When Anthony Gayden was a private in the U.S. Army, he had an officer who he hated — at first.
“He was so mean, and he made me work so hard,” Gayden said.
The first time Gayden had to put on all of the protective gear used during nuclear, biological and chemical warfare training, he couldn’t breathe in the mask and told his officer.
“He was calm. He said, ‘Gayden don’t take that mask off,’” Gayden said. “I’m thinking I’m tough, thinking, ‘I’m going to take this mask off, I told him I can’t breathe.’”
As soon as Gayden took the mask off, the officer punched him in the throat, hard, and said, “Now you can’t breathe.”
“After that, whatever he told me, I did it,” Gayden said.
It wasn’t until a deployment to Desert Storm when the chemical alarms went off for the first time that he realized the importance of this lesson.
“I’m seeing people running around screaming, ‘Ah, I can’t find my mask,’ and I thought to myself, ‘I’m so glad that he’s my leader,’ because we were ready … we got into (our gear) so quick,” Gayden said. “And from that day forward, I patterned myself after him.”
Gayden was born on July 21, 1969, in Flint, Michigan. He was the youngest of two, so he was his mother’s baby.
Though he and his sister were raised solely by their mother, the family had deep roots in Flint and they grew up very close to their extended family.
“My grandparents had six kids, so I grew up with all of them and their children — we were all tight,” Gayden said.
Gayden’s father lived in Detroit, and wasn’t around very much through his childhood, but he still had strong men in his life — his grandfather and uncles.
Nearly all of his family worked for General Motors, including his mother, who was a general foreman at the company for 37 years.
“She was a strong woman,” Gayden said. “My mother worked hard, and she raised us off of General Motors. A lot of people in my community grew up on the poor side … but my refrigerator was always full. We weren’t well off, but we didn’t know it.”
Gayden’s family had a strong work ethic, which was passed down from his grandfather to his mother, and then to him.
“My grandfather had nothing more than a sixth-grade education, but he raised six kids and umpteen grandkids,” he said.
In high school, Gayden was very into sports, wrestling and playing football through the years.
“I always thought I was going to be on a professional football team somewhere,” he said. “I didn’t have the mentality of future planning. I was just taking it day by day, and the next thing I knew, it was my senior year and I hadn’t taken any SATs, I hadn’t planned anything.”
Though he didn’t know what he was going to do, he did know what he was certainly not going to do — “sit around and do nothing” — so he started looking into the military.
Gayden first went into a Marine Corps recruiter, but still wasn’t quite sold on which branch he was going to pick.
He then decided on the Army, and scored high on the ASVAB aptitude test, so he got his choice of jobs and decided on avionics electrician.
After graduation from Flint Northern High School in June, Gayden took the summer off before leaving for basic training.
Gayden arrived at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, on Aug. 18, 1988, for his first day of basic training, feeling petrified.
“I was always a loud kid. I ran my mouth all of the time,” he said, “so before I left, my uncle said to me, ‘Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, keep your head down, and just do what you’re told,’ but no, not me. I went in there the same old me.”
“They smoked me from day one all the way until the eighth week,” he said, laughing. “But I made it through, and I had a great time.”
After nine months of advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, he was worried they were going to send him overseas, but was excited to hear he was going to Fort Hood, Texas, instead. He only stayed there for a year though, as he was put on a unit training plan, where the whole unit trains for a year, then ships somewhere together.
“We were wartime training,” he said. “That training program was rigorous. We would go to the field for two weeks, come back for four, go back for another three weeks, come back for two, go back for another — a year straight.”
He’d already learned the skills, so he was fixing aircraft now, which he loved. The first was the Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter, then the Boeing AH-64 Apache.
“We’re not aircraft-specific, so we could work on any of the aircraft,” he said.
His unit was then sent to Ansbach, Germany, for three years.
“I was there for about six months, then got alerted to go to Desert Storm, and off I went,” he said.
During the six-month deployment, he was part of an attack helicopter battalion, and worked on the unit’s 18 Apaches, 12 Bell OH-58 Kiowa and three Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks.
He then returned to Germany, where he was able to play for the World League of American Football.
“It helped boost German-American relations, so the units were really supportive and they encouraged me to go play,” Gayden said. “I would travel all over Europe playing football, and when I wasn’t playing football, I was on the community wrestling team. That was great — that’s why I loved Germany so much.”
After his tour, he was transferred to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for three years before being sent on a hardship tour to Korea for a year. When he returned, he then left for Oahu, where he worked with a Black Hawks unit for four years until transferring back to Fort Campbell.
“I loved all my overseas assignments, but my favorite stateside assignment was Fort Campbell,” he said. “I was a soldier’s soldier, and if you’re a soldier, Fort Campbell was the place to be. I was motivated, I was physically fit, I was smart.”
Soon, Gayden was deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom for a year, where he again was put into an attack helicopter battalion.
“The aircraft would fly to wherever they were going, but whenever we would go to our forward location, we had to get in our trucks — that’s where we saw the action,” he said. “You’ll never forget the guys you were over there with … It’s a bond that I can’t explain.”
After Desert Storm, he had vowed he would be the kind of leader who gave his soldiers what they needed, not what they wanted, and as a platoon sergeant while deployed, he was able to put that into practice.
“I had 67 soldiers in my platoon and 67 soldiers came home with me because my soldiers were not going to be ill-prepared,” he said.
Though those deployments were challenging, Gayden said they were rewarding — “I’m proud I did it,” he added.
In 2007, Gayden went back to Korea, where he spent the last four years of his military service. By that time he was a first sergeant, and a leader no one wanted to mess with.
“That was the first time I thought, ‘Man, I’m good at this,’” he said. “That was, to me, what I was best at.”
He remembers talking with a spouse who was upset her husband was working so hard.
He told her, “It’s not my job to try and make you happy … my job is to bring your husband home to you. When we go across those waters, you can’t fathom the hardships that we have to endure, and everything I’m doing right now is preparing him, so that he can come home to you.”
He was able to see it come full circle, and was later told the impact he had on his soldiers.
“That was a beautiful thing,” he said.
Gayden retired on June 1, 2011, as a first sergeant, after 23 years in the U.S. Army.
“I hadn’t been without a job since I was 12 years old, so it was such a foreign feeling for me when I retired,” Gayden said. “In that in-between time from when I retired to when I re-entered the workforce, it was really scary.”
Gayden said he must’ve washed all the paint off his car.
“My wife would get up in the morning and go to work, and I would go outside and wash the car,” he said, chuckling.
A couple years after retirement, Gayden and his family moved to Santa Clarita, and about six months later, he was hired by the federal government as director of mission support operations for a defense contract management agency, working out of Palmdale.
“That’s where I’ve been ever since, and I love it,” he said, smiling.
The first time Gayden was really able to reflect and realize what he had lost by leaving the military was on a beach camping trip to Camp Pendleton with his family when he passed another serviceman while walking to the commissary.
“We made eye contact, and it was a feeling that I can’t explain, like, ‘I got your back,’” he said. “With all of the race craziness, strife and hatred in America today, it almost made me cry.”
“We have an understanding between the service men and women that when we cross those waters in a hostile environment, when we know they want to kill us because of the U.S. Army written across our chests, we’re all we’ve got,” he said. “If I’m in a foxhole next to you, I’m not worried about where you’re from, what your religion is, what your sexual preference is — all I’m worried about is if you’ve got my back and I’ve got yours.”
He explained this feeling as a bond that can never be broken.
“I wish that the other 99% of America could feel what we feel, so all of this hatred and separation could go away,” he added. “Just because somebody is different, doesn’t make them beneath you or above you. Let’s get to know each other’s differences, understand each other and see where it goes from there.”