The sound of gunshots ring throughout the office – the violent noise piercing and the clanging of empty shells as clear as crystal. But Henry James Jr. doesn’t flinch, not even an inch.
Six months ago, this may have been a cause for alarm, but these aren’t real bullets, and this isn’t Iraq. As soon as he picks up the mobile phone, the simulated ammo rounds abruptly cease. James answers the call.
It’s about a quarter to six on a Friday and James is still in the office at Florida A&M University’s physical plant, long after most of his co-workers have left.
James works in the Life and Safety department. Among other things, he is responsible for testing and inspecting the fire alarms and public address systems around campus.
“He’s a man and a half,” says Jean Jones, coordinator of building systems and James’ supervisor. “He’s a motivating person and a true FAMUan at heart. I’ve observed him with his employees and the way he handles and motivates them. He can take the worst one and make something good out of them.”
The two have been working together at FAMU since 1989. Their relationship goes far beyond work.
“I can call him at late hours of the night and I never get a complaint,” Jones says. “I never get a gripe or nothing; he’s ready to move. Ask Uncle Sam, he’s very dependable.”
James, 44, has been a member of the National Guard for 23 years. In May 2009 he was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, with the rest of the 779th Engineer Battalion.
“Even as a little child, I knew I was going to be in some part of the military,” says James, who worked in the bases’ tactical operations center (TOC) as a battle noncommissioned officer. “We were the information center,” James says. “Everything that’s going on, every minute detail; we track.”
If a vehicle is hit by a roadside bomb or if troops are under fire, that activity is tracked by the TOC staff.
“Everything has to run through the TOC,” he says.
The TOC resembles a traditional office with computers and information boards showing the location of soldiers, vehicles-anything military intelligence deems of importance.
“It wasn’t that bad,” James says. “The tempo would change. It might be calm, but then the next thing you know you’re getting a call and they say ‘Hey a vehicle got hit.’ So that’s when you start the motion.”
The hectic times on duty were interspersed with thoughts of home. James felt relief knowing that his peers and supervisors stateside were supportive.
“At Christmas time they sent me like nine gift boxes,” he says. The icing on the cake came when Marching 100 band director Julian White sent him “t-shirts from the band and a Marching 100 CD.”
Rattler t-shirts were OK to wear during his downtime. But during his shifts, James had to be alert and in full combat gear as danger was constantly present.
“The building shakes-they weren’t shooting at us, but you can feel it,” James says. “Literally, it sounds like it’s right outside the door. When a (bomb) goes off you’re like, ‘It didn’t land on base, but it’s in the city.’ Then it’s like, ‘Whoom‘-and the whole building vibrates. And it’s like, ‘That was a big one.’ Then they call us and they’re like, ‘Yeah, it happened 300-400 meters out in the city. And you’re like ‘Dang-somebody died.’ Could you imagine worrying, if you’re outside playing-a car riding down the street and blowing up? That’s going on everyday,” James says. “Here in the United States, we didn’t grow up into that.”
Although aware of the danger he would encounter, those close to James say he didn’t let that worry him.
“He was pretty much upbeat,” says Bobby Brown, James’ neighbor. “He knew what he had to do. He’s a soldier, so he knew he had to go do his time.”
James acknowledges that working in a war zone is dangerous, but rationalizes that he could have easily been in just as much danger stateside.
“You can get hurt, but you’ve got more chances getting shot in Chicago than you do over there,” the Tallahassee native says. “Nobody in our battalion got killed and that’s out of 600 people. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you didn’t get shot,’ but I was more nervous about flying.”
Most soldiers preparing to deploy were preoccupied with all of the killing and dying in Iraq. But James was dealing with a loss closer to home. Seven months prior to his departure, James’ mother succumbed to cancer.
“He and my mom were real close,” says Harry James, James’ brother. “Whenever he dated someone, he always brought her to momma first. If they didn’t pass the test, they had to go.”
Laughingly, James admits that he was a “momma’s kid.”
“We did everything-from talking, wrestling, putting her in a headlock; all that,” he says.
Although he was grieving, James didn’t allow that to detract from his training, his brother said.
“It bothered him in the beginning, but I don’t think that curbed his way of thinking, ‘I got to go over there, do what I got to do and get back.’ ” Harry James says.
James, who is a devout Christian, credits his safe tour in Iraq to the blessings of God and says that his spirituality helped him “tremendously.” Not only did James’ faith benefit him while he was stationed in Mosul, but he also used it to help other members of his unit.
“That made a lot of (the younger guys) come to the religious services,” says Sgt. Charles E. Brown Jr., who has known James for 18 years. Brown says James was a leader. “A lot of the guys, they always looked up to James. They seemed to cling to him more than any other NCO.”
James says he did a lot of counseling while in Iraq.
“I prayed with a lot of the guys,” James says. “It’s kind of like you’re a soldier, mentor, dad, a friend and a brother.”
Whether in Northern Florida or Northern Iraq, James impacts the lives of the people he meets. The same day James returned to Tallahassee, he came right back to FAMU and jumped back to work.
“To be honest with you, it doesn’t seem like he went over to a war zone,” Jones says. “Henry came back the first day full of spirit. I appreciate that. FAMU appreciates that and if they don’t, they don’t know what they’re missing.”