By Justin Balding, NBC News Producer
Staff Sgt. Weaver
Charles Weaver has been on an extraordinary journey in the last ten years. And our NBC News team, led by Tom Brokaw, has witnessed much of this soldier’s odyssey firsthand.
In the Autumn of 2002, when the war drums were thumping with a growing sense of inevitable conflict with Iraq, Staff. Sgt Weaver’s 3rd Infantry Division at Ft. Stewart, GA was just about to receive the order to deploy to Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At the time, Weaver said: “I didn't join the military to sit at home, and I knew the possibility of going to war is an everyday event for me.”
Weaver, who had already served 14 years in the U.S. Army, had seen other big overseas deployments – to the Korean peninsula and Bosnia. But Operation Iraqi Freedom would be his first combat mission – and Weaver’s unit would be at what the U.S military commanders were calling “the tip of the spear.”
That Autumn, our team spent days with Weaver as he trained with his troops; followed him as he learned to combat chemical gas attacks; and went home with him, where we met his wife Dawn and the kids Christina and Chase. Tom Brokaw had the following unsettling exchange with Weaver and his wife Dawn.
Do you talk about the possibility of war?
Staff Sgt. Weaver:
We do. We make the plans, like we were just talking about how I've got to go update my will, stuff like that just in case.
You hope for the best, but you have to prepare for the worst. I think about him dying all the time. He just doesn't know it, and I just don't talk to him about it. This is the man I plan on spending the rest of my life with. What happens if I do lose him? What am I going to do? How am I going to mentally prepare myself? And how am I going to explain that to my kids?
Hard to talk about it even now, right?
There was a teary goodbye in Fort Stewart as Weaver set off to the Middle East. And that’s where we caught up with him next - in the deserts of northern Kuwait on the border with Iraq. In March 2003, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began and Weaver’s 4-64 Armor unit – a.k.a The Tuskers – was in the thick of it.
Weaver took a camera to war with him and shot spooky images of his convoy rolling though flat and barren desert lands. He captured images of destroyed Iraqi military hardware and of fleeing men who had in all likelihood deserted their army units and cast off their uniforms.
When it came to pull the trigger, no hesitation?
Staff Sgt. Weaver:
No hesitation. Pulled the trigger. I mean, we were driving down the road and we had somebody coming at us in a blue van, wouldn't stop. We fired warning shots, everything, and they just kept coming at us. And finally my driver, he asked me, 'What do I'--he said, 'What do I do?' I said, 'Well, take him out.' I would rather take one of them out than to have one of my soldiers get hurt. And that was the big thing with me. You just have to make that on-the-spot call to do it.
Did you think at that point this may be it for you?
Staff Sgt. Weaver:
Yes, sir. Of course.
And after the battle for Baghdad had been won, we found him in Saddam’s grandest palace, in the heart of Baghdad, where he gave us our very own guided tour.
Before the war began, so many of the troops had been told that the road home went through Baghdad. For many it did, but the road turned into a long one; and for Weaver that meant another five months in the searing heat of central Iraq where he and his unit were needed to guard a strategic dam.
When Charles returned home that Fall, after nearly a year away from his family, he was promoted to Sgt First Class and we stayed in touch with him occasionally through the years. And then last year, we visited him at his new home in Sparta, Wisconsin.
Staff Sgt. Weaver
The change in him was striking. Sure, he was still the same great guy with a very strong family; but the strain of multiple battles was taking its toll. Charles was fighting a persistent back injury, thyroid cancer, and The Great Recession.
Tom Brokaw asked. “Do you think the country owes you something now?” Weaver replied, “The only thing I think that is owed to me is at least the opportunity to go to work for somebody and prove to them that somebody coming from the military has a lot to offer.”
At the time, Charles said his 21 years of service in the army didn’t seem to count much as he searched for work. Most of the jobs seemed to go to officers with college degrees. And, he said, he used to run into prejudice: potential employers were wary of hiring Iraq or Afghanistan vets, worried about how wound up they might be and how that might play out in the work place. For a man who had always worked, not having a job made him feel worthless at times.
After Charles’s story aired on national television, there was another big page-turn in his life story because Mike and Susan Costigan from Crystal Lake, Illinois were watching.
Mike Costigan is a Morning Joe viewer. He took to heart a point Joe made on the show several times last year - that most Americans were unaffected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So when Tom Brokaw appeared on Morning Joe to discuss his Dateline NBC documentary called The Road Back, he and Susan made a point of watching the Dateline show -- rather than sports, as they normally would!
They were so touched by Charles's story and his raw emotion. They found it hard to believe that a man who had commanded an army platoon in such difficult circumstances was unemployed and struggling to get by.
As it happens, the Costigans are media entrepreneurs and own several internet companies, including Kelly Car Buyer. The self-described "green" company, operating in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, pays cash for used cars and sells them for scrap or spare parts, or else fixes them up for re-sale.
"Oh my god", thought Costigan, "this poor bastard can't get a job". As soon as the show finished Mike and Susan found Charles's contact details online. Mike called Charles the next day and the day after that the couple drove four hours from Crystal Lake, Illinois to Sparta, Wisconsin to offer Charles a job.
At first Charles was skeptical and asked, "How much is this going to cost me?"
Costigan replied, "You've already paid enough, son".
Charles took the job and now buys and sells used cars, making about $1,000 a week. More than that, he can work from home and family life has improved enormously.
Costigan thought it would take Charles three months to adjust to Kelly Car Buyer. Instead, he says, it took just three days for Charles to fit into the company. Costigan says Charles has impeccable manners and a great personality for dealing with people on the phone.
And since Charles worked out so well, when a former marine dressed in a suit showed up on a bicycle looking for a job, the Costigans hired him too. He is Mike Morales and he proved to be a whizz with social media, which is a huge bonus to a family with a series of web-based companies. He now manages Costigan's online social networking.
But the Costigans were not done yet. When they needed to hire a driver, and another veteran showed up, they hired him too. Jon Kendall served in the U.S. Navy as machinist. Now he tows used cars then fixes them up for re-sale.
As tough as the economy still is, these three veterans are getting by after a couple took a chance on them. But it’s not a one-way street. The Costigans believe men and women who have served in the military are adaptable, know how to work as a team and get the job done.
Now Charles Weaver is happy and his life journey continues at a more settled pace.
Watch Tom Brokaw’s full report on Charles Weaver and the Costigans as part of Dateline Sunday, March 25th, at 7pm/6c.