By Sadé Carpenter
On Sept. 11, 2001, Tim Sanders was learning how to rappel out of a helicopter. Stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., Sanders, then 19, had enlisted in the Army a mere 11 months before. It was a typical day in air assault school until his teacher began shouting.
“Everybody in the classroom right now!” he recalls hearing the teacher yell. Once in the room, they turned on the news and saw planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
They were, his teacher said later, about to go to war.
In 2000, Sanders was a senior at Romeoville High School in Romeoville, Ill. A genial, outgoing teen, Sanders says he struggled with English but did well in math, gym and lunch. He remembers watching an Army commercial junior year, but at this point was unsure about his future career path.
“I ain’t gone lie to you…I kind of panicked my senior year,” Sanders said. “I was like, ‘man I’ve been messing around all this time, what am I going to do?’ I was more of a ladies man, always trying to get at the honeys.”
Born in Gottlieb Memorial Hospital to parents Dean Sanders and Rhonda Renfro, Sanders says he had a happy childhood. While he did not always have the latest video games or shoes, his family was not poor. His parents divorced when he was young, and Rhonda later remarried William Renfro, who would raise Sanders and his younger sister, Laconia “Penny” Renfro. The family moved to Bolingbrook, Ill. in the early 1990s, where Sanders says he had a relatively strict upbringing.
“I couldn’t do NOTHING…couldn’t be on the phone too long, couldn’t be outside in the driveway too long…couldn’t go hang out with my friends,” said Sanders. “It was so bad that when me & [my friend] Jon would be up at the [basketball] courts, she would come down there and get me to come home and take out the trash.”
“Like Ma, we’re in a heated basketball game, hitting them threes, baby, hitting them threes!” Sanders said, animated, before imitating his mom with a slight southern drawl. “Here she comes – ‘Tiiiim!’ Like man are you serious?”
Sanders says he now appreciates how his parents raised him, but at the time, he and his parents did not always get along. His mother says she doesn’t think she was that strict, but she did everything she could to keep Sanders out of gangs and out of trouble.
“It seems like he only joined the army to see if he could get away from me,” Renfro said in a phone interview.
She was right. When Sanders graduated in 2000, he quietly took the steps necessary to enlist. He failed the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) twice, but finally passed on the third try. If his memory serves him correctly, on Oct. 1, Sanders told his family he was joining the Army. His day of entry was Oct. 4.
“At that time I knew I got to get out this house, I got to do something, I got to get out of the neighborhood,” Sanders said. “I wanted to be proud of myself and I wanted people to be proud of me.”
FIGHTING TWO BATTLES
Sanders arrived at Fort Sill, Okla. for basic training. He would stay here four months, before moving to Fort Campbell, Ky. in February. A 13B cannon crew member, he says he was mentally excited, but his body was tired. The long days of physical exertion broke him down, but he says the drill sergeants never intimidated him because his mother yelled at him at home anyway. Sanders formed friendships and enjoyed the camaraderie basic training brings.
“Man, [those were] good times, good times…when you meet that next man or next woman…you don’t look at them as a stranger anymore, you look at them as your brother or your sister,” he said. “That’s a lifetime commitment, that’s a lifetime partner, that’s a lifetime friend no matter where you are in the world.”
Those good times would soon come to an end. Sanders says he joined the military partially because he wanted to travel the world. He didn’t actually think he would end up fighting in a war.
“It never dawned on me how significant those towers were in New York,” Sanders said, reflecting on the events of 9/11. “Shit didn’t start getting real for me until we locked down the base.”
Sanders received orders in November 2002 to report to Iraq. He was excited to go out of the country and says he was not scared.
“When you look at movies, different events that go on in the world, you never expect those things to happen…you never expect to be in those types of situations,” Sanders said. “A lot of times you kind of laugh about it, you kind of push it off…but then when it actually happens, in your face – that’s when it starts getting real for you.”
What he didn’t know while preparing for war in Iraq is that his stepfather, William Renfro, was fighting a battle of his own at home. A man who never got sick, never had to stay in the hospital, was gravely ill. Renfro never personally told Sanders he was sick, and Rhonda didn’t want to burden Sanders by sharing the severity of Renfro’s illness.
“I didn’t want to put extra weight on him while he was trying to dodge bullets and fight for his life,” she said.
Sanders knew something was wrong with his stepfather, but didn’t realize how sick he was. Once, while visiting home, he saw Renfro in bed eating vanilla ice cream and apple pie. It was the middle of the day, and this was unusual behavior for him.
“I think I finally realized he was sick when he came downstairs and had these green “coochie cutter” shorts on…he was going in the kitchen getting a cup of water…he didn’t have a shirt on; stomach was big as hell…I said ‘wow, look at you with those shorts on!’’ Sanders said. “I was just going in, straight up making fun of him and this was like the first time he actually laughed, laughed so hard…[the first time in] my life that he laughed that hard and that much. That’s when I realized he was sick. That’s when I realized something was wrong with him.”
Despite a diagnosis of dementia, Rhonda says the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with Renfro. Sanders was deployed to Iraq in January or Feb. 2003, but was able to return home in July. His stepfather’s condition was deteriorating.
“When I came home from Iraq…he didn’t know who the hell I was,” Sanders said. “He just looked at me with that blank face…I thought at least he would recognize who I am, but he didn’t.”
One day, Renfro stopped breathing. His funeral was held Saturday, August 9, 2003. Sanders said he felt lost after his death.
“I still feel like I got robbed, I really do,” said Sanders. “It was like, ‘you’re sick, I don’t even know you’re sick, then all of a sudden you’re in that stage where you’re a vegetable and don’t know me anymore, and now you’ve passed away? Really?’”
After the funeral Sanders returned to Fort Campbell, Ky. His initial term of service ended Oct. 2003, and he returned home and started work as a forklift driver for Mohawk Industries through the end of 2004. Sanders completed a second tour in Iraq from 2005-2006, where he says he was introduced to a new war and lost a lot of friends.
Sanders, now 32, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and describes a horrific scene that he believes contributed most to his trauma. As he relieved a group of soldiers of duty, they joked about beating each other later in Madden NFL, a video game.
“10 minutes later man, they were gone,” he said. “[They] got hit by an IED [improvised explosive device]. The explosion was so strong, it caused the ammunition inside the tank to go off… all I saw was body parts. Fingers, toes, legs arms…just everywhere. The only thing I could do was stare.”
QUEST FOR NORMALCY
Today, Sanders works for Chem-Wise, a pest control management company. He earned an associates degree in computer networking systems from ITT Technical Institute, and hopes to find work in that field soon. He is coping with his PTSD – he feels anxious in large crowds and suffers from nightmares – and is working on feeling normal again.
“If you haven’t been to where he was, then you don’t understand what he went through,” said Darla Jackson, his fiancé. “I didn’t want to give up on him because he’s a good, he’s a great guy…I didn’t want to give up on him.”
Jackson says Sanders has a hard time getting over things – losing his stepfather, his time in Iraq – and he uses drinking to cope. An Army veteran herself, she says there have been times their relationship almost didn’t make it, but she doesn’t plan on leaving him anytime soon.
Sanders is currently waiting on a decision from the Army on whether he is fit to return to duty or eligible for permanent retirement from active duty. Meanwhile, he is still adjusting to life as a civilian and wrestling with words unspoken to his stepfather.
“I believe I would’ve started out simple by just telling him when he didn’t think I was listening, I was listening,” he said. “I really just thank him for the opportunities he gave me to be a better man.”