Kuwait for his first of three tours in Iraq. He was allowed only one month before being shipped off to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.
After a year, he returned for eight months before receiving orders to return to Korea. At the same time, his commander informed his company that a sister company, the 360th Transportation Co., had orders to go to Iraq, but was disbanding and had only 20 percent of the personnel it needed to deploy. Volunteers were needed to go with it to Iraq, so faced with the decision to go to Korea or Iraq, Saint volunteered to go to Iraq.
“The money was worth it to go to Iraq,” he said. “You get paid better while you’re deployed.”
Saint joined the 360th as a truck driver. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to enter the roughest of his three deployments in the War on Terror.
Saint drove what amounted to a large tow truck with the responsibility of recovering military and civilian trucks that broke down or were rendered undrivable during combat. He had one partner on the job, which was always done at night, and sometimes in the middle of a firefight.
Sometimes the mission called for Saint to repair trucks and get them back on the road, also in hairy situations. If that wasn’t possible, the 300-pound tow bar had to be slapped on as quickly as possible to drag the trucks away.
“You hook it up and drive off and drag that thing,” he said. “You don’t want to be exposed for too long.”
In extreme cases, if the truck couldn’t be recovered, thermite hand grenades were placed in the truck to blow it up so the enemy couldn’t recover it and use it. Saint recalls having to do that only once.
Saint was normally at the rear of the convoy, which was usually 60 trucks long. The convoys were the mix of “white” trucks—civilian trucks—and “green” trucks—military vehicles. Foreign civilians generally drove the white trucks, which weren’t armored. Because of that, the drivers of the trucks weren’t keen on driving when bullets started flying.
“Anytime there were shots, they stopped dead,” he said. “It created a lot of problems.”
In one instance, the front of the convoy came under heavy fire and all of the white trucks stopped in the middle of the road while the rest of the convoy continued, meaning Saint and others could have been left behind. Saint tapped the white truck in front of him with his truck in an attempt to get him to move, but he didn’t budge. He then jumped out, bullets flying, and ran five truck lengths to where the first truck was stopped in an attempt to get things moving. He was met there by a medic who was also out in the firefight as bullets ricocheted off the trucks.
“I told her to get back in the truck,” Saint said, saying he used more colorful language in the moment. “I told her if we both get shot, I’m screwed.”
It wasn’t until he was back in his truck or when a mission was over that he thought about the danger.
“You really don’t think about that. You do what you need to do,” he said. “There are situations looking back, I’m like, ‘Wow, that could have sucked.’ But you don’t think about it (at the time).”
During his second tour, Saint suffered the injury that eventually forced him out of the Army with a medical discharge after nearly eight years of service.
Among the contributing factors to his medical discharge were three improvised explosive device (IED) strikes and the wear and tear on his body from hurrying around with the 300-pound tow bar.
The first two IEDs were not direct hits and were smaller explosions, if there is such a thing.
“You just had to change your pants after the first one,” Saint said with a laugh. “They really catch you off guard.”
Had the timing of the explosions been different, however, they could have been worse … like the third one was. That one was closer with better timing on the part of the enemy, he said, and “bounced them around.” Saint said he suffered a concussion from the incident.
By his third tour in 2006-07, Saint realized his back was getting worse. He was frequently in pain and would wake up and couldn’t feel his right leg. He was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease with scoliosis and was medically discharged as an E-5 Sergeant.
“My spine looks like a barber’s pole,” he said.
Saint made it back from the war unscathed, but not all in his company were as lucky. Four of his fellow soldiers died while on a convoy. The first was when a driver swerved to miss a child who had run into the road. Running at 45 miles per hour, the Humvee swerved and rolled on top of the gunner, who was killed instantly. Another passenger died later at the hospital.
An unfortunate reality of the war was that insurgents used both women and children as shields and as fighters, putting soldiers in precarious positions. Some of the children loved the soldiers, while some meant them harm. Sometimes it was hard to know which was which.
“I don’t think the kid meant any harm. They were just excited to see us,” Saint said. “Over there, they used kids against you. You don’t stop for anybody.”
Saint said the driver of the Humvee struggled with survivor’s guilt, questioning whether he should have just run the child over. Saint said he was fortunate to not be put in the position to make such a call.
“No one really knows until you’re put in that position,” Saint said. “It killed two of his buddies. That will play on him the rest of his life.”
The other two soldiers who died were victims of a freak accident when a truck hit a large crater in the dark and flipped, ejecting the driver and partially ejecting a passenger, killing both.
Saint constructed a memorial for the four soldiers who died, as well as a U.S. Marine Corps friend who died in the Battle of Fallujah, at his campground, Fort Welikit.
After being discharged, Saint moved to Grand Junction, Colo., and became a deputy sheriff and met his wife, Kelly. Because of his injuries, Saint realized he wouldn’t be able to be a deputy sheriff forever, so he and Kelly discussed what they wanted to do long-term.
In 2011 the couple came to Custer on a family vacation and, in the past, had discussed the possibility of owning a campground. While staying at Beaver Lake Campground, Saint struck up a conversation with Beaver Lake owner Max Hammer about owning a campground and the Saints decided it was time to put up or shut up.
After a couple of years of searching several states for campgrounds and negotiating with the former owner, the Saints signed the papers to buy Fort Welikit just north of Custer.
Saint says people tell him his service changed him, and he agrees. He said the Army taught him teamwork skills and a feeling of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, many of whom he still keeps in touch with.
“It’s a camaraderie I don’t think a lot of people get out in the civilian world,” he said. “There’s a saying, ‘If you’re not a veteran, you wouldn’t get it.’ My wife doesn’t get it, but she understands it.”
Saint said he is proud of his time in the Army and believes most veterans are. He likened it to someone wearing a hat representing their favorite football or baseball team.
“We’re no different. We are proud to be war veterans,” he said. “For most of us, it was just our job. To me it was just a job. I appreciate that people always thank me for my service. Looking back, I’m glad I did it.”
Saint said he understands the military campaigns in Iraq were and remain controversial, but said he and his brothers in arms didn’t listen to the outside chatter.
“I wasn’t there for any underlying political agenda or oil or other stuff people say,” he said. “I was there to make sure the guy next to me came home, and he was there to make sure I came home. And that’s what it was really about.
“We signed up to the U.S. military. What do armies do? They fight wars. We knew what we were getting into when we signed up. We did it to defend this country, but ultimately it’s about the guy next to you.”
Saint said an aunt disowned him because of his fighting in Iraq. But he is at peace with her decision and has no regrets. In fact, he said, he’d do it again.
“If Uncle Sam called me and said, ‘We need you,’ I’d go back.” he said.
Then he paused.
“They won’t,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m too broken.”