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Profile in Courage: Navy vet comforts families left behind

KTAR has brought you the lives and stories of the 2015 Phoenix Veterans Day Parade grand marshals in a series entitled, “A Profile in Courage.” This is the final chapter.

PHOENIX – About once a week, at the National Cemetery off Cave Creek and Pinnacle Peak Roads, Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Nathan Rhoad can be found playing taps or presenting the U.S. flag to a Navy family.

“It’s my honor to provide that service for somebody and their family in their final resting place,” he said. Rhoad has volunteered his services at the cemetery for six years.

Having served for 22 years in the military, Rhoad knows sacrifice. It started back in 1992, when he enlisted with the Navy to provide stability for a girlfriend he had hoped to make his wife.

“She carried the gene for hemophilia,” he said. “We knew if we had a son he would have hemophilia.” They needed the medical coverage, so he joined as an undesignated firefighter.

“I made the poor decision,” he said. “The word ‘fireman’ sounded glamorous to me.” But, he soon learned “undesignated” meant the Navy could send him wherever it chose.

He spent the first years working in boiler rooms and machine rooms as an engineer. He resigned himself to accepting it as steady work. “I thought, keep my mouth shut and battle through it.”

He was serving as a machinist mate aboard frigate U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown (FFT-1089) in 1994, when the federal government announced it was closing his base in Mobile, Alabama.

“We really didn’t have the choice to stay, so I moved back to Phoenix and started to serve as a reserve,” he said.

A year later, he and his wife had a healthy baby girl they named Sidney.

By 1998, at the end of his reserve commitment, he had worked his way to the highest level in his field as a machinist Third Class Petty Officer.

“We were taking advancement test for a position that didn’t offer any advancement.”

So, he left the military for full-time civilian life.

That didn’t last long. The celebrated Seabees, the Civil Engineering Battalion of the Navy, put out an ad for experienced Navy mechanics. He re-enlisted in 2001 six months before the Sept. 11 attack.

On that day, Rhoad said, “I got a call from my fire team leader asking whether I wanted to volunteer to go to Iraq?” He wasn’t keen on the idea but, he said he didn’t hesitate once his team leader said he was going.

“Because as a Seabee in the Navy, when someone in the ranks steps forward, you don’t allow them to go forward without you.”

They deployed to the Middle East building bases for Army and Marine troops.

“Our motto is, ‘We Build, We Fight,’ which means as we’re building a bridge, or a building, or a roadway, we are ready to defend it while we build it.”

It rarely happened, but he said, “On my second tour to Iraq, I was a on a crew called ‘The Rock Hounds,’ ” delivering sand, gravel and rock by the truckloads across the military zones.

His job for the convoy was to keep the vehicles rolling. “An IED went off two trucks ahead of mine.” While trapped in a kill-zone,
Rhoad jumped out of his truck, fixed the vehicle and all of the members in his convoy returned safely to base camp.

He was honored to be among the veterans chosen as grand marshals in this year’s Veteran’s Day Parade, but said he is no hero.

“I didn’t earn any bronze stars, silver stars, or purple hearts. I was lucky enough to come out unscathed.”

But, not really. Three deployments have cost him two marriages.

“My families have been through more than anything that I’ve been through out there,” he admitted.
“When I am out there with my brothers and sisters in arms, we’re out there in a common environment … we have each other to rely on.”

Back home, he credited the families. “They’re left to figure it out on their own.”

Through his years in the service, his daughter Sidney has remained at his side, but “Sidney’s got a couple of brothers through my second marriage, that neither she nor I have seen since May of 2007.”

His sons Rolan and Dillon Rhoad were 2 and 4 then. Rhoad was heading out on another deployment and gave his ex-wife instructions for initiating their sons’ medical coverage.

“A couple weeks later, I got a certified letter stating she and her new husband were moving to Maryland.” It was the last he would hear of them.

When he returned and tried to find his sons, they were no longer in Maryland.

The boys are 10 and 12 now, and he hopes to find them one day.

“I would definitely love to see them and be a part of their lives.”

Until then, he has found comfort playing taps and presenting the American flag to families who’ve lost their loved ones who have served the country.

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