Today at Berkeley Lab

Lab Employees Share Their Stories as Part of Veterans Day Celebration

By Sabin Russell

Ian White is accustomed to working in precarious places. He was project manager for the new roof installed this summer on the 110-foot dome atop Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, and this spring he will be in charge of placing photovoltaic panels in high spots throughout the national laboratory campus. Before joining the Lab in 2009, however, White had a much more dangerous assignment: three tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Marines.

This Friday is Veterans Day, a time for the nation to recognize and thank those who have served their country. White is one of 110 vets working at Berkeley Lab — a small percentage of the Lab’s 4,000 employees that is reflective of a national trend in which the great sacrifices of those who serve the country are being made by a small part of the American population. Yet White, like many veterans, is grateful for the years he spent in the military, even in a time of war.

“I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without my experience in the Marine Corps,” says White. He was a 20-year-old culinary school student from Birmingham Alabama when he decided to join up almost exactly seven years ago. As a combat engineer, he worked with two different units: the Marine Wing Support Squadron 374, which built and maintained airfields for Marine helicopters and fixed wing aircraft; and the 3rd Combat Engineers Battalion, which built fortifications, bridges, and even a reservoir. Like everything in Iraq, it was dangerous work, particular when the unit ran a gauntlet of mortars, rockets and improvised explosives moving from one project to the next.

White said he learned a great deal about “brotherhood and trust,” while in Iraq, and in addition to the training that landed him a job in Facilities, he said the self-discipline he learned in the Marines still serves him well today. “I rarely dawdle,’’ he says. “People say I walk with a sense of purpose.”

Deb Heller-Evans, a computer systems engineer for ESnet in the Computational Research Division at Berkeley Lab, also credits her years in the military with launching her career. Joining the Navy as a 19-year-old in 1973 seemed a natural thing for Heller-Evans, as her father was a World War II fighter pilot, and she grew up around military bases until he retired from the Air Force. As a Data Systems technician she learned a great deal about electronics, working on computers that analyzed data from anti-submarine buoys that were dropped and monitored by P-3 Orion aircraft. She was of a generation where virtually every new assignment she took was a first for a woman, but she said that she experienced opportunity rather than discrimination. “I just followed my own path,” she says.

Many people join the Navy “to see the world,” and Heller-Evans was posted on Guam and in Iceland before she was given a teaching post at Mare Island Navy Base in the Bay Area. After six years in the Navy, she left with a new career ahead of her, and a sense of pride in the nation’s global role. “Veterans Day reminds me of our place in the world,’’ she says. “What I did, I did for my country, but my country gave me a lift up.”

Heller-Evans spent much of her stint in the Navy looking for submarines. Retired Commander Christopher Amaden, now Deputy Director of the Berkeley Site Office (BSO), spent a substantial part of his 20-year career in the Navy inside one, under the sea. First it was aboard the nuclear-powered USS Kentucky, which carried 24 Trident ballistic missiles; and then the attack submarine, USS Dallas, which carried cruise missiles and teams of Navy Seals. Armed as it was, the USS Kentucky carried more firepower than all the weapons ever used during World War II. It was a successful weapon, Amaden explains, because it was never used. “You don’t want to see any action,’’ he says.

A mathematics and physics major from the University of Southern Florida, he enlisted in 1989 and was trained to operate nuclear reactors. Then he earned a Masters in Physics from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. During his final three years in the service, he was a strategic planner for Admirals John Blake and John “Fozzie” Miller aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz while it and five cruisers and destroyers conducted operations in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Now that he is back in civilian life, Amaden says he has felt welcomed at Berkeley Lab, where he serves as a Department of Energy representative overseeing the work done under the University of California contract. A job in the federal government, or in the defense industry, is the easiest transition for career military officers to make, he says. While veterans are relatively rare at Berkeley Lab, four of his colleagues at BSO also served in the Armed Forces. Berkeley Lab employees who learn of his military background are quick to thank him for his service, and Amaden says he enjoys “being asked good, probing policy questions” about foreign policy and defense matters.

While Amaden misses the camaraderie aboard ship, as the father of two young children he now savors the permanence of a home on shore. Veterans Day, he says, is a time to keep in our thoughts “the people who are watching our backs” all over the globe: “It’s a time to reflect on what people are doing right now for us, and what people have done for us in the past.’’