For De Queen firefighter Bret Boatright, who just two years ago graduated from the academy and joined the ranks of the De Queen Fire Department at age 48, after a long career in the military, being in the army was the one job he always wanted.
Boatright joined the army in 1987 while still in high school to become a member of the National Guard in his hometown of Sheridan. After graduation from high school, he attended boot camp in Ft. Benning, Ga., where he trained to be an infantryman. As a guardsman, he went back to Sheridan where for a year he drove a truck delivering potato chips. Twice a week on his route, he would drive by the military recruitment depot until the day came, yearning for something more, he pulled in and made the decision that being in the army full time was his heart’s desire.
“I felt I could do well in the military,” Boatright said. “I told the guy I wanted to go into the army full time.”
In 1988, with the Cold War in full swing, Boatright shipped out to Germany, joining an infantry unit there years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I’m a regular old infantry guy,” he said, noting that the wall fell while he was stationed there and he was able to experience the many changes that came to German society as a result.
“When the wall was still up, we’d ride down the Autobahn and see cars, BMWs, Mercedes and Audis doing 100 to 150 mph,” he said. “After it came down, it wasn’t unusual to see an eastern bloc-built car going 25 mph, trying to make it.”
Boatright stayed in Germany until 1991, and was there during the first Gulf War, though his unit never deployed, staying instead in Germany as a reactionary force where they pulled security duty. Stating that he wouldn’t wish war on anyone, Boatright said that still, he was disappointed to not see action during the first Gulf War.
“It’s kind of like going to practice for a game — you want to be in the game,” he said. “You feel an obligation to do what you’re paid to do and trained to do. I didn’t get in the army to go to college or get some sort of skill that I could take into the world. I went in as an old grunt soldier and I knew pretty quick that that was my calling and that was what I was good at.”
After the Cold War, Boatright left Germany for Ft. Hood, Texas for two years where military life slowed some. He then left for Ft. Benning, where he spent his days hard at work infantry training and taking care of soldiers. Days were sometimes hard but more often routine.
“It was not at all glamorous,” he said. “There are times you say, ‘why am I doing this?’ But army life is a very good life for a young man or woman to fulfill their dreams or whatever.”
Boatright got out of the army for six months, went home to Sheridan, but knew right away he needed to get back in.
“Life is not the same when you go back home,” he said. “So I got back in.”
Back at Ft. Benning, Boatright discovered a life that led to what he says became the best years of his life; training snipers. He went through sniper school and a couple of months after graduating, while a bunch of instructors were being transferred, he was asked if he wanted to work there.
“Hell yeah,” he said.
So in October 1993, he became an instructor at one of the army’s two sniper schools.
About two months later, a spot came open to go to the Marine Corps sniper school, so he and another instructor were able to attend in Camp Lejeune, N.C. for two months of additional training.
“It gave us more knowledge and experience that we could bring back to our school,” he said, noting that they were treated just like everybody else in attendance at the school.
Then in 2002, he was offered the opportunity to run the sniper school at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock. The base was the former Camp Pike, an old military installation that during WWII was used to incarcerate Japanese POWs. Boatright ran the sniper school there from 2002 to 2009, where initially he trained six classes a year with a student load of 25-30 students per class, the numbers fluctuating as war times peaked and waned.
“That seven years, hands down, was the best time of my entire career,” he said. “Definitely a unique experience during the height of the war — in the right place at the right time.”
In 2004, Boatright was part of a new initiative, mobile training teams (MTT), which brought sniper training to the units. Boatright and his instructors would spend months on the road, training where the units were located, sometimes being gone as much as six months out of the year. Three times, beginning 2003, he was deployed to Iraq to train snipers and as part of the training, he and his instructors would join troops on missions so they could gain operational experience and have first hand experience in what the guys were facing and to know what they were going through in the combat zones.
“We were fortunate the commanders allowed us to go on missions with them,” Boatright said, noting that he deployed to Iraq to train snipers in 2005 and 2006 as well. “I just really believed in it — that those guys could make a huge difference on the ground while minimizing casualties on both sides. A guy who’s trained as a sniper, not only do they give you more combat power, they can do it in a way you don’t have to put other guys in harms way. They can do their job from a distance.”
Boatright said that while the average citizen believes a sniper just shoots people from afar, their strategic importance is not limited to that as they have other duties and are an important source for collecting information and reports to their higher ups.
Boatright said he was fortunate in the caliber of instructors he worked with during the seven years he ran the school, and that graduates of the program were highly sought after by the military as were the teachers.
“I brought a lot of instructors in from all over the country and a lot of those guys were with me during those four-five years,” he said. “I was very fortunate that I had a group of guys around me that were the best sniper instructors in the military — and the reputation of our school proved that.”
He said that as they went out and taught courses, the word spread as to the competence of their students, their training became highly sought after.
“They wanted our guys not only because we could come to them, but they knew from guys we previously trained that did their job,” he said. “The guys I brought in, they took it seriously, they honed their craft and they spent every day learning, researching and honing their own skills.”
In 2010, Boatright was promoted and ended up going to the 39th Infantry Brigade, the big brigade in Arkansas, where he served as 1st. Sgt. for the company, making sure the unit sections were trained and prepared.
I worked hand in hand with the commander making sure our company was ready to go if the time ever came,” he said.
In late 2010, they got notification they were going to Afghanistan and training went into high gear. However, as they were set to leave, the deployment was cancelled six months before schedule.
“I felt at that point that I’d accomplished all that I wanted to do in my military career so I put in for retirement,” he said. In July 2012, after 24 years of active service, Boatright left the military.
“I feel it was very rewarding,” he said about his army career. “My greatest thought about my military career was how fortunate I was to be around and meet some of the best soldiers in the world and I basically would say without any doubt, that all the success in my career was because of the guys around me. I met a lot of good men and I’m still in contact with guys I served with in my very first unit.”
Today Boatright works as a firefighter and is living with his wife, Brooke, raising a 2-year-old daughter, a new addition to the five other children he has raised.