Tony Hersh has battled 120-degree heat, trooping through the desert during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He perfected communication systems in volatile and highly dangerous war zones such as Baghdad and Abu Ghraib.
But he draws the line at kayaking.
“Kayaking, to me, is one step too extreme, I think,” Hersh said with a laugh.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do around Summit County to keep him busy. In the winter, especially, he can be found taking advantage of every powder day possible, riding down the mountain and reveling in the feeling of flying.
Hersh’s ideas of extreme differ from the average person’s, however. While he’s resisted the urge to go careening down a canyon in a small watercraft, he had no such reservations about signing up for a career in the military, which he did as a college graduate in 2000.
Joining the military was a conscious, deliberate choice for Hersh. As a freshman at Mercy Hurst College in Pennsylvania, he participated in Army ROTC, which afforded him a full scholarship. He started studying for an intelligence analyst degree before transferring over to criminal justice, not wanting a high-pressure FBI or CIA job to take over his future life. He had just fallen in love, after all, and didn’t like the idea of entering a career that would require long absences and high levels of secrecy.
Hersh met Elisia, a music major at nearby Kent State University, in the summer of his freshman year. They dated throughout college, commuting several hours by car to see each other.
In 2000, at 21 years old, he graduated. That same day, he attended a smaller ROTC celebration, marking his entry into the Army as a second lieutenant. His grandfathers, who had both served in World War II, pinned his rank insignia on his shoulders.
Hersh wouldn’t say he comes from a military background. None of his immediate family has entered the service. It was just something he wanted to do, a decision that he states matter-of-factly and without hesitation or explanation.
Although the United States was not currently engaged in any large-scale conflicts when Hersh signed up with ROTC in 1996, he hadn’t expected those peaceful conditions to last.
“Due to how long it had been since the U.S. was involved in an armed conflict, I had a strong, just feeling, ... like an educated guess,” he said. “I had a strong feeling that something would happen, just because it had been so long. I guess I was right,” he added with a laugh.
Just over a year after his graduation, that big moment came.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Hersh was visiting his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, on leave from Germany, where he was stationed. That morning, he got a call from his dad.
“Put on the news.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Along with the rest of the country, Hersh watched as the second World Trade Center tower fell, changing the course of history, and plunging Hersh and hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel into a new era.
The attack made Hersh “absolutely more determined,” and he admits to feelings of anger and a desire to act.
“I felt fortunate, in a way, where I was already in a position to do something about it, and it definitely affected me,” he said.
The change was immediate. Flying back to Germany, Hersh walked past German police forces in the airport armed with sub-machine guns. On the base, security increased tenfold, affecting the daily lives of the soldiers, with constant security checks eating into their training time.
In early 2003, as signal officer for the 165th Military Intelligence unit, Hersh deployed to Kuwait. Several weeks later, the invasion of Iraq, called Operation Iraqi Freedom, began.
Hersh and his unit spent the first part of the conflict at a temporary base camp in the middle of the desert, halfway along the push to Baghdad. About a week after the city’s fall, the unit moved north of Baghdad, to the Balad airfield.
As signal officer, Hersh was in charge of communications. Day in and day out, he worked on setting up, then upgrading communication systems and capabilities, helping the people among all the moving parts of the invasion keep in constant contact.
“Every day was a little different, (with) different challenges and different projects you were working on,” Hersh said.
Working in the middle of the desert during summer was a particular issue, he said. Computers and electronic equipment had to be consistently cleaned and monitored. They usually had to be shut down in the middle of the day anyway, until temperatures cooled enough for them to function.
After Balad, Hersh’s battalion moved to Abu Ghraib, assigned, along with an infantry company, to help defend the base. Hersh and his unit had no contact with the prison inmates. They had a separate headquarters and his job, once again, was communications.
“I’m not sure how much I can talk about that,” he said with an apologetic smile. “Most of the things I did were classified.”
The one thing he will say — “Abu Ghraib was,” he paused, “an interesting place.”
End and beginning
Having studied history as part of his ROTC training, Hersh was especially aware of his involvement in modern history in the making.
“I felt like I was doing something important, and it can be surreal when you’re in it,” he said. While he never felt as though he, as a junior officer, was directly affecting events, he was aware of himself as a small part of the overarching whole.
It was while he was in Iraq that Hersh decided to start writing the next chapter of his own history — he decided he was going to propose to Elisia. In 2004, his four years of active duty were up, and within weeks of returning from Iraq, he popped the question.
She said yes. They married in 2005 in Cleveland.
Although no longer on active duty, Hersh spent the next four years in the inactive ready reserve, meaning that he could be called back to the Army on a moment’s notice. While he saw it happen to others, it never happened to him, and he is now honorably discharged at the rank of captain.
Helping his own
Hersh and his wife now live in Summit County, just over seven years after their first visit to the mountains. Hersh had learned to snowboard on the German Alps, but said he had never experienced a true powder day until some friends took him up to Keystone. After three consecutive days of glorious conditions, he was hooked.
Hersh spent some time as a project manager of an Internet company, making use of his computer background, followed by a short bout of unemployment last year. While contemplating doing some volunteer work related to veterans services, he saw the perfect job opening at the Frisco Workforce Center.
Now, Hersh works for the state government as a Disabled Veterans Outreach Program Specialist (DVOP). Based in Frisco, he covers 10 counties in northwestern Colorado. His job is to help military veterans with anything and everything regarding employment. Whether they want to find new work or advance their current employment status, Hersh helps them with job strategies and resume writing, and with finding available services.
Hersh is not alone in his duties. All of the Workforce Center employees are trained to help veterans with their job searches and questions.
“The Workforce Center is here to serve veterans in their employment and I am also available to spend even more time with veterans,” Hersh said, describing himself as an extra asset for the center. “All of us at the Workforce Center very greatly appreciate the service that veterans have done for our country and we want to provide employment services to them as best we can, because they sacrifice for us and we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can for them.”
A large part of Hersh’s job is outreach, putting himself out in the community and getting in touch with people he can help, who might not know about the resources that are available to them. This Veterans Day, for example, Hersh will be spending time at a breakfast for veterans in Frasier, then later at a dinner in Craig, hoping to make some more contacts and spread the word about how he and the Workforce Center can help.
Hersh is also organizing a free workshop for veterans, the second of its kind, to be held at the CMC building in Dillon on Nov. 15. It will serve as an overview of career exploration, tools and strategies for job searching. Hersh hopes that by holding the workshop the Friday after Veterans Day, he will be able to draw in more participants.
“It’s really rewarding when you can actually help a veteran,” he said. “And then, because of that help, they get a job they want. It’s a great feeling. I wish I could do more.”
When he’s not working, Hersh is enjoying himself outside or, more recently, spending time inside with Elisia and their 1-year-old son, Caius. Though this Veterans Day he’ll be busier than in the past, he’ll still take some time for reflection.
“You can’t help but think about it,” he said. “I guess, personally, it makes me think about the guys I was with. That’s what I think about the most.”
“It’s really rewarding when you can actually help a veteran. And then, because of that help, they get a job they want. It’s a great feeling. I wish I could do more.”
On why he enjoys his job at the Workforce Center in Frisco