Shane Steinhart chose the Navy because he was a good swimmer.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hockey was the dominant sport, but high school teams only took the top players. Being too small to play football, Steinhart joined the swim team.
“I really didn’t like camping or being in the dirt all that much — I like fishing, and I would rather be on a boat. I could jump off the boat and go swimming,” Steinhart said. “The only deciding factor really was for me was the Marines or the Navy. I scored high enough on the ASVAB score that they were kind of fighting over me.”
Just three hours late of being a Christmas baby, Steinhart was born on Dec. 26, 1971, at Fort Benning, Georgia, before his family moved to Grand Rapids, a town of 7,000, which, although the biggest city in the county, Steinhart compares to “frozen tundra.”
“Until I was about 9, our house water pump was outside and it froze every year, so I would have to bring water home from my grandmother’s in big jugs and heated on the stove when I wanted to have a bath,” he said. “You can go through town on snowmobiles. There are some restaurants that actually have snowmobile-only parking.”
In 1980, when Steinhart was just 8 years old, his father died in a car crash, possibly caused by the car sliding on ice.
Despite this, Steinhart says his childhood was relatively normal. He does consider himself to be an overachiever, having taken honors courses, competed as part of Distributive Education Clubs of America, and also taking classes at the local community college while in high school. But just because was academically gifted doesn’t mean Steinhart was on the straight and narrow. When he was 17, he was caught drinking and driving and was charged with reckless driving.
“I wouldn’t realize until years later how much of an overachiever I was, but I was also a bit of a delinquent — overachieving delinquent,” he said. “But I realized I have to do something with my life; I was gonna be a screwed-up individual doing this kind of crap. And that’s when I decided I was going to join the Navy.”
The decision to join the military was purely driven by his desire to better himself and the honor of serving. Though his grandfather was a Naval cook in World War II, and his father worked as an explosive demolition expert in the Army during the Vietnam War, Steinhart said that that did not factor in his decision to serve.
Steinhart joined the Navy in September 1990, and the rigor, stress and intensity of boot camp immediately made him question his decision.
“The first day, they take you over to the phone center and to call your parents to let them know that you arrived safely, and I remember sitting on that phone just saying please get me out of this,” he said. “There was a guy who had tattoos up to his neck and down his wrists that you could see under the uniform. One day I was sitting across from him during lunch and he started to cry and wipe his tears away with a napkin. That was the moment I realized I wasn’t alone.”
Though he would have gone directly from basic training into further schooling to be an aviation electronics technician, Steinhart’s record came back to haunt him and the reckless driving charge rendered him ineligible to go directly to training. Instead, he was first assigned to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was stationed in Portsmouth, Virginia, conducting air traffic.
Eight months later, he was finally sent to complete his aviation electrician training in Memphis. Though he was primarily stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, he was also deployed to Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Austria, Israel, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Australia, St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Puerto Rico.
Eventually, Steinhart began to feel like he was not progressing in his career and started to dread going in to work on planes. So he applied to transfer jobs and, after a rigorous background check, he was approved to begin training as an electronics intelligence crypto analyst in 1999. From then on, it was Steinhart’s job to analyze patterns in radar signals
“With crypto tech, we’re looking for a microsecond in a radar signal and we’re looking for the little peaks and valleys within that microsecond that detailed exactly what that radar is or what that signature is so that we can identify it further or we can exploit it to break a code if there is one,” he explained. “We had a lot of the intelligence community, top-secret networks, at our disposal. Our job is to pinpoint any bad guys coming in and finding the bad people, to predict the future using past analysis.”
In 2001, Steinhart began to have trouble sleeping. When he could fall asleep he had nightmares. In 2004, he had a mental breakdown. He sought help in therapy. He developed anger issues, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He started to hallucinate voices and almost let himself fall over the side of the ship during a deployment. He turned to alcohol and medical marijuana to help numb the negative thoughts and get through the day.
Steinhart didn’t know it then, but he was suffering from sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which the individual’s breathing repeatedly starts and stops.
His physical and mental health deteriorated to the point that, in 2005, Steainhart refused to go on his fifth deployment.
“Just the smell of the ship, the fuel, diesel and stuff caused me to break down in tears,” he said. “I told my commander that if I go on that ship, I will die. If I have to go on that ship I might just jump into the ocean.”
Due to his refusal, Steinhart’s commanders wanted to give him a captain’s mast, a form of non-judicial punishment, to make a public example out of him. Not wanting to be used as a prop, he requested a court-martial instead, where he would be able to provide evidence and witnesses. Naval lawyers assured him that he had enough evidence to beat the case.
“They found an easy way to get rid of me under the new body fat standards,” he said. “You can’t lose weight when you have sleep apnea, so I had a lot of weight problems. ‘Hey, you’re too fat. Sorry, you’ve got to go.’”
On Oct. 15, 2005, Steinhart was honorably discharged from the military as a Petty Officer First Class. He was five years away from retirement.
After his discharge, Steinhart continued to suffer from his still undiagnosed sleep apnea. He moved to Atlanta and found work at an electronics company manufacturing cameras for sewer systems, but his anxiety and issues with other members of the staff made him quit after two months. A few months later one of his former coworkers asked him to work at another electronics company, which he did for about a year.
In the meantime, Steinhart began to take classes for video editing, a hobby he had picked up in 2002 to help promote the Navy car club he was in. The more he learned, the more he fell in love with it, and in April 2008, Steinhart moved to California where he attended the Art Institute of California for three years studying film.
“There is no art in the military, and film school taught me what art was and what it means to have art,” he said. “One of my senior films was accepted in the Las Vegas Film Festival in 2011. I didn’t win anything, but I got my IMDB credit and I’m very proud of that.”
It wasn’t until 2012, seven years after his discharge, that a doctor suggested Steinhart take a sleep test and the sleep apnea was discovered. According to Steinhart, the tests found that he would stop breathing up to 40 times per hour.
“To this day, I’m still very angry that the Navy doctors never said anything or suggested getting a sleep test done, because then I could have been medically retired and I would be in a completely different circumstance,” he said. “The day that I got my CPAP machine, the nightmares stopped.”
To practice telling stories during film school, Steinhart began to write down some of his experiences in notebooks, but it wasn’t until 2015, when he showed some of his writing to one of his professors, that Steinhart felt encouraged to write a memoir about his time in the Navy. The book, “My Navy Life” will be published on Amazon on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, which is also his 240th day of sobriety.
“To a large extent, a lot of writing this book has been me getting over these feelings of anger and woe is me, these nightmares,” he said. “I’m kind of impressed with myself for writing this, this is kind of like my sacred Jedi text. My son was born after I got out of the military so he’ll never experience going out to the ship or on the planes or anything that I used to do, but I’m glad that it’s all recorded in a book for him.”
Currently, Steinhart works as a janitor at Walmart and also stays home to take care of his son while the family prepares to move to Texas due to his wife’s recent promotion. He is also preparing to promote his book. Depending on its success, Steinhart says he might write another book or pursue a career in data science, harking back to his job in the Navy.
Despite the frustration that colored his Naval career, Steinhart still looks back on his 15-year career fondly.
“I’ve done things that most men will never do in their lives, danced with death on the flight deck, searched the world over looking for a better beer,” he said. “I look at it as, ‘Arrgh, I was a pirate. I loved it.’”