JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Spc. Lucas Sutton has always believed that in life things happen for a reason.
So when a severe knee injury interrupted his ability to perform any longer as an infantryman and shattered his longtime dreams of becoming an Army ranger, he let his faith run its course.
“It’s sad, but I’m a very positive person, and I like to think on the upside of life,” he said. “I’m a big believer in ‘everything happens for a reason.’”
Now, little more than a year after a serious case of runner’s knee brought his aspirations to a screeching halt, the Virginia Beach, Va., native has found himself in a rather peculiar situation for combat soldiers – still serving in the Army, but now preparing taxes instead of training in the field.
And although the 23-year-old admits he never would have seen himself in the Army and working in an office job at the same time, he’s happy.
Sutton works with 26 other soldiers at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Tax Center located off 41st Division, across from the Lewis-Main Post Exchange, preparing taxes for the installation’s service members and their families, government civilians and military retirees.
“It’s not as action-packed, obviously,” Sutton said. “It’s less running around, and over here it’s calmer.”
“It’s like hot and cold, really; it’s a complete opposite.”
He joined his new team at the center in November 2010 from his infantry company in 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, after doctors discovered the cartilage in his left knee had worn down so severely that the ends of his bones had begun to scrape against one another.
It looked as though his 2009 deployment to Iraq and the miles of running with his squad for physical training each morning had done Sutton in.
After his diagnosis he worked details – odd jobs, essentially – because he’d been deemed unfit to remain in his infantry unit.
“I was on detail after detail after detail,” he said. “Instead of going out and training, they put me on a detail at the motor pool to do checks on the Strykers.”
Sutton said he felt worthless – empty.
But today he might thank his leadership for choosing him to join other Soldiers from units across JBLM to support the center, which now stays open year round and offers its services Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
And like the other soldiers serving there with him, who traded in their old jobs – some for a few months and some for good – Sutton is now fulfilling a higher purpose.
“It’s definitely a big sense of pride and pleasure,” Sutton said. “Helping soldiers out is a big thing in most people’s lives. I don’t know who wouldn’t want to help out soldiers.”
“You get some people here who get pretty high refunds, so it’s definitely a big pleasure thing.”
“They’re in a situation where they feel valuable, and they’re utilized,” said Capt. Sean Flood, the officer in charge at the tax center, which opened its doors Jan. 23 to those filing their 2011 taxes.
Flood said many of the soldiers working in the center, whom Internal Revenue Service representatives and experienced Army financial personnel train for approximately two months to use software to file taxes and master tax-related forms, were selected to do so by their leadership because of injuries that no longer allowed them to remain in their old occupations.
They’re infantrymen, engineers and military police. Some are former squad leaders, some team leaders.
Sgt. Brian Slates was a cavalry scout.
That was before a roadside bomb struck his squad’s Stryker fighting vehicle in 2010 during his deployment to Iraq with 3rd Brigade, 2nd Inf. Div.
Slates’s unit sent him to Balad, Iraq, for two weeks to receive medical care, but for the next several months he would ultimately try and tough it out.
Eventually, however, an MRI scan revealed torn tendons in both his ankles.
“I need like four surgeries on my ankle, one on my knee and possibly something on my back,” said Slates, a Joplin, Mo., native the Army called back from the inactive ready reserves to active duty service before his deployment.
“I told them if I was going back in, I’d just go active,” he said. “Very shortly after, I reenlisted. I was having a good time.”
The tax center is a different environment for Slates, who, as a scout spent his days laying out equipment, preparing for the field and leading improvised combat-related training.
“You don’t really hang out in the office in the scout life,” he said. “Here, I’m in the office all day.”
But nonetheless he enjoys himself.
“I kind of like taxes,” Slates said. “I find it kind of fun to do them.”
“I can apply this forever,” he said, now 13 months past his first days learning office work and how to navigate W-2 forms. “I mean, I won’t ever have to pay anyone to do my taxes.”
And Flood sees benefit elsewhere, too.
“Here, they’re actually doing something and they’re keeping busy, and I think that’s the thing they like about it the most,” said Flood, a Clive, Iowa, native. “I think it’s better for their morale.”
Sutton still looks back on his time with the infantry – his time hoping to move on and join the rangers.
“It’s depressing at one point,” he said. “I wanted to be a ranger pretty bad.”
He still looks back on days spent firing at the range.
“When I was doing infantry I loved it,” he said. “You still miss it. I miss going to ranges all the time, but it’s something you’ve got to get over.”
But as is fitting of his optimist personality, Sutton is looking at the brighter side of things as well.
“It gives me some knowledge with something I can move on with in the future, because you’re always going to need to know how to do taxes,” he said.
“I’ve done three or four jobs in the Army, and I signed up to do one.”