Clayton residents Nancy and Brad Shafer have three sons, Rich, Jeff and Andrew. Jeff, 23, was deployed on Sept. 8 to Afghanistan in his first combat position leading a platoon of 28 soldiers.
Q: Mrs. Shafer, How did Jeff become interested in joining the military?
Jeff did eight semesters of ROTC at Clayton High School. While he was in middle school the ROTC spoke to eighth graders about joining them in high school. He was interested right away. It was about sophomore year that was the turning point. He wasn’t certain he wanted to stick with it, but when he came to us we asked him, “What else do you have?” He didn’t really have any other clubs or organizations that he was interested in so we told him that he had to stick with it. We felt that it was a good fit for him. From that point on he did really well. We encouraged ROTC because it’s such a phenomenal leadership program. It gives the kids such an opportunity for leadership. They have meets and jobs. He held most of the roles they have at one time or another. Without his experience in high school he wouldn’t have gotten his four-year scholarship to East Carolina (University). Clayton High School’s ROTC opened so many doors for him. Their support and encouragement really propelled him into the military.
Q: Do you have extended family that has served in the military?
Both my dad and Brad’s dad were in the military. My dad was in the Marines and Brad’s was in the Navy. It was a really neat bond he had with his grandfathers.
Q: After committing to ROTC his sophomore year what kind of challenges did he face?
He moved up in the club over the years and it was such a learning experience. For instance, one of his friends was having some problems with discipline and it was up to Jeff to help him get it together. It was such a good organization for him because he was accountable to someone other than us, his parents. He had to show someone else his grades and follow through on jobs and commitments. It was a good back-up to us. Academics plays a big role in your standing. There are academic awards.
Q: At what point did he decide to pursue ROTC in college?
During his junior year he made that decision. So the summer before college you have to apply. The application process consists of interviews and a physical. You have to get accepted to ROTC first then you choose a school. He was their number one choice the year he applied and that was because of all the work he had done in high school. After he was accepted to ECU he received the ROTC scholarship that paid for either his tuition and books or his room and board for college. In return he agreed to stay in the army for six years after his graduation. It’s a stipend program and each year your stipend increases.
Q: While at ECU what did he study?
He got his degree in economics. While you’re in the ROTC all of your electives are ROTC classes. He had his semesterly courses but in addition he went on training exercises for the weekends. He also had trainings during the summers. Before his senior year he went to a training at an army base in Washington state and then was in Germany that summer, too.
It’s really like having a job on top of your courses. After graduating he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on July 30, 2011.
Q: What is his specialty in the army?
He is an infantryman. They are the guys on the ground. Since he’s a ranger, he and his guys are the first ones in.
Q: How did you feel about him choosing to be an infantryman?
We don’t have a say. Once he made the decision to join to army we really let him go. He was driven. There was nothing on our part – we could try to influence him, but it’s his career path. He feels so confident in the training he has received and the choices he is making.
Q: How does it make you feel?
We steered him toward ROTC because we thought it would give him structure. We liked that he could have some guidance and discipline while he was in college. We liked he could get his degree and that the army could help him pay for most of it. With the economy like it is we liked that he would have a job when he graduated.
Q: But from a mother’s perspective what it is like knowing that your son is facing combat?
He is fully prepared. He has had five years of training. He is fully prepared to do what he is doing. He went through and graduated from ranger school last summer. Nothing can prepare you better than that.
Q: What exactly is ranger school?
It is an intensive 61-day program. It is a three-part training program on land, mountains and swamps. Seventy-five percent of the participants don’t graduate from ranger school. You have to be recommended and you have to apply. After the first week of ranger school 40 percent drop out. During the last week of swamp training, six guys who were in fabulous shape, had to be airlifted out of the swamp from heat stroke. A couple of them had to leave the army from brain damage from the heat stroke.
When he was in college ranger school was part of his plan. He wanted to graduate college, get commissioned, go through the trainings you have to go through and get into ranger school. Then he wanted to go to Afghanistan. He said to me, “Mom, I’m on the team. If I don’t get to play what’s the point? I’m well prepared.”
Q: What does ranger school provide a soldier in addition to extra training?
It puts you in a more elite class. I think you are on a faster promotion path.
Q: Now that he is in Afghanistan what does he say about the current situation there?
They are really in the final stages of turning everything back over to the Afghans. His group was the last group to be deployed to Afghanistan. It is a war zone, but they are almost done turning (responsibility for the country) back over to the Afghans. While the risks are minimized there are still great risks.
I talked to him last week and everything was fine. Then I heard the next day that three members of our military police were killed in the same area that he is in. He let Brad know that he was okay, but he knew those guys and participated in their memorial services.
Q: What have you and Mr. Shafer liked about having a son in the army?
Seeing him get commissioned and seeing him graduate from ranger school have been the best parts of having him in the army. I love seeing him so confident, successful and motivated. It’s great seeing him as an adult making his own decisions. Brad and I are keeping the faith that he’ll be OK. I pray for him. I’m happy to know that he is doing what he wants to do. He is very determined and headstrong.
Correspondent Holly Lock