Tom Pszanka may now appear to be a mild mannered postman, but 29 years ago, he was a United States Marine, who saw multiple deployments.
“My brother was a Marine,” Pszanka said. “He served in 1982-1986. He joined and I always looked up to him. I really didn’t have any clue what I wanted to do after high school. My brother was a Marine so I thought well, I will try it, too.”
JOINING THE MARINES
Pszanka did not waste any time. After graduating from Scottsbluff High School in May 1990, he left for boot camp in June. He arrived in San Diego, California, for basic training, since Pszanka said everyone who lives east of the Mississippi goes to San Diego.
“It was long, but I was an athlete in high school so running, doing push-ups and sit-ups wasn’t anymore difficult than playing football or basketball,” he said. “The biggest memory was on graduation day they open the doors and let everybody come in. You could smell the perfume. My brother, who was a Marine, knew I couldn’t wave or do anything, comes up to me, waved, and said, ‘Hey Tom, say something.’ I was like ‘Oh gosh.’ It was basically 13 weeks of getting put down, then being built back up and graduating.”
Since Pszanka was in the infantry division, he had to go to infantry school in Camp Pendleton. The training lasted another six to eight weeks and was required for Marines because they are rifleman. Following that training, soldiers would go to other schools if they had another job.
SERVING IN DESERT STORM
Pszanka had joined during peacetime; however, by the time he graduated, a war on Desert Shield, code name for the Gulf War, was ongoing and Desert Storm was about to begin.
He was called to the war front immediately after basic training.
“Being that young, it really didn’t affect me much,” Pszanka said. “It was like ‘You’re going over to Saudi Arabia’ and I was OK until you actually get there. I couldn’t really even tell you where we were at. We were just a little spot in the desert that we occupied.”
The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Charlie Company was already fighting and after coming home for Christmas and New Years, Pszanka joined his unit in a Saudi Arabian desert.
“I stayed until the war was over,” he said. “My unit was the first unit there and we were the first unit out at the end of February.”
During his time in the desert, he came across Arabs, who would walk past them with their camels. Soldiers received one hot meal a day as they dealt with the fine sand that played havoc with the equipment.
“You would pour sand out of everywhere, every nook and cranny,” he said. “We had basically four seasons over there. One time it even snowed on us. We woke up with snow and we were like ‘What happened here’? I don’t know if it did that all the time.”
While in 29 Palms, a high desert, it could snow in the mountains as the temperatures fluctuated from 32 degrees to 80 degrees within the morning.
He was then sent back to California. The troops were called the desert Marines and were the first unit to go to a location.
BATTLING IN SOMALIA
Desert Storm was not Pszanka’s only action.
“I also went to Somalia when that happened in 1993. We were the ones who secured the airfield so we could fly supplies in.”
They were the unit who overtook the stadium where Blackhawk Down occurred.
“They were trying to get back to that stadium that we had fortified and made our home,” he said. The U.N. took over that.”
While serving in Somalia, Pszanka said, “It was a little more realistic. In Desert Storm, we knew that the Iraqis were not going to fight. Somalia was a whole different thing.”
They worked to get the warlords to quit their inhumane acts toward people. To accomplish that, they had different protocols.
“You could shoot first without being shot at,” Pszanka said. “A lot of service members now can’t shoot without being shot at first. We did not have tanks and amtracks. We did a lot more walking, door to door urban warfare.”
There was more training required, so they headed to Fort Ord where the Army’s urban warfare training center was located.
EXPLORING DIFFERENT CULTURES
Pszanka was officially stationed in 29 Palms, but he was not there much.
“I was only there two years tops, maybe a little less,” he said. “When we got back from Desert Storm, we went down to Panama for a three month stint. We went to Okinawa for six months. We went to Thailand and trained with the Thai Marines. Every three or so months we would be shipping out somewhere for training or whatever we were doing.”
Of course being in the Marines is not all work. Pszanka had several favorite off-duty activities.
“In Panama, a bunch of us went snorkeling. We got to see barracudas and all kinds of fish that we would never see stateside. We got to see the lay of the land in foreign countries. We went to Hong Kong. I look at the stuff coming out of Hong Kong now and I think ‘that was a beautiful city, I can’t imagine what is going on over there now.’ Basically seeing the sights that the country you are in offers. In Thailand, I saw Thai boxers. It is like a martial art where they use Karate and boxing at the same time.”
Aside from the sights, Pszanka also enjoyed good food.
“I like getting off the base and seeing the local life, especially the cuisine. There was some stuff that I would have never tried in my life if I wouldn’t have gone overseas.”
Pszanka would give the following advice to a young person looking to join up, “I would tell them to join up, but I would tell them not to go infantry. I would tell them to go for a job that you can really do outside the service. You put your four years or 20 and then you can be a phone technician. Infantry was really great and I wouldn’t change it for the world, if I could go back in time. With infantry you can be a security guard, a cop, or work at the jail. It doesn’t matter what service you join, pick a job you can do when you get out.”