From one battlefield to another: A military family called to serve others
Canton native Eric Hill was 18 when he decided to join the military. It was a quick decision. He wanted to get married and needed a way to provide support. What sprang forth from that decision was more than he could have envisioned.
“I didn’t do so well in high school, didn’t have much hope for college,” Hill said.
He had a full-time job that just wasn’t enough to support a family. He needed a plan if she said yes when time came.
It turned out she, Keri, did say yes, and it turned out the military is what Hill saw as the clearest path to supporting a family.
“The military was the easiest answer. Honestly, I decided to go into the military in like one day,” Hill said.
Hill attended basic training in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1993. He and his wife Keri were engaged at the time. From there it was on to advanced infantry training in Fort Gordon, Georgia, to be a communications specialist. Then to jump school at Fort Benning and then back to Fort Bragg where he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne.
He stayed with the 82nd Airborne for about nine months, after which he was transferred across post to the 507th corps support group. That’s where he stayed until he got out in 1996. After four years in inactive ready reserve, on the day of Keri and Eric’s anniversary, Aug. 20, 2001, Hill got an honorable discharge certificate.
“I was free and clear,” said Hill.
Less than one month later, on Sept. 12, 2001, Hill re-enlisted following the 9/11 attacks.
“I laid that discharge paper on a recruiter’s desk in Asheville and told them they needed to put me back,” he recalled.
By April 2002, Hill was assigned to a unit in Knoxville, Tennessee, that he stayed with until 2003. Then, he was assigned to the 926 engineer group in Montgomery, Alabama, to be deployed. He stayed with the 926 from 2003 until 2014.
In 2003-2004 the group was in Mosul, Iraq. There were no living quarters or bathhouses until late in 2004. During that first tour in Iraq, Hill was leaving behind a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.
“The first tour, it was a lot rougher. It was a lot more, I guess, primitive would be the word,” Hill said.
Hill was serving as a tail gunner for a convoy team, which means he was standing in the back of a truck, out in the open while they were on convoys. It was around this time that Hill had a life-altering experience when he first crossed the line out of Kuwait and into Iraq. He chose not to talk about the details but explained that it caused him to leave the church and rocked his faith for years to come.
“The second time the living quarters were a lot better. The threat was still there, IEDs were on the rise in 2008 and that was one of my unit’s missions. We had a route clearance company that went out and looked for IEDs, on top of the horizontal and vertical construction teams. And that tour, I was a personal security NCO for our one star general and worked directly with him. Between the two tours I had a little over 3,000 missions outside of the line,” said Hill.
After describing his harrowing time in the service, it was his wife Keri who chimed in that Hill was a Bronze Star recipient.
Hill said the transition back home from his first tour was the hardest.
“I did not transition very well from the first tour,” he said. “Me and Keri had a lot of problems trying to get back in. I was just trying to get from a military mindset back to a family mindset. The kids went to her for everything. It just wasn’t a real good time.”
While it was a struggle, Hill is quick to point out that it made their marriage stronger in the end.
“Coming home from that first deployment, he was so different,” Keri said. “That was really hard. It was a real big test of endurance, because we were the only family in Haywood County who had someone deployed. So, we did not have a big support staff at the time. That was rough for us.”
A large part of the struggle they endured was the fact that Hill didn’t attend church with the family. Their daughter Jessy was young during these transition phases, but she remembers times when her father just carried himself differently around the house. She always thought he was mad or angry or there was something wrong.
“We did a lot better with communication when I was home on the second tour than the first tour. First time around there was hardly any. There were long lines to make phone calls, so phone calls were very rare. The second tour I was able to stay in contact a whole lot better,” Hill said.
Eric Hill pictured in Baghdad, Iraq in 2008, with an Iraqi child. Donated photo
“After he came back the second time, again there was no one deployed out of Haywood County, so we were sort of left to our own devices at the time to navigate what PTSD looks like, what combat fatigue looks like, what putting a family back together looks like,” Keri said. “For me, it was a lot of praying, a lot of faith involved.”
After his second tour, Hill had another one of those rare, life-altering moments. He went to the doctor for a physical and was told that he may have cancer. He didn’t tell his family at the time, but said it really shook him. Things began to cascade, but this time Hill turned back to his faith and returned to church. A few months later, he and Keri were asked to be youth leaders.
Hill continued to struggle with civilian life though, and by 2013 he was battling depression to the point that he almost committed suicide. It was during his journey out of that depression that he felt called to preach.
“I prayed about it for about a month without telling anybody,” he said. “Then Keri made a statement one night and I told her. I told her we’d pray about it for another month. And then when I finally gave in and accepted the call to pastor the door swung wide open, and it was just blatantly obvious that was exactly what I was supposed to do.”
When Hill returned home, he was assigned a Veterans Services officer in Haywood County named Brandon Wilson. As they came to know each other, their friendship developed beyond the role of VSO.
Through that friendship, Wilson came to the conclusion that Keri was uniquely designed to work for Veterans Services of the Carolinas when he took over as director of the organization.
“I live with one, I’ve been married to one for a long time and I understand the family side of it,” she said. “Veterans Services gives me a chance to deal with veterans who are facing homelessness or who are already homeless. It gives me the chance to step in and say, ‘you know, I understand how a veteran feels and how a family member feels. I understand that sense of helplessness that you have when you don’t have a lot of support system.”
Keri is now intake coordinator for Veterans Services of the Carolinas. But the family’s work serving others doesn’t end with the church or veteran services. Both Hill children have made a career of helping others.
Their son Austin graduated from Wake Forest with degrees in psychology and art and is now getting his master’s in social work from the University of Maryland.
“He wants to work with kids who are facing challenges and difficulties,” Keri said. “That’s not an accident.”
Their daughter Jessy is an EMT, firefighter, and has recently started work at Veterans Services of the Carolinas as a care coordinator. That means she is one of the people manning the hotline for VSC and is the first line of contact when veterans call needing help.
“When we grew up, we learned how to take care of each other and others. We grew up watching dad go through that transition,” Jessy said. “So now working here, we get to be that support system and we try to understand what it’s like for them.”
Hill, his wife and his children’s work are connected in intricate ways.
“If it hadn’t been for the support system that Eric had, he might have been in the same situation [as a lot of the vets we serve]. And part of why we love to do what we do is we are able to come alongside them and give that support,” Keri said.
Hill said that moving from military service into the pastoral role, he is able to be very direct with people, and he doesn’t have a problem with people being very direct with him. Because of his experiences, he is able to handle difficult scenarios people may be going through and empathize with them.
“The skills and talents that Eric picked up in the military, like leadership, the shepherd role… he has literally traded one battlefield for another,” Keri said. “He still leads a fight. He’s still a leader.”