Under the Gun

Why the Army thinks a 30-year-old college-educated California bull rider will help it recruit soldiers during wartime

When Nunnemaker speaks of his Army deal, he makes nebulous statements about patriotism, duty, and responsibility that almost always include the word "awesome." Even when he returned home from Washington, D.C.'s Walter Reed Army Medical Center (the facility that treated Jessica Lynch), where he recently visited soldiers who had lost limbs in Iraq, he said the trip was "awesome." But he wasn't prepared for the experience.

"There were some kids in there -- and they're all just kids, 18-, 19-year-old kids -- saying things like, 'I hope I can get a prosthesis and go back to my job, go back to active duty,'" Nunnemaker recalls. "They're just trying to do their job. One said, 'I just hope I don't have to sit behind a desk.' And I cried. That's heart. To sustain what they sustain and want to just do your job, it's courageous.

"One kid, his mother was there, and I seen a college course book with classes and whatnot," he continues. "And I asked him if he was enrolling in some classes, and he says, 'Yeah, I've been thinking about it.' And I said, 'Keep your mind busy. That's what you got now.' He was missing both legs. He'll have to make a living with his mind now. Enroll in classes -- I encouraged him to do that. 'Just get your hands on some books and read 'em. Read the Good Book, too.' Now his life is going to be different. He's going to make the best of it; he's a strong person."

The porch of Nunnemaker's new home still smells like cut cedar and varnish, and the view it offers in the early evening is dramatic, with the warm, sidelit hills of the Sierras forming the horizon line. I finally ask him the question I've wanted to ask all day: Would he want to be a soldier himself?

"Well, I love hunting and shooting," he answers quietly, not quite grasping the gravity of the question. "And, I mean, those skills would probably help me be a good soldier, and the military would probably fine-tune them and give me more skills to make me a better soldier. But I wouldn't be where I'm at right now." He gestures up to the house, where his son is asleep. "I wouldn't have that baby boy sitting up there right now. And I wouldn't trade that for anything. I'm pleased with the road I took, and I wouldn't change that. I'm thankful for where life has taken me."

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