OKEECHOBEE — Shawn Norton was born and raised in Okeechobee and said his father was his inspiration for joining the military. “Every kid looks up to their dad,” he said. “I was always proud of my dad for his service in Vietnam.” Because of this, he thinks he pretty much always knew he wanted to join the military when he was old enough. Initially, he wanted to be a pilot. Recruiters told him his best strategy would be to enlist and then apply to flight school, so he took their advice. He joined right out of high school in 1990.
He took a short enlistment, three years, and went combat arms because his end goal was to become a pilot. That way he had a short enlistment in case he didn’t get to go to flight school, and he got a significant amount of money to go to college if he got out. He went to basic at Fort Knox, Ky., and two weeks into basic, the U.S. declared war on Iraq.
It had been over 20 years since the U.S. had been in a major conflict so even joining the military and going combat arms, it had not really occurred to him that he would end up going to war, he said. Two weeks into basic training, the drill sergeant called everyone out and told them the U.S. had just declared war on Iraq and they were all going. He told them it was going to be a tank war, and they would be tankers. “That was the end of his dream of flight school.”
He made it through basic training and was sent to his permanent duty station at Fort Riley, Kan. When he got there, they were already loading the tanks and equipment on trains. As far as the eye could see were tanks being loaded on trains, he said, all painted desert storm brown and tan. He wasn’t there very long, and they were recruiting crewman to be on the generals’ tanks. Normally generals do not have tanks, he explained, but for combat they were being assigned their own tanks and would need crews. The same was true for helicopters and other things. They needed a whole crew of people to support them for their mission. So, he interviewed for a job, and was selected to be on one of the general’s tank crews.
Special to the Lake Okeechobee News - On the left veteran Shawn Norton poses on a tank in Iraq. In the photo on the right he is pictured with the M1 Abrams tank.
Fort Riley was run by three generals, Mr. Norton was assigned to the battle general and was deployed to Iraq. He worked for the general from that point until he left the service. Working for the general, he had a lot of knowledge about things that were going on, and when they deployed, their division was around 18,000 soldiers. They were attached to the Seventh Corps and were one of the primary spears to breach into Iraq and then to swing into Kuwait. They brought about 16,000 body bags with them, because the Iraqis had been there for quite some time and had laid a lot of mines which were traps, made to either kill you or slow you down so they can bomb you, he said. “So, they didn’t expect our division to make it much further than breaching the mine fields so the other combat units could then get in to combat.”
Fortunately, that is not what happened. They bombed the Iraqis for quite some time, and broke their will. They did not meet much resistance, he said. They did flank through Iraq and into Kuwait, and that’s where the Iraqis were escaping. He said, if you remember the burning minefields on television, they destroyed all of Kuwait’s oil fields, and they were all on fire. “It looked like jet flames shooting up in the air!” he said. “We were right in that area. There was death and destruction everywhere.”
He remembers driving the tank through those mine fields. At the time, he was buttoned into the tank and using thermal imaging. It was almost like looking at a video game, he said. Everything was different shades of green. The Iraqis would shoot at them, and they would shoot at the Iraqis. For every one bullet that came their way, there were 100 U.S. bullets going the other way, and he remembers thinking that just months ago he was sitting in class in high school and now this was not a game where “tag you’re out.” He knew that if they got hit with something big, they would be out forever. “Those people were trying to kill us.” He remembers that being so strange and hard to comprehend at 19 years old.
The Iraqis were surrendering in large numbers, and as they encountered them, he could see in their faces that they were just people, too. They were just soldiers like he was. “They didn’t want to die. They were scared. We didn’t want to die. We were scared. You’d sit there sometimes and wonder why are we doing this?” he said.
The closest he knowingly came to death was by friendly fire, he said. One night, he and a friend were sitting in a tent, cleaning their weapons. Tankers are issued 9mms where most soldiers carry an M-16. They were sitting facing each other in a two-man tent. Normally you disassemble a firearm, clean it, put it back together and do a function test. His friend had accidentally left a round in the chamber, and when he pulled the trigger and fired it, the bullet went right above Mr. Norton’s head.
The second time was at the end of the 100-Hour War. They had all been up for a couple days straight in combat, when they breached the mine fields and swept through Iraq and went into Kuwait and encountered the burning wells. They were finally able to secure an area to get some rest. Kind of like the cowboy days, you circle the wagons and set up a perimeter. You get your sleep, meals, fuel and resupply in the middle of all that. On the tanks, the turret is what turns on top of the tank. The tank has several fuel tanks, and for two of them, you have to manipulate the turret to the right and then lift the main gun and then you can get to one of the fuel tanks on the right, same thing on the left. Turn the turret to the left, lift the gun, get to the fuel tank. The main battle tank has the big gun that everyone sees, and beside it is a machine gun. They had just filled up the right tank and were going to swing the gun to the left. Well, if you swing the gun to the left, the guy up there filling it which was Mr. Norton would get knocked off the tank, so he needed to stand on the other side of the gun. For some reason, that day, he decided he would stay up there and just hop over as the gun swung around. “Well, luckily I did, because they forgot to put the safety on the gun, and about half way over, the gunner who was reaching into the turret to turn the tank, instead of grabbing the joystick, hit the fire button. Now, we’re in the middle of this big circle of friendly soldiers. Luckily the gun is pointed up for fueling, but it unloads several hundred rounds, and fortunately I wasn’t standing where you normally stand which would have been right in front of that machine gun,” he said.
They were in Iraq for not quite a year and then went back to Fort Riley where he continued to serve as driver for the general for another two years. He also served as the general’s trip planner and aide, anything he needed. The general traveled to a lot of important meetings all over the country, and he was able to go with him. The general had a fixed-wing airplane, a helicopter, a Humvee and several regular cars, and Mr. Norton considered it a great job. He got to see a lot of things and meet a lot of people, senators, congressmen, other generals. The general really took care of him, he said. They worked together every day, and at that time, he was 19, and the general was about 50 years old.
“He kind of treated me like a son,” he said. “I think working in that capacity, the confidence I got, the motivation it gave me, the faith and confidence they had in my ability helped me to become a leader in my profession later on in life.”
He went through all his testing to become a pilot and passed it, but life changed and he ended up not staying in the military after all, he said. He always had the law enforcement itch, he said. It’s a job where you work on your own, make decisions on your own. Every day is different, and you still get to serve and help people, so he joined the auxiliary at the sheriff’s department. He ended up working for the sheriff’s office for about eight years before going to work for the Seminole Tribe Police Department where he has been ever since.