Face of Defense: Soldier ‘Pays It Forward’ to Help Others
By Army Sgt. Brandon Little
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP TAJI, Iraq, April 16, 2008 Throughout his life, Army Staff Sgt. Steven Atlas has tried to live by one philosophy: “Pay it forward.” The basic principle of this creed is simple; if someone helps you, then in return, you should try to help someone else.
Army Staff Sgt. Steven Atlas, a computer systems maintainer in Company C, 412th Aviation Support Battalion, poses for a picture in front of a satellite he helps to maintain. Atlas, a Chicago native, tries to live by a philosophy named after a movie titled “Pay It Forward.” Photo by Army Sgt. Brandon Little, Task Force 12 Public Affairs Office, Multinational Division Baghdad
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The title of this philosophy may have come from a movie, but his actions and the people they affect are real.
Atlas grew up in a single-parent home, and at an early age he was forced to become an adult faster than many of his friends.
“My mom and dad separated when I was really young, so my mom had to raise me and my three sisters without any help,” said Atlas, a computer systems maintainer in Company C, 412th Aviation Support Battalion. “Being brought up in a predominantly female household meant that I had to play the role of big brother, and sometimes dad, to my sisters. This was something that a lot of my friends didn’t have to experience and helped me to mature at an early age.”
Being forced into this role wasn’t the biggest obstacle he would face as a young man; he also was forced to watch as two of his sisters lost their battles with cancer.
“My older sister passed away when I was in junior high, and my younger sister passed away when I was going into my freshman year of high school,” the Chicago native said. “Having to help take care of my sisters while they were dealing with the chemotherapy and being hospitalized so much forced me to look at things in a more adult perspective. I was never that kid who was just able to sit back and play video games or just go outside and play whenever I wanted.”
Taking care of his sisters, he said, was something that motivated him to do better in life instead of getting sucked into the trouble found throughout his neighborhood.
“Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I learned that if you weren’t careful you could easily find yourself in a bad situation,” Atlas said. “I think I owed it to my mom, if not myself, to be the first one of her children to graduate from high school and go on to do something positive, because she saw so much bad stuff throughout her life.”
After graduating from high school, he chose to put his goal of joining the military on hold to help support his family while his mother went back to school to get a degree. He got a job working in a restaurant owned by his uncle to help support his mother and youngest sister.
“Once she completed her degree, I went to her and said, ‘This is my time. I want to join the Army, and I feel this is my time to do it,’” Atlas recalled. “She didn’t want me joining at that time, because it was [during the peak] of Desert Shield/Desert Storm; I told her that there was never a ‘good time’ to join, because the Army’s job is to fight wars, and if you’re not fighting, you’re training to fight.”
His mother earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and worked as a counselor, helping unwed teenage mothers in Chicago for many years -- paying it forward.
When Atlas joined the Army, he first joined as a laboratory technician, but later became a signal soldier.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to join the military; I just didn’t know which branch to join,” he said. “Talking with Army recruiters helped me make that choice.”
Throughout his 16 years in the military, he has tried to continue to live by his “pay it forward” principle. He said he tries to provide soldiers with knowledge not only from his career, but also from his religion.
“I’ve had some ups and downs being of Islam faith, especially during 9/11, because many people tried to categorize all Muslims with the ones who carried out those attacks,” said Atlas, who is now married with three children. “I think I’ve been able to change those beliefs in many of the people I have come across by giving Islamic cultural awareness classes and letting them know what we do and what we believe, as opposed to what they have seen on TV.”
The command sergeant major of Task Force 12 here saw the opportunity presented by Atlas’ willingness to explain his faith.
“After I found out about his religious background, I asked him to give a class to the soldiers, and he was really excited about doing it,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. H. Lee Kennedy, who is also one of Atlas’ mentors.
The soldiers who attended that class got more information about Islamic cultures and now are able tell their friends the difference between a regular person of Islamic faith and an Islamic extremist -- paying it forward.
“He’s a very eager and understanding young man, and it’s a pleasure to guide him,” Kennedy said. “Leadership in units may come and go, and won’t affect the unit too much; but when soldiers like Atlas leave units, everyone loses out.”
In addition to Kennedy, Atlas also considers his roommate, Army Sgt. Archie Martin, to be a mentor and close friend.
“[Atlas] is an outstanding noncommissioned officer who is very knowledgeable and caring,” said Martin, also a computer systems maintainer in Company C and a native of Montgomery, Ala. “He has really helped me learn more about my job and how to be a better soldier.”
Martin, also trained as an AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopter maintainer, uses his spare time to help soldiers who work long hours fixing Apaches to pay it forward.
With more than 40 years of experience in life, Atlas also tries to spread some of his knowledge and lessons learned in life to anyone in need of guidance.
“If I do something good for one or two people, it will let them see that there are still people out there doing good things, and in turn, maybe they’ll do good things,” he said.
(Army Sgt. Brandon Little serves with Multinational Division Baghdad in the Task Force 12 Public Affairs Office.)