Chris Cowley didn’t want to find himself old and in a rocking chair asking himself “what if?”
That thought propelled the maintenance technician for Georgia-Pacific’s Lebanon, Tenn., packaging plant to make a dramatic life change at 38 years old by deciding to enlist in the Army National Guard.
In 2007, Cowley, who was working at the Lebanon plant, realized his poor eating habits, little exercise and constant exhaustion had caused his weight to soar to nearly 260 pounds. Cowley joined a gym, started eating healthy and shed the extra pounds. But there was an entirely different weight he carried in his heart.
As a younger man, Cowley always wanted to join the military, but family life and work led him down a different path. But, as he became more fit, the thought of enlisting and becoming a soldier grew stronger and more realistic. Initially, he kept the idea of such a life-changing decision to himself. A sheer coincidence eventually gave him the courage to turn his private thought into reality.
“Someone mentioned to me that the military had just raised the enlistment age limit to 42, so the next day I decided to join,” said Cowley. “I always wanted to serve my country, and at 38 I felt the challenge. The stars where in the right place.”
Cowley admits the military’s physical and mental challenges were hard for someone his age. Despite being physically fit, he hadn’t been in a classroom in more than 20 years. After passing the required aptitude tests and completing five months of basic training, Cowley was assigned to serve in the 278th Cavalry Regiment in Tennessee. In 2009, he was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq to serve as a military police officer, which included clearing dangerous locations and safeguarding high-ranking military officers.
Cowley quickly became a mentor to younger squad members who were only a few years older than his son.
“I told them to never settle for anything less than what you want. I also let them know how much they taught me about life. I always strived to give them 100 percent because I wanted 100 percent back from my squad,” he said.
When Cowley’s deployment ended in 2010, he returned to work at Georgia-Pacific and was welcomed home with open arms and a celebration in his honor.
“I always kept in touch with the plant while I was away, and coming back I felt so honored and proud. I wouldn’t have been able to serve my country had it not been for the outstanding support from Georgia-Pacific.”
He also returned home with new knowledge that he could use in his civilian life.
“So much I learned in the military I was able to bring back to Georgia-Pacific. Like the safety we practiced in the field, safety on the plant floor is so important. Eyewear, ear protection, headgear and a safe mentality - that’s what keeps you protected.”
Cowley also realized his improved communication skills were helpful to his job. “I really learned to talk and deal with people; how to motivate them the right way without pressure. Once you figure out how to motivate people, they’ll do anything for you.”
Before joining the Army, Cowley had rarely traveled beyond the Tennessee state line. He came home with a new appreciation for freedom and a renewed outlook on life. “It’s a big world and I’m so glad I got to see a part of it.”
In honor of Veterans Day, Georgia-Pacific thanks its employees, like Chris Cowley, who have served and courageously defended our freedom. We've created a website to honor many of these veterans, which you can visit here.