Once Kyle Thieme decided to join the military, he knew immediately what branch.
“My grandpa was in the Army, so I want to go into the Army,” he said.
Though his grandfather had served during the Korean War, he had been helping to build the railroads in Alaska.
“So, I went to the Army (recruiters), and they’re like, ‘Well, right now we have Alaska open,’” he added. “I’m like, ‘This is perfect, my grandpa was stationed in Alaska’ … so it just felt cool knowing he did that (too).”
Thieme was excited to be following in his grandfather’s footsteps, yet he never expected joining the Army would open so many doors for him, nor that the similarities would continue.
“When he got out, he went to work for Stater Brothers, ran a store and everything,” he said.
Now, Thieme is once again following in his grandfather’s footsteps as store manager of the Ralphs in Castaic.
“I was just waiting for jobs and they called me first,” Thieme added, regarding Ralphs. “It ended up being the greatest call ever. Who would have known?”
Thieme was born on Jan. 25, 1982, in Palm Springs. He’s the oldest of two siblings, and grew up in what he called an “activity family.”
“We were very big into the outdoors, so no indoors ever, and vacations were camping or exploring, stuff like that,” he said, adding that he was always active, playing either soccer, baseball or wrestling.
In high school, he started working in valet parking at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort.
“I was driving Vipers, Porsches, Ferraris at 17, then going to school with a pocketful of cash, and you’re the big guy on campus,” he said.
He continued as a valet after graduation as he began studying criminal justice at the nearby junior college, but his mindset began to change after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It kind of wakes you a little bit,” he said, adding that he thought to himself, “‘Oh, things are going on in the world, not just having fun.’”
About a year later, he decided to join the military.
One of the jobs offered to Thieme by the recruiter was infantry. “I’m like, perfect … I was very excited.”
Though excited, basic training at the “Home of the Infantry” in Georgia was miserable.
“We had all these bodies from all over the United States forced to live in this little room, so you’re just breathing and introduced to so many different germs, and everyone was sick the entire time,” he said. “If you looked in everyone’s bunkers, they had vitamin C and Lysol – those were their go-to items (because) the whole time you’re trying not to get sick again.”
Not only was he sick, but he was also starving, as recruits were only given two minutes to eat, and exhausted, as they were getting little sleep and their days were jam-packed with endless tasks to complete.
“Then you get out of basic and you’re like, ‘I’ve got four years of this? I’m over it.’ because you don’t know what’s next,” he added.
It’s no surprise that after weeks of this, Thieme wasn’t too excited for the next four years of his enlistment, as he didn’t know what would come next, but once at Fort Richardson in Alaska, it began to feel more like a 9-to-5 job, and things began to look up.
“You got your weekends off like a normal job, so you got to go fishing, snowboarding … It was a great time,” he said. “You get on a kayak … you’re seeing a moose drinking out of the river, you see the bald eagles above you. At 19, I don’t even think you could appreciate it. I wish you can go back and do that.”
While he was training to head to the deserts of Iraq, he still had to cold-weather training, which included building igloos.
“I was volunteering for every class there was just (because) it was fun,” he said, adding that he was certified to transport ammunition and explosives and took a combat lifesaver course.
In 2004, Thieme deployed to Iraq as part of the 2nd Stryker Brigade, which began with a steep nosedive into Iraq on a C-130 as it avoided being shot at, while his unit was told to run as soon as they hit land.
“It’s the dead of night, no windows in this thing,” he said, adding that they were terrified. “You don’t know what to expect, you only hear stories and of course what do you think you hear? Nothing but the worst.”
In the daylight the next morning, they were finally able to really see what was going on around them and felt more comfortable as it looked just like a normal military base.
Soon, they fell into their daily routine, working 12 hours on, 12 hours off, seven days a week, and going “outside the wire” to patrol the streets of Mosul.
Thieme spent a lot of time driving the Strykers, as he was fearless. “I was blasting through the streets, and these are small streets and a big giant vehicle … no one could keep up with me.”
Hitting roadside bombs, or IEDs, as a driver was his least favorite part. “When you’re the driver, you’re in charge of the vehicle, so when we got back to the base, I had to change the tires and do all the maintenance while everyone else went back to sleep, so I was just getting more annoyed when we hit an IED.”
Though there were plenty of IEDs, there were no real firefights and the people were nice in Mosul. “The kids loved us, they would run up on the back of the Stryker and we would throw out candies for them.”
After six months, his unit moved to Tal Afar where they went from having their own connex rooms to sharing one tent per platoon. “They’re all brothers (to me) at this point — it’s family.”
His unit was still tasked with patrolling cities, but they were also given a device used to triangulate a target’s cell phone signal, and once found people buried under a freshly laid tile floor.
“Then we were done, the year was over,” Thieme said. “We bought our plane tickets to go home, told our loved ones we’re coming home.”
At that very same time, President Bush ordered a surge into Baghdad, so Thieme’s entire brigade was told they would not be going home, and instead would be spending six months in Baghdad. They were devastated.
“When we went back, we lost the guy, like I watched a guy get shot in the head, and what went through our heads was that we weren’t even supposed to be there — we were supposed to be home,” he said.
In Baghdad, they continued to do the same duties, but were faced with more firefights, with the first being on their second week there while searching for a target.
“I remember it clear as day,” he said. “My buddy popped open the hood of a car, and as he popped it open, I just see his hands go (out), and he just falls back. A sniper hit him right in the back of the head.”
Though he didn’t die, as the helmet was able to curve the bullet and save his life, the blow fractured his skull and he passed out.
“Automatically, we all thought he was dead,” Thieme added. “Then someone yelled ‘sniper,’ and you’re seeing rounds hitting the ground, so we’re just taking cover behind taxis, or whatever is around … and we are shooting at anything and everything that moves … we just didn’t know where the sniper was coming from.”
Once they had assessed that the situation was clear and the sniper had moved on, they then had to go rescue the people they had opened fire on, which was where his combat lifesaver course came into play. “So now I’m sitting there helping this poor guy out while taking cover, heart racing forever, trying to do an IV.”
After a long six months, it was finally time to return home. Those whose enlistments were almost up were told they’d be home for only six months before being sent back to Afghanistan, which made the decision easy for Thieme not to reenlist.
He spent the last few months at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks until his enlistment was up and he was honorably discharged as a specialist in August 2007.
When Thieme got back to California, he returned to school to finish his criminal justice degree, thinking he was going to go into law enforcement and began applying for part-time jobs.
He was hired as a nighttime clerk at the Ralphs in Newbury Park, where his military experience and mannerisms helped him quickly begin to move up the ladder. “Within six months, I got my first manager position there, then another six months, I’m running my own night crew.”
By then, he had married his longtime girlfriend, Morgan, who was completing her teaching credential program, so he decided to stick with Ralphs and pause his own schooling.
It wasn’t until he became the assistant store manager at the Ralphs on Soledad Canyon Road that he finally realized he was happy making a name for himself at Ralphs, and stopped applying for police departments.
“Then next thing you know, within two years, I was given my own store,” he said, adding that he owes it all to the work ethic instilled in him while in the military. “I always gave it my all and that was because of the military.”
With two boys, now 6 and 8 years old, he strongly believes they should, too, join the military, as it has opened so many doors for him.
“The doors keep opening that I don’t even realize that I’m slowly still finding out to this day,” he added.