Los Alamos employees—many of them veterans—gather at the Lab’s Pentagon Memorial for a remembrance ceremony on September 11, 2019. Photo Courtesy LANL
Military veterans leave one mission to find another at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Twenty-two weapons employees share stories of service and patriotism. This is Part Two of a two-part series. View Part 1 here.
Dan McDonald at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in southern California in 2012. Twentynine Palms, as the center is also called, is the largest United States Marine Corps base, covering nearly 600,000 square acres. Photo Courtesy Dan McDonald
In the military: Marine Corps Staff Sergeant
At the Lab: Explosives technician, High Explosives Science and Technology
By the age of nine, Daniel McDonald knew he wanted to be a bomb technician. But what he didn’t anticipate was that after serving for 12 years in the Marine Corps, he would continue to work with explosives as a technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Instead of detonating thousands of pounds of high explosives, as he did in the Marines, McDonald now works on a much smaller scale—detonating only grams of explosives. He carefully analyzes and collects data on each explosion. “In the Lab’s Weapons Program, we are very mission focused and have clear goals for what data collection directly serves,” McDonald says.
McDonald says the best years of his life were spent shooting guns and blowing up stuff with his friends in the military. Although the dynamics cannot be exactly replicated at the Lab, he still finds his work at Los Alamos just as interesting, and he guesses that many vets feel the same way. When veterans leave the military, McDonald believes that many struggle to find the same purpose they had in the military. In many ways the Lab bridges this gap by being a workplace with goals, responsible individuals, and meaningful tasks. McDonald advises veterans who wish to work at the Lab to find a way to apply their skills and utilize their ability to learn and be trained as they enter this new science-based environment.
As a senior airman, Saramoya Mercer developed leadership skills and completed coursework for a degree. Photo Courtesy Saramoya Mercer
In the military: Air Force Senior Airman
At the Lab: Radiographer, Non-Destructive Testing and Evaluation, Engineering Technology and Design Division
Saramoya Mercer followed her brother into the military and became a security forces specialist. Though she values that experience, she believes that her professional career truly began to grow only when she left the military and began working at Los Alamos.
“I like the fact that I served, but I think I’d be further along in life if I hadn’t joined,” she says. “Or if I at least had been assigned a job more in line with my professional aspirations. The Lab offers me more room for my professional advancement.”
After leaving the Air Force but before coming to Los Alamos, Mercer worked as a medical radiation therapist in Santa Fe but still found her career options stifled. Mercer learned about the Lab through her husband, and in May of 2018, she accepted a Lab job as a radiographer and made the switch from radiation oncology to radiography.
Now a part of the Lab’s Engineering Technology and Design Division, Mercer says leaving the familiar work of her old job was a big change, but it opened her eyes to how much she could learn in an environment like the Laboratory. “I went from a job where I was proficient and knowledgeable to a job where I understood the fundamentals but was far from an expert. I had a lot to learn.”
Now, Mercer can say that she has finally found a place where her work aligns with her interests and motivations. “My job at Los Alamos National Laboratory complements my skills and allows for advancement throughout my professional life. I would recommend Los Alamos for employment to anyone.”
In 1996, Kirk Otterson, pictured here at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, helped enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. Photo Courtesy Kirk Otterson
In the military: Air Force officer
At the Lab: Program manager, Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs
Kirk Otterson’s “natural attraction to the military” came from his father, a World War II airborne infantryman. Otterson enlisted in the Army in 1979 and was part of a small security team for overseas weapons before moving on to work intelligence jobs as an Air Force officer. During his military career, Otterson experienced the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, combat missions over Kosovo, and 9/11.
Otterson has always enjoyed working in small groups of hardworking, dedicated people; when he retired from the military, he taught history at St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington, D.C. Like being part of the military and working at a high school, he says working at Los Alamos provides a close-knit community, along with “some really bright folks who challenge your thinking daily.” In 2019, Otterson was hired into the Lab’s Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs, where he builds and maintains the Lab’s relationships with the military and its service academies.
According to Otterson, contributing to and learning from a mission-oriented community is an honor that is hard to find outside the military—but he found it at Los Alamos. “I had a beer with a few Lab folks, and it felt like being back on base at the club—just a great sense of being a part of something special,” he says of his first visit to Los Alamos. “I feel right at home in a place that values the combination of people and their different perspectives on solving some of the toughest national security challenges.”
That mission is a large part of what attracted Otterson to work at the Laboratory. “As a historian and a former intelligence officer, I can see that the Great Power competition has returned and our mission at the Lab is more important than ever. I’m fortunate to be a part of that mission.”
Teddy Perio’s son graduated from Coast Guard boot camp. His grandfather, Corporal Angelo Basso, was a World War II veteran. Photo by David Perio
In the military: Arm Command Sergeant Major
At the Lab: Program lead, Nuclear Material Control and Accountability, Safeguards Division
Teddy Perio has been growing out his beard since 2017, when he retired from 24 years in the military, including four deployments to Iraq. “My wife’s cousin didn’t even recognize me,” he says of his new look.
Facial hair aside, Perio misses working as a drill sergeant in a military unit. He says it can be difficult for some veterans to find a sense of purpose in their work after serving. Luckily, he finds that sense of purpose as a manager for the Laboratory’s Safeguards Division, where he is in charge of ensuring the safe management of nuclear materials and mentors a team.
Perio was introduced to Los Alamos through the Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship, which gives service members work experience and training at institutions like the Laboratory. During his military service, Perio earned three degrees and gained management experience, which was a large part of helping him transition to Los Alamos. “After 24 years, I was done with being away from home, but I still wanted to serve in some capacity—to do something that made me want to go to work every day,” he says.
In the military, Perio was taught to adapt and be a problem solver. Finding a job that could challenge him in the same way was an important aspect of what drew him to Los Alamos. “I like the, ‘let’s fix this together mentality.’ And I really enjoy my work as a manager. I wouldn’t be satisfied anywhere else.”
New Mexico was also a big attraction; his wife grew up 20 minutes from the Laboratory, and Perio knows you cannot find a better climate or better people . “Here, it’s family. People look out for each other,” he says. “Nobody judges you here. Here, you see me for my work, for what I bring to the table.”
Sitting in his Humvee in Al Jubayl, Kuwait, 1st Lieutenant Pickrell smokes a cigar to commemorate the end of ground operations during the Gulf War in the spring of 1991. Photo Courtesy U.S. Marines
In the military: Marine Corps Captain
At the Lab: Research and development group leader, Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility
Retired Marine Corps Captain Mark Pickrell has jumped out of almost every moving vehicle (including helicopters), planted claymore mines, and fired every type of weapon imaginable. Pickrell says the military gave him a sense of adventure. “I had a lot of fun,” he remembers. “It was like a Disneyland ride, but for adults.”
Along with adventure, Pickrell says that it was changing attitudes about military service that attracted him to the Marines. Pickrell was raised by a World War II veteran and remembers a time when everyone stepped up to serve. That culture changed when he was in high school during the Vietnam War. “Suddenly there were student deferments,” he remembers, “and I noticed that those who weren’t rich were drafted and those who were rich got deferments.”
Going against this attitude shift, Pickrell enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve after earning a doctorate in plasma physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then after boot camp and infantry school, he accepted an offer from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
As a Los Alamos scientist, however, Pickrell was still a Marine Corps reservist, and he went on to finish reconnaissance school (an intense eight-week session) and airborne school. In August 1990, Pickrell was activated and served as a platoon commander during the Gulf War.
“The Laboratory has a general sense of appreciation for what the military does,” he says. “The common mission is why I like working in the Lab’s Weapons Program,” he says. Pickrell currently is a group leader at the Lab’s DARHT facility and says the people in his group “like working together. We fail or succeed together.”
He enjoys hiring former military members into his group. “The Lab is around 10 percent veteran. My group is 25 percent,” he continues. “Veterans are mature, reliable people with a diverse way of thinking. And the Lab tends to be a military-friendly environment.”
In 2016, Mike Port served as the senior Air Force Global Strike Command representative for back-to-back missile test launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Read more about these launches here. Photo Courtesy U.S. Air Force
In the military: Air Force Colonel
At the Lab: Director, Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs
For Mike Port, being hired as the director of the Lab’s Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs was a “Welcome back!” more than a “Welcome aboard.” Port had been the senior Air Force Fellow at the Laboratory from 2010 to 2011, while still serving as an Air Force missile launch and nuclear operations officer. An Air Force Fellow spends 10 to 18 months at a government agency learning about national security policies. “The people I met during my fellowship were extremely professional and went out of their way to make me feel part of the Los Alamos team,” Port says.
“I joined the military because I wanted to serve our country and be a part of something bigger than myself,” Port says. “The same reasons brought me back to Los Alamos.” The Laboratory replicated the comradery and teamwork he enjoyed in the military and allowed him to work with “the most sophisticated technology and the brightest minds on the planet.”
In transitioning from one nuclear weapons–focused job in the military to another at the Lab, Port reunited with old friends and met many new people, both former military and non-military—a unique combination of people with a unique combination of perspectives. Those varied perspectives, Port believes, are crucial to the Laboratory’s ability to solve challenging national security problems. “The melding of different experiences to solve some of the planet’s most complex issues is awe-inspiring and makes me excited to come to work every day.”
Not everything about working at the Laboratory is similar to working on a military base, Port says, especially the peer-to-peer atmosphere. But the level of professionalism and the dedication to national security are strikingly similar. “Los Alamos is a good fit for me,” Port says, “I love working with outstanding professionals who are dedicated to keeping the nation safe.”
Terry Priestley as a U.S. Navy ensign in 1988. Photo Courtesy Terry Priestley
In the military: Navy Lieutenant
At the Lab: Operations manager (retired), Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility
During his military service—much of it spent underwater in submarines—Terry Priestley contributed directly to America’s national security. Working at Los Alamos, he says, is not much different (except for the underwater part). “I joined the Navy and the Lab for many of the same reasons,” he says. “I wanted the challenge and found the work with nuclear power important and intriguing. The Lab is another way to serve, and that’s what’s important.”
Priestley is the retired operations manager of DARHT (he’s now a senior operations consultant for a Laboratory contractor). DARHT is used to detonate mock nuclear weapons and take radiographs of the resulting implosion. The radiographs are used to better understand the implosion, which then influences the computer simulations that predict how well a real nuclear weapon will perform. “It’s pretty cool. It’s geeky,” Priestley says, “And there is a direct connection between our DARHT work and national security.”
Working at DARHT requires a unique skill set (after all, DARHT is the only such facility in the world), which means that no one who applies to work there is fully qualified. According to Priestley, the only place you can go to learn about working at DARHT, is DARHT. “That’s why we often like to hire people from the military,” he says. “We don’t necessarily need an expert—because experts don’t exist for a facility like this. We need someone who’s willing to learn. And former military have the practical field experience that proves very useful.”
“Many former members of the military believe you need a PhD or Nobel Prize to work here, and that’s not true,” Priestley continues. “The type of people we require is really limitless. We have new people and people who’ve been here for 20 years. We have mechanics, electricians, high-explosives handlers—really, all kinds of people.”
During Operation Desert Storm, temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Saudi Arabia. Donna Schutzius was stationed in Riyadh with the 6975th Electronic Security Squadron (Provisional). Photo Courtesy Donna Schutzius
In the military: Air Force Lieutenant Colonel
At the Lab: Group leader, Secure Networks and assurance, Weapons Research Services Division
“If you want to do something,” says retired Air Force officer Donna Schutzius, “you have to be willing to go after it.” That’s why, after watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, she was inspired to join the Air Force and to perhaps one day work in the U.S. Space Program
In 1982, Schutzius graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, in the third class of women graduates. During her ensuing service, which included Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Schutzius worked with networks information systems, electronics, radar, navigation, and intelligence systems. “I meant to stay for only five years,” she says. “But after five years, I was still having so much fun that I stayed and retired after 22 years.” She most enjoyed her tactical communications work, which involved being on the ground as part of tactical operations and making missions happen at the “tip of the spear.”
Schutzius went on to teach at the Air Force Academy and fostered the first undergraduate information warfare course. She spent the latter part of her military career at the Pentagon in the Special Projects Office. But her life changed when she was called by a friend, Steve Senator, who’d started working at Los Alamos. “He said the work was right up my alley, and he was right,” Schutzius remembers. She interviewed and was offered a position that same day.
Veterans are perfect for the Laboratory, says Schutzius, because they are quick on the uptake and responsive to learning new jobs. “They’re risk takers—unafraid of new challenges.” The Laboratory allows veterans to think innovatively and learn new skills, while using existing skills and continuing their service.
“Service was my No. 1 reason for coming to the Lab,” Schutzius says. “I wanted to continue to serve my country, and I thought, ‘What better place to do that than Los Alamos National Laboratory?’”
Spence returns home to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, after a deployment in 2013. Spence was onboard the USS Olympia, a Los Angeles–class attack submarine, for seven months. Photo Courtesy U.S. Navy
In the military: Navy Lieutenant
At the Lab: Operations team leader, Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility
Despite the months spent away from home—and from dry land—Evan Spence says joining the Navy allowed him to serve his country, develop leadership skills, and travel the world.
During submarine deployments in particular, Spence developed lasting friendships. “It would be hard to find another job where, at 25 years old, you are given the responsibility for a 130-man crew,” Spence says. “Sharing experiences in different parts of the world with people from all walks of life helps you form strong bonds and lifelong friendships.”
Spence was introduced to the Laboratory at the 2015 Navy Nuclear Power Officer Career Conference, which facilitates networking between Naval officers and the country’s leading nuclear science schools and organizations. “As a former Navy Nuke [member of the Navy working in a nuclear field], I found the Lab’s science, engineering, and stockpile stewardship programs very appealing,” Spence remembers. “At Los Alamos I could do nuclear work not done anywhere else in the world.”
When Spence was hired, his group leader was also a former Navy submarine officer, and he helped make Spence’s transition almost seamless. “I integrated into the Lab quickly,” Spence says. “My military experience allowed me to become a contributing member of the team within days.”
Now several years into his Los Alamos career, Spence finds the Lab environment not all that different from the environment he knew during his military service, with two notable exceptions: “Working at Los Alamos and contributing to the safety, security, and success of the armed forces gives me a feeling of satisfaction that doesn’t require being on the front lines.”
The other exception? Being able to see his family every night and weekend. “The Lab is a challenging and rewarding environment,” he says, “and allows me to have a good work-to-family life balance.”