Soldier Profile: Entering the Army twice, ARL's SSG Wheatley recalls a life of service, family inspiration
June 27, 2014
By T'Jae Gibson, ARL Public Affairs Office
Delivering soft drinks for PepsiCo was a great job for Staff Sgt. Kirt R. Wheatley. So much so, he said, he and his peers worked so hard and raised individual performance expectations that the company decided to do more with fewer people. He and a few others were laid off.
So, he went to "just check out the military. Next thing I knew, I was joining."
That was March 1994. He had one child, John, and baby Dana on the way. He uprooted from Los Angeles for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. but during drills there, he took a bad spill on a muddy surface, fell forward injuring his knee on large debris and when he tried to recover, he slipped and fell on his back. For four years, he said, he endured what started out as nagging pain that grew to excruciating.
Wheatley separated from military service in 1998 on a medical discharge.
Then, Sept. 11, 2001 came.
"I woke up that morning and was getting ready for work," he recalled.
"I turned on the TV and thought I was watching a movie. I watched the plane go into the tower. I just thought it was a movie," he said with a look of despair on his face. "At the time, I was working construction."
If only the events of that day had been a horrifying Hollywood film.
"My brother had been (traveling) to New York. He was doing some work out there but I was calling (him on September 11) and couldn't get a hold of him. I called my mom and told her that I couldn't get a hold of Robert," he said. His mother told him his brother had come back home to California a couple of days before the tragedy.
Relieved, Wheatley decided to re-enlist in the Army.
Today, he serves as the research, development, test and evaluation noncommissioned officer within the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate. Prior to his assignment with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, he was stationed in the 501st Sustainment Brigade, 8th U.S. Army, South Korea. Throughout his career, he's amassed several awards including six Army Commendation Medals, five Army Achievement Medals and five Army Good Conduct Medals.
"I'm just proud to be part of this great organization," said Wheatley.
He said one of the best things he picked up during his military career is "how to be a take charge person."
And he'll need that for the future plans he's laid out for himself and his family.
"I want to open a woodworking business. I make custom-made furniture," said the Los Angeles native. "Woodwork is a stress relief. When I get stressed out or upset, I go out and build something. Unfortunately, it costs me a lot of money. But it's something I enjoy. It's really relaxing. I've built an entertainment center, bar, timeout benches. It's just the fun part of being able to create something from an idea in my head. I have a lot of fun with it."
He and his wife Juanita, of six years, have opened a small printing company specializing in sublimating photos onto a number of surfaces, including stainless steel water bottles, ceramic mugs and polyester t-shirts.
"I am a husband and a father of seven children and three grandchildren. My family is my world and the most important thing to me. My family, I will do anything for them."