Jul 2, 2019
Kurt Gies, now 55, served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years. During that time, he spent a total of only 37 days at sea. “So, I think they’re called boats or ships or something?” Gies said jokingly.
A South Florida native, Gies was commissioned as an officer in 1987, not long after his 18th birthday, beginning a career in the Civil Engineer Corps. An engineer by training, he spent less time on the water and more time building and designing military facilities and overseeing civilians.
One of his biggest projects was the design and build of U.S. Central Command Forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, a $160 million project, which Gies was called to construct after 9/11.
After 25 years of serving in the U.S. and abroad, Gies retired from the military, but not from service to his people.
Currently, Gies serves as post commander at the Hugh T. Gregory American Legion Post 63 in downtown Winter Garden, working to provide a place for veterans like him to feel like they belong.
A JOB TO DO
During Gies’ first time in active duty, he worked as an officer in the Civil Engineer Corps in engineering and construction until 1999. That year, Gies opted to join the reserves, knowing that the next step in his career probably would mean deployment. He wanted to stay home with his family and two young children.
However, life is unpredictable.
Only about a year and a half into his time in the reserves, Gies was working at U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) out of Tampa, which has an area of responsibility covering the Middle East, when the country was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I used to live down by the airport, and every day the planes would come in and fly right over the house and it was kind of neat, you know, you get used to it,” Gies said. “But, for three days, there was no plane traffic and I remember driving down to the airport and parking my truck underneath their flight line and just ... the quiet.”
His life — along with the lives of many Americans — would never be the same. He knew he’d be called back into active duty, and his personal life was being completely up-ended between a divorce and being let go from his job.
“So, I’m going through a divorce, our country is under attack, I know I’m about to get recalled, (and) I’m being fired from my job,” Gies said. “I’m like, (to God), ‘What the heck are you doing to me?’ He was taking everything that was important away from me.
“And I was as low as you can be, but it turned out that was the best thing that could ever happen to me, because when I left I had nothing to hold me back and I could go do my job,” he said.
His job was to build the USCENTCOM Forward Headquarters in Qatar. He had four months and $160 million to build the facilities that would command forces in the Middle East during the war in Iraq.
Gies said he would work 20- to 22-hour days, only catching up on sleep every 10th day or so.
“Really when you’re living on mission … if we failed, people would have died,” he said. “And so, if I had to sleep no hours that day, I did that on several occasions. I just didn’t go to bed. And there were stretches I would go 50 to 60 hours without sleeping because I had a mission I had to get done.”
Gies said while the job was high-pressure and fast, he was ready to put in the work.
“I remember looking up at the same sky I was looking up at when I was at the airport and thanking God that I had never been happier in my entire life,” Gies said. “The reason was I was living with a purpose.”
Not long after the invasion into Iraq, Gies was able to return home after serving two years on active duty split between Florida and Qatar.
Finding his place
“When I retired in 2007, I didn’t join the legion until 2015,” Gies said. “I had this huge void, and I didn’t know what it was. But it was the lack of comradeship and that being part of a unit. So, when I joined the legion, I was like, ‘This is what I’ve been missing, this is it.’”
The American Legion is a century-old organization founded by veterans to serve veterans. The group, which has more than 1.7 million members in the country, works on community, state and national levels to solve veteran issues.
Gies currently lives in Oakland and serves as commander at the post in Winter Garden, which has about 210 members. They serve the community by promoting Americanism and patriotism and by supporting local organizations and individuals working toward similar goals.
Locally, the post works to raise awareness for veterans issues, provides scholarships and the assistance of service officers who help local veterans navigate Veterans Affairs benefits and more.
“The No. 1 thing we do is provide a place for camaraderie, where (veterans) can become part of a unit,” Gies said.
One of the biggest issues today, he said, is the high number of veteran suicides.
“We have 22 vets a day committing suicide,” Gies said. “And that means that there’s been more suicides from post-traumatic stress than all combat-related deaths in the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. And nobody knows about it.”
Every fall, the post participates in an awareness event called Challenge 22, which is meant to educate the public on the issue.
“There are solutions out there that we are finding every day that are helping, so my passion and my dream is to, basically, as a group of veterans, engage our community to solve this problem,” Gies said.
Fighting for liberty
Gies said he chose to serve because service is in his DNA. He said he chose to serve for freedom and the opportunities America provides, which is what makes it special.
“We have a framework where you can do whatever you want, pray to whoever you want, (be) free to love whoever you want to love and not be told by somebody else how you’re supposed to live your life,” Gies said.
“That is why people want to come to America,” Gies said. “They come here because they want individual freedom. They want to be able to take care of their families. They want to be able to do what they want to do and have opportunity and I think that’s what separates us from the rest.”
If he had a chance to change anything, Gies said he wouldn’t change a thing in his entire career in the military.
“Each time and place had its pros and cons, but all the decisions I got to make,” he said. “And so, I lived with those decisions and I’m happy with them. ”