Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Independence Day Profile Of A Soldier & Friend | Interview & Art

Army service pistol
If you've never experienced a Third World revolution don't fret, there is still time. Make your way to Jacksonville Beach on the 4th of July. It's basically a live reenactment of our nation's fight for independence, including live ammunition. 

There is nothing quite like dodging incoming Roman Candle fire in flip flops. It brings a new appreciation for the "rocket's red glare". I recommend thinking carefully about taking young children cause it's a legit war zone.

But as we approach this revered celebration of our nation's independence I'd like to say something to those who have stood between the homeland and her enemies.

To all who serve and have served to defended our independence.
Thank you for your service and your sacrifice!

A few weeks ago I learned that a cycling buddy of mine, Juan Estrella, served in the Army. I knew Juan mostly as a triathlete until he shared some military inspired artwork on Facebook. That's when I learned of his military service. His artwork peaked my interest and I asked if he would be willing to share his experiences and inspirations.

Here is what he had to say and some of his artwork

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your military background and service.
A: I graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1989 and was commissioned in the Army as an Armor lieutenant.

I attended Armor Officer Basic School at Fort Knox, Kentucky. My first assignment was as a Tank Platoon Leader for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion 67th Armor Regiment – The “Death Dealers” - Tiger Brigade, 2nd Armored Division out of Fort Hood, Texas.

1989 West Point Graduation
West Point

My unit was sent to southwest Asia in 1990 in support of Operation Desert Shield and subsequently participated in combat operations in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, seeing combat in Kuwait against Iraqi forces entrenched in and around Kuwait City.

Desert Storm - The Valley

I went back to Fort Hood after the war and became the Battalion Support Platoon Leader providing bullets, fuel, and food to a 500 person battalion (I loved this job!!).

I left the Army in 1992 after becoming disillusioned with the post war treatment of our combat units while in garrison. Let’s just say that while in theatre (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), training was taken seriously but back in garrison (Ft. Hood) too many of my troops were taken to do non-combat duties – cutting grass, painting rocks, etc. etc. and that didn’t sit well with me, especially after having gone to war.

Q: Are you married? Have kids?
A: Married and have a blended family of four kids. Wife Lee, son Juan (17) and Ana (14) from a previous marriage, Sydney (step daughter – 11), and Lari-Mar (6)

Q: What was it that inspired you to join the Army?
A: My sister inspired me to join the service. She had dreamed of attending West Point, made it to the Prep School, but missed out on the appointment to West Point. She made me fill out the initial information card that started the whole application process to get the nomination from my Congressman (New York Congressman Barber Conable) and appointment to the Military Academy. 

To this day I believe West Point made a mistake NOT accepting my sister. She went on the join the Cadet Corps at Texas A&M, graduated Honor Grad (number one) in her class, and just recently retired as an Army Lieutenant Colonel. On a side note – both my sister and I were assigned to Operation Desert Shield and Storm at the same time. We were able to communicate back and forth using military phones and radio while in theatre.


Juan's 20yr Class Reunion
Q: What are your most memorable experiences from your military service?
A: The experience as a cadet is invaluable – I would not change a thing except maybe participate more in sports. They had a triathlon team and a marathon team there, but I was so worried about performing academically that I didn’t think I could handle sports. It would be twenty years later that I would do my first triathlon at the age of 40!!!

I miss the professionalism and camaraderie you have and build in the Army.  Everybody there knows how to wear their hat and do their best at the position and job they are assigned. Very different in the civilian workforce – In the Army it is really more about what you can do for your team in your current role than just trying to outperform your co-workers for a higher salary or recognition. In the Army, if the team performs well, it’s because every member of the unit did their job to the best of their ability.


Q: What was your favorite deployment?
A: Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – we were able to really focus on honing our skills as a combat unit and put all the theories on tank formations and maneuvers into practice. This was a pretty awesome time where the unit really coalesced and became a highly tuned and efficient fighting machine!!

"Highway of Death" - Highway 80 from Kuwait to Iraq

Desert Storm - Crossing Mine Fields
Desert Storm - Burning Oil Fields in Kuwait

Q: How long/often have you been racing?
A: I’ve competed in running events all my life since High School but started Triathlon training when I turned 40. Training and racing for me is part of healthy living and can’t imagine not being active. I participate in 8 – 10 races per year – road races, duathlons, triathlons, time trials. 

Q: Whats your training schedule like?
I dedicate approximately 8 to 12 hours a week to my training. This year I’m joining races to have fun and don’t have any “A” races at all.  Last year I ran the Florida Half Ironman at Haines City, Florida without any electronic devices and had a blast – no watch, no garmin, nothing.

Q: What made you get into endurance racing?
A: I’ve always enjoyed running long distance, and until I turned 40 I NEVER imagined myself actually riding a bicycle competitively. Now, I don’t know how I hadn’t gotten into the sport sooner. A neighborhood friend of mine got me to go on a few rides with a group at Bicycles Etc. and I got hooked. My first triathlon was a sprint at BFAST. I had also never swam competitively until I turned 40. I was on a JV swim team in High School and hated doing laps so much that I volunteered to dive so I didn’t have to swim as much.

Q: Whats your favorite? Swim, Bike or Run? Why?
A: I’ve been a runner all my life, but believe it or not, my favorite is cycling. I love the speed. I feel that I can make the most progress in that discipline. I’m a decent cyclist on flats, but suck on hills!

Q: How do you feel your military experience influences your daily life today? (Work, Family, Friendships, Racing, etc.)
A: The military reinforced what my parents taught me while I was growing up – work hard, do your best, and you will be rewarded and satisfied as a person. I kind of look at it this way – if you are asked to do a job or if you commit to do a job, no matter how dull or boring, you need to do your best at that job, period. Doing your best does not necessarily mean you are number one or get to win, but there is a great sense of accomplishment and pride in knowing that you gave it your best effort. My kids ask me why I always make my bed in the morning – it’s the very first thing that I do – maybe its ingrained in me from my parents or the military, but my answer to them is that by making the bed I have already accomplished something. I have started my day on a positive note. I’ve made my bed, and I’m ready to go!

Q: Tell me about your artwork. How did you get started? Do you draw often?
A: I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. Never had any formal training, but I read, I watch, and I try different techniques. I tell folks that I’m not a very good artist since in my mind an artist is someone who can put down on paper what they see in their mind. I am pretty good at putting down on paper things that I see physically in front of me. I am also one of those guys that needs to be “inspired” to draw. I get my inspiration mostly from my children or from an event that moves me. I may go months before I start drawing, but once I’m in the zone I can’t stop until it all comes out. My drawings are simple, but I know I’ve done a good job when you can see the innocence of my little baby, or the curious smile or twinkle that defines the subject.

"My .45"

"Bedouin Tent"

Tank Helmet
"Floppy Cap" - '91

I remember being treated to a concert by the Army Marching band at West Point during our first summer there.  We had had no contact with family and I was a bit homesick, so this concert had a big impact on me. I made a drawing on a regular sheet of paper and handed it to the Colonel in charge, never thinking anything of it other than that I really appreciated being able to just sit down and listen to some awesome music from the Army Hell Cats. The Colonel had my drawing copied, enlarged and framed and placed in his office! He sent me a copy of the picture with his and his units thanks! It was just a silly little drawing I thought, but to them it meant a lot and made them feel appreciated.


"Faces" - Lari Mar
Q: What inspired these drawings? What memories do your drawings bring up?
A: When my youngest daughter, Lari-Mar, was born I was so moved that I started drawing almost constantly. I also ended up writing a book and publishing it.  It’s called The Atlantis Stone. It took me four years to write and publish it. I had an English teacher at West Point who told me that the best writers are able to use their life experiences in their writing, be very introspective and share parts of themselves through their writing (and drawing!). This book has a lot of my experiences growing up, attending West Point, and being sent overseas to fight in Kuwait even though it is a work of Fiction. 

Find Juan's book on Amazon or visit his website

"Faces" - Photo Realistic Eye
This book is very important to me because it is a prime example of how hard work and perseverance can result in an accomplishment that you can be proud of. That is a life lesson I wanted to teach my kids and that will hopefully help them in the future.  They keep asking me if I did it to get rich or to become famous! I tell them I didn’t do it for any of those grandiose reasons – I did it because I’ve always wanted to do it, I was inspired, and to show them that once you put your mind to something, anything is possible. The very same reason I love endurance sports. The journey, all the training, hours of sweat, crashes on the bike, injuries, etc. is the best part of this endurance race. Sure, I’m sometimes upset with myself for not placing higher in my age group or beating my previous time, but I am never disappointed for participating in endurance sports. We do it for fun. We do it for health. We do it for a sense of accomplishment. Endurance sports are intrinsically motivating.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend the Military academy and try to donate as often as I can to Cadet programs. Any and all royalties that I get from the sales of my book I donate to The Association of Graduates at West Point so they can keep providing Cadets with the programs that will help them grow into our future leaders – weather it be in service in the military, government, or corporate arena.

Army - Airborne School

Reforge - 1990 Officers

Thank you Juan for your service!

- David West

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