Steve Cunningham was going to be a career sailor. That was the plan when he enlisted in 1994. He was going to serve his time, rise up the ranks to chief petty officer, then cash out after 15 years. He was going to take the expertise he gained fueling fighter jets on aircraft carriers and apply it to the private sector, maybe working at an airport topping off 747s.
But boxing had other plans.
While based in Norfolk, Virginia, Cunningham participated in regular matches that took place in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. His lieutenant saw him fight and gave him a recommendation to the Navy’s boxing team.
Cunningham’s Navy career might not have ended with multiple chevrons on his sleeve, but his time in the military still helped shape the rest of his life.
“It really changed me a lot,” Cunningham says. “I went from the inner city of Philadelphia as a teenager, seeing all my friends be drug dealers or go to jail or a few of them be killed. You don’t have future aspirations. You don’t know you can go be this, go be that.
"But after the Navy, it opened my eyes to a whole new world. It totally helped me in boxing. We wake up so early and do so much by the time it’s lunchtime, it’s amazing.”
Steve Cunningham served from 1994 to 1998 aboard the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS America. The Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered carrier, was decommissioned in December 2012 after 50 years of service. The America was decommissioned in 1996 and sunk in 2005 as part of a live-fire test. The equipment is gone, but those experiences linger.
“ I got shot at. A bullet whizzed past my head. It made it real surreal. It all could have been changed if that bullet was a little more to the left, or the guy decided to blow it up on me instead of the guy behind me. ” Sammy Vasquez Jr.
Sammy Vasquez Jr.’s military journey started later. He was in ninth grade when the 9/11 attacks occurred. His father didn’t want him to enlist, but Vasquez convinced him that the Army National Guard would be a vital source of college income while at the same time keeping him out of combat.
Dad finally relented, and by his junior year of high school, Vasquez was going through boot camp. After regular troops had been in combat for 15 months, the Guard was tapped to provide relief.
Vasquez did his first tour in Habbaniyah, Iraq, in 2005 and 2006, serving as part of the Quick Reaction Force—sort of an all-purpose, rapid-response team to aid in firefights, bomb disposal and other short-straw combat duties. He went back for a second tour in 2008-09.
Whlle his time in Iraq is long gone in Vasquez's rearview mirror, there are things about the place that will never leave him. Cars go by too often, and he has to check the windows in his home. On Halloween night, he saw a kid in a mask running with pumpkins. Vasquez slipped into his car, lights off and engine cut, to sit and watch, just in case the vandal came back around.
He still makes regular trips to the Veterans Administration hospital to talk with some of the guys there—and to get treatment for himself. He gave a speech at the Pittsburgh VA about 9/11 around the anniversary, careful how he chose his words, so he wouldn’t upset any of the other veterans.
“Those things never really go away,” Vasquez says. “The first experience I had going on a big mission, there were guys blown up. We got in a big firefight. I got shot at. [A bullet] whizzed past my head. It made it real surreal. It all could have been changed if that bullet was a little more to the left, or the guy decided to blow it up on me instead of the guy behind me.
“People look at me like, 'He’s a professional fighter, and he’s doing this and doing that and living a great life,' but inside there’s a lot going on nobody knows about that I fight with every day. People don’t really understand what PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is. I’ve been blown up and knocked unconscious.
"I’m [about] more than just boxing. There’s more to this. I’ve done more with my life than half of these people who are even in this sport.”
Cunningham says it’s “bananas” when people will stop a veteran to thank them for their service. After all, veterans don’t get the movie-star treatment, so it’s always nice to know that regular citizens are thinking of them, even if it’s a moment’s consideration.
Cunningham went back to the Enterprise once to sign autographs, and he was brought back to his time on the ship, fueling warplanes during a 1996 bombing operation in Iraq. These days, after putting in his work in the ring, he sometimes gets sailors and veterans who want to talk. Vasquez gets the same treatment after his fights, during which he wears trunks that honor all four branches of the military.
But Vasquez says he believes civilians can take it a step further than just a simple word of thanks.
“A lot of people will say ‘thank you,’ and it’s not that we don’t appreciate [that], because we are grateful that they appreciate us,” he says. “But it’s tough for us, because we kind of have a survivor’s grief in a sense. The guys we know died, and we’re the ones who are alive, and it’s like, 'Why wasn’t it me instead of him?'
"I would say you can thank us, but if anything, I would maybe try to open up to a veteran. If you really talk to [a veteran] and say ‘I don’t know exactly what you went through, but I just want you to know I appreciate you and everyone else who made it and didn’t make it, for sacrificing your everyday life to protect us.’ A lot of them don’t really know. I’m really impacted by the people who actually ask me how I’m doing as a person.”