Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

Served, Still Serving

Military veterans leave one mission to find another at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Twenty-two weapons employees share stories of service and patriotism.
April 20, 2020
1.	A group of LANL employees stand around the Pentagon Memorial outside the NSSB to pay their respects on the anniversary of 9/11. The trees are beginning to turn red and orange. An American flag hangs from a crane in the background.

Los Alamos employees—many of them veterans—gather at the Lab’s Pentagon Memorial for a remembrance ceremony on September 11, 2019.CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory


“You can do things here you can’t do anywhere else when it comes to nuclear materials. It’s a very dynamic and interesting place to work. Is it hard? Yes. Can it be frustrating? Yes. But nothing worthwhile is easy. The people who work here are here because it’s a really worthwhile mission.”- David Eyler

By Sierra Sweeney with J. Weston Phippen and Whitney Spivey

A military dog bites a man’s padded sleeve as part of a training exercise. To the right, a pencil portrait of Rizwan (Riz) Ali.

Rusty, a military working dog, bites Colonel Ali’s padded sleeve during an attack demonstration in Southwest Asia. Colonel Ali was the base commander of the Air Force’s major air logistics hub in that area. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Laura Turner

Rizwan (Riz) Ali

One of Riz Ali’s favorite “war stories” is how he invented the first wireless keyboard. At Illinois’ Scott Air Force Base, Ali’s 1989 posting, the general he worked under was exceptionally proud of his large conference room’s wireless slide-show clicker—supposedly the only one in the world. Unfortunately, the system wasn’t what the general thought it was. “It was a Sears garage door opener,” Ali recalls now with a chuckle.

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Unbeknownst to the general, a previous engineer had made the opener’s two buttons trigger a light in another room (a closet really), where an officer would press the forward or backward arrow on a regular keyboard connected to the general’s projector. It delighted the general, but it certainly wasn’t wireless. So when the general needed another clicker for his smaller conference room, Ali—who’d studied electrical and computer engineering in school—researched infrared and radio signals. After several prototypes, he presented a truly wireless keyboard to the general’s assistant. Ali expected excitement, but to his dismay, the assistant complained that all the buttons would confuse the general. So years before the wireless keyboard entered the private sector, Ali was modifying the world’s first wireless keyboard into a simple remote control with only two buttons.

During the next three decades, Ali oversaw nuclear incident responses at a classified base, oversaw the air traffic control team that opened Baghdad’s airport to U.S. troops after the city’s 2003 fall, ran the Air Force’s largest cybersecurity engineering center, managed an Air Force museum and archives, and set up NATO’s cybersecurity program. Now at Los Alamos, Ali runs the National Security Research Center (the Lab’s classified library) and says he enjoys how many fellow veterans he’s met here. “I tend to gravitate to other veterans for personal support,” he says, “and partly for the opportunity to swap old war stories.”

A pencil portrait of Rogelio (Roger) Anaya. To the right, a man sits in a military vehicle.

During Operation Desert Storm, Roger Anaya was part of a motorized reconnaissance team that drove high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles into Kuwait. Here, he sits in a “hummer” in northern Saudi Arabia in January 1991. Photo courtesy Roger Anaya

Rogelio (Roger) Anaya

In the military: Marine Corps Sergeant
At the Lab: IT manager and deputy group leader, Enterprise Business Software, Software and Applications Engineering Division

Roger Anaya came to the United States from Mexico when he was eight. By the time he graduated high school, he knew he wanted to go to college and serve his country. “That’s why I went reserves,” he says. “I had an academic scholarship to the University of New Mexico,” he says, “but I felt the United States had given me and my family an opportunity. I wanted to give something back.” So he enrolled at UNM in the fall of 1986, then took the spring semester off for boot camp with the Marine Corps.

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In 1990, Anaya’s reserve unit was activated as part of Operation Desert Storm. Once overseas, he participated in combat missions in northern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

For Anaya, the decision to separate from the military in 1994 was a tough one, even though he’d already begun working for Los Alamos in 1992 as a software developer. “I missed the people I served with,” he says. “We trained together, lived together, fought together—we did everything together. We all came from so many different backgrounds, but you knew that when you went into a recon mission, you could depend on each other.”

As a team leader in the Marines, Anaya says, he was aware that every member of his team was essential, right down to the private who held the radio. He believes the Laboratory also recognizes the value of every employee and emphasizes a similar “we’re in this together” mentality. “Everybody at the Lab is here for the same mission,” he continues. “Both in the military and at the Lab, you know you’re there for a purpose.”

In an effort to pay it forward, Anaya is now the commander of the Los Alamos Veterans of Foreign Wars, offering a warm welcome to other vets who are returning home.

A pencil portrait of Cresta Bateman. To the right, a photo portrait of a woman in a navy-colored uniform.

Captain Bateman attends a graduation ceremony at West Point in May 2010. Photo: Ben Bateman

Cresta Bateman

In the military: Army Captain and Military Academy Liaison Officer
At the Lab: Manufacturing manager, heat source technologies

Cresta Bateman grew up in a family where national security and military history were common dinner-table topics. Her grandfather came to work for the Lab in 1956, and her dad, a Navy vet, started at Los Alamos in 1979. Bateman knew she wanted to continue the family tradition of serving her country, and not long after 9/11, she was selected to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. 

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After being commissioned in 2006 with a degree in engineering management, Bateman was deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She says the “best possible culmination” of her training was leading her soldiers into combat as a platoon leader. “Things have really changed and are still changing for women in the military,” says Bateman, noting that women haven’t always been allowed in combat roles. “As new generations of women enter the military, they take on new opportunities and responsibilities. At the end of the day, we just want equal opportunities to serve.”

Today Bateman works for Weapons Production at the Lab while also serving in the Army reserves. She says the Lab’s policies, procedures, and real-world mission make Los Alamos a perfect work environment. “I’ve been part of the national security mission since I was 18 years old. I like that I can continue that service in a way that is interesting and dynamic and that makes a big difference.”

Another way Bateman continues to make a difference is through the nonprofit she and her husband (also a former Army officer) started in 2014. Sportsmen for Warriors helps veterans and first responders—aka the Warrior Community—heal through outdoor engagement. The Batemans hope veterans can connect with each other through activities such as big-game hunting, deep-sea fishing, and swimming with sharks, as well as through community engagement. “It’s a tribe healing mentality,” she says. “Our mission is to help veterans heal by connecting them with somebody who has been there and also made it through.”

A pencil portrait of Jeremy Best. To the right, a man in military gear stands in front of a military helicopter.

In September 2007, 1st Lieutenant Best, pictured here at Al-Asad Air Base, prepares for an eight-month combat deployment to Al Qa’im, Iraq. Photo: John Curry

Jeremy Best

In the military: Marine Corps Major
At the Lab: Program manager, Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs

"The United States Marine Corps fit me like an old shoe,” says Jeremy Best, who enlisted after high school because he found the structure appealing. “I enjoyed the challenge of having to work from the bottom up, earning every rank from Private to Major,” he says. “In the Marines, I knew where I needed to be.”

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Best ended up spending 20 years in the military. In the early days, he played French horn in the Marine Corps Band and earned a degree in aerospace engineering. As a
1st Lieutenant, he served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in
Al Anbar Province, Iraq, from 2007 to 2008. Best then earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and completed his military career at the United States Naval Academy as a member of the physics department.

Although Best enjoyed his time in the Marines, the military didn’t totally fulfill what he calls his “nerd side.” Transitioning to Los Alamos allowed him to combine his defense background with his technical knowledge. Today, Best analyzes weapons effects and helps manage military outreach programs, such as the Service Academies & ROTC Research Associates (SARRA) program, which welcomes young cadets and midshipmen to the Lab each summer. (Read more about SARRA here.)

Best says the parallels between the military and the Laboratory are what make the Lab a great place for both service academy students and veterans. “Bringing more folks from the military to the Lab will bring more diversity of thought,” he says. “The military develops genuine leadership ability in people who are going to make a valuable impact.”

“A wide range of people work here at the Lab, and each of them is important to the mission,” Best continues. “Everyone from the custodial staff to the Lab director is essential to the Laboratory’s national security mission.”

A man in a camouflage uniform holds a red and yellow United States Marine Corps flag. To the right, a pencil portrait of Timothy Byers.

rom 2015 to 2018, Tim Byers was a military occupational specialty instructor in the Motor Transportation Instruction Company—one of five companies that make up the Marine Corps Detachment at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Photo courtesy Tim Byers

Timothy (Tim) Byers

In the military: Marine Corps, motor transportation operator
At the Lab: Research technician, Integrated Weapons Experiments Division

If family history is any indication, Tim Byers was destined to work at the Lab. Byers’ father is a current employee, and both of his grandparents worked here. But the Byers family name in Los Alamos dates back even further, back to the Lab’s creation when his great-grandfather worked as a machinist during the Manhattan Project. “There have been a lot of us,” Byers laughs.

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Byers joined the military right out of high school and served in the Marine Corps from 2011 until 2018 as a motor transportation operator. He’d grown up working on cars with his father, and he imagined he’d become a mechanic for the Marines. But he was instead selected to lead transportation convoys and manage vehicle sections. “I’m glad, because it was a better field for me, and it taught me so many things,” he says.

Byers eventually became an instructor, overseeing new Marines and a fleet of 60 trucks, altogether worth about $20 million. “When I was an instructor, I learned skills in personnel management. I also learned how to supervise and mentor younger Marines, on top of taking care of all that expensive equipment.”

After his military service, Byers took a job at Los Alamos, where he’s also responsible for valuable equipment. Specifically, he’s charged with the upkeep and management of x-ray systems with energy measured in millions of electronvolts (MeV). These 2.3-MeV-energy x-ray systems are used to analyze small-scale explosions.

The 2.3-MeV-energy x-ray is about 12 feet long and more than four feet in diameter, and it weighs 5,000 pounds. It’s also about 60 years old, so Byers maintains the system so that researchers can continue their explosives experiments.

Outside of work, Byers still tinkers with cars. He says his latest project is a Jeep he’s turning into a rock crawler.

A pencil portrait of Maria Campbell. To the right, a woman in camouflage looks out the circular window of a helicopter.

Maria Campbell rides in a chinook helicopter while stationed at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea in 2006. Photo courtesy Maria Campbell

Maria Campbell

In the military: Air Force Senior Airman
At the Lab: Explosives technician and firing site leader, Explosive Applications and Special Projects, Explosive Science and Shock Physics Division

Originally from Baja, Mexico, Maria Campbell entered the military after high school and says the Air Force opened her eyes. “When I went into the military, I was young and still had a lot to learn,” she says. “I got to see the world, and I got a whole new perspective on the lives of other people. Being in the military teaches you to appreciate the freedoms you have.”

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For six years, Campbell worked as a mechanic on military and heavy-duty vehicles. When it came time to leave, Campbell had a hard time transitioning from the military to a civilian work environment. Then she found the Lab. She began as an explosives technician doing high-explosives pressing, but her ability to follow directions and learn quickly—skills developed in the military—helped her advance: she now conducts indoor firing activities and is currently one of only two female firing-site leaders at the Lab. She says her favorite thing about the job is getting to blow things up.

Three years into her Lab career, Campbell says some aspects of the military are hard to leave behind; for example, she often calls people ma’am or sir. But Campbell also appreciates the flexibility of her job. “You really have to be more creative with your problem solving around here,” she explains. “You can experiment more, but you still have that strong sense of working towards a bigger picture.”

That bigger picture is, of course, national security, and that’s what makes working at Los Alamos so rewarding for Campbell. “It feels like you’re still serving your country,” she says. “And for veterans, that’s a big deal.”

A pencil portrait of Dave Eyler. To the right, a man poses for a photo next to an altimeter on a submarine that clocks in at 2,000 feet below sea level.

Dave Eyler smiles 2,000 feet below sea level on research submarine NR-1 in 2003. Photo courtesy Dave Eyler

Dave Eyler

In the military: Navy Captain
At the Lab: Associate Laboratory director for Weapons Production

Dave Eyler grew up about 40 miles south of Detroit and knew early on that he didn’t want a career in the auto industry. So when a high school counselor recommended he consider the U.S. Naval Academy, that’s exactly what he did. “I liked the idea of serving the country and getting a good education at the same time,” he remembers. “I didn’t know anything about submarines, but traveling around the world was definitely going to be different than my hometown of Monroe, Michigan.”

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Eyler went on to spend 29 years in the Navy doing nuclear-centric work on submarines and naval reactors. “I even finagled my way into grad school a couple times,” he says.

After retiring from the Navy, Eyler worked at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an oversight agency for Department of Energy work. That led to a stint at the Savannah River Site, during which he worked as the chief engineer, deputy director of Savannah River National Lab, and chief operating officer for the site. “At that point, I was asked to come to Los Alamos, which was something I couldn’t pass up,” he says. “I knew that Los Alamos has a certain gravitas and history. Plus, working here has an element of service to the country, which is what had intrigued me about the Navy.”

Los Alamos is also the nation’s Plutonium Center of Excellence for Research and Production, a designation that Eyler helps maintain in his position as the head of the Weapons Production Directorate. This directorate of more than 1,000 employees develops and produces plutonium pits, detonators, and other weapon components. “You can do things here you can’t do anywhere else when it comes to nuclear materials,” Eyler explains. “It’s a very dynamic and interesting place to work. Is it hard? Yes. Can it be frustrating? Yes. But nothing worthwhile is easy. The people who work here are here because it’s a really worthwhile mission.”

A pencil portrait of Andrew Ford. To the right, a man in camouflage stands in front of a piece of equipment; his expression is neutral.

Andrew Ford at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in 2014. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Collin Schmidt

Andrew Ford

In the military: Air Force Senior Airman
At the Lab: Quality assurance inspector for Plutonium Product Quality Engineering and Inspection

Following in family footsteps, Andrew Ford enlisted in the Air Force and spent six years maintaining nuclear weapons. When he began working at Los Alamos, he was able to continue this work, but from a new angle. Used to considering only the military point of view, which is focused on handling these weapons, Ford says he found the technical side just as fascinating. “I think it’s almost impossible to find a job as interesting, important, and rewarding as the military,” Ford says. “Except, of course, for a Los Alamos job.”

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During his service, however, Ford, like many others, believed that he needed a doctorate to work at Los Alamos. But when Jon Ventura, former director of the Lab’s Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs, gave a lecture at Ford’s Air Force base, Ford learned that working at Los Alamos was both possible for him and encouraged. From there, the transition was easy, and he embraced the Lab’s national security mission. “I need to work at a place with a mission and a sense of pride,” he says. “National security is very important to me and to a lot of vets.”

In addition to the mission, the Lab’s work environment has been a good fit for Ford. “You don’t have to enter the Lab understanding everything,” he says. “Being able to troubleshoot a problem and learn more as you work is a unique experience available only at a place like Los Alamos.”

Along with the good pay, the benefits, and the mission-oriented community, Ford says the opportunity to grow and be essential at the Laboratory is like no other. “Everyone is valuable at the Lab. There’s no cookie-cutter way of doing work around here, and all the work feels important. I think that’s really what’s key to making this a good environment for former military.”

A portrait photo of a woman in an army uniform smiling at the camera. To the right, a pencil portrait of Corina Gonzales.

As an Army reservist, Corina Gonzales balanced being in the military with her work at the Laboratory. “There was always something new beyond the financial world I work in,” she says. Photo courtesy Corina Gonzales

Corina Gonzales

In the military: Army Reserves Major
At the Lab: Financial compliance specialist, Finance and Accounting

When Taos native Corina Gonzales had served in the Army reserves for 10 years, she challenged herself to stay longer. She ended up serving a total of 27 years, and during that time she also worked at the Laboratory as an accountant. During the week, she’d crunch numbers, and on the weekends, she’d march 15 miles with a 60-pound rucksack. “Showing up to my desk job on a Monday was sometimes difficult,” she laughs. “I’m a bit of an oddball. You don’t find an accountant–combat veteran combo very often.”

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Switching between her military and civilian hats was sometimes challenging, “but if anyone has flexibility when it comes to adapting to environments, it’s members of the military,” Gonzales says.

Though there are accountant positions in the military, Gonzales wanted to do something more hands-on during her service. So, she drove 25-ton Army trucks for combat missions. She also completed an 18-month officer training program and was deployed three times, including to Desert Storm.

According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 14 percent of the U.S. military is female, and 15 percent of female veterans have served in combat. Gonzales says female vets aren’t common at Los Alamos, and she thinks that she may not immediately fit people’s assumptions. “They may think a female veteran will be an aggressive kind of leader, but I’ve always tried to lead by example.”

The switch from the military to the Laboratory has been a comfortable change for Gonzales because the Army and Laboratory environments complement one another. “One of the Laboratory’s core missions is to support military defense and deterrence, much like I was doing in the Army.”

A pencil portrait of Josh Gonzales. To the right, a man in a U.S. Navy uniform stands on a dock in front of a ship.

Josh Gonzales stands next to his boat, the USS Boise. The Los Angeles–class attack submarine underwent preventative and corrective maintenance during this 2017 stop at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. Photo: U.S. Navy/Frank Mercurio

Josh Gonzales

In the military: Navy satellite communications technician
At the Lab: Engineering systems technician, Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility

A Los Alamos native, Josh Gonzales enlisted in the Navy in 2013 while attending the University of New Mexico. During his service, Gonzales worked as a satellite communications electronics technician on a submarine. Although he misses the teamwork and important technical work on the submarine, Gonzales says there’s no place like home, especially when your home has chile.

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“I had to have chile shipped out to the sub all the time,” Gonzales remembers. “But I do miss the camaraderie. You spend a lot of time with the guys on your crew, and they’re a very dependable group.” The 140 people onboard Gonzales’ boat were trained in everything from technical work to submarine damage control and firefighting. Each crewmember participated in every aspect of life, from working with complex satellite communications to taking out the trash.

Though Gonzales’ 100-hour workweeks aboard the submarine were exhausting, knowing that his work directly contributed to national security always helped him get through it. His work at the Laboratory is no different. “In the Navy, I got to see where nuclear weapons are maintained at the ready, as part of the nuclear triad” he says. “Now I work with the accelerators that provide a portion of science-based stockpile stewardship. The experiments we do at DARHT all contribute to that mission.” Gonzales also says that working at DARHT, like working on a sub, allows him to interact with a tight-knit crew of people he counts on and who count on him.

But one difference between the military and the Lab is that the Lab is more relaxed. “You go from wearing a uniform every day to seeing people in baseball caps and tennis shoes,” Gonzales says. He notes that after five years of enlisted service, wearing T-shirts and eating breakfast burritos on experiment day is a nice change of pace.

A bird’s eye view portrait of a woman in a navy-colored uniform. To the right, a pencil portrait of Tarah Logan.

Tarah Logan is a 1994 graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. She credits the Academy with helping her develop mental and physical toughness that’s served her well later in life. Photo courtesy Tarah Logan

Tarah Logan

In the military: Coast Guard Lieutenant Junior Grade
At the Lab: Program manager in Advanced Systems Development, Weapon Stockpile Modernization Division

My favorite time of the day was between about 4:00 and 8:00 in the morning,” says Tarah Logan, who served five years in the U.S. Coast Guard. “Everyone else was asleep, and I’d look out at the ocean and basically be on top of the world right when the sun was coming up. It was very peaceful and powerful.” From her perch on a cutter (a ship more than 300 feet long, with a 150-person crew composed of people from all walks of life), Logan saw almost every marine animal you can imagine.

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She also had the responsibility of running the ship, at the age of 22. The Coast Guard Academy prepared Logan for that responsibility—and many others. Logan also inspected fisheries in Alaska, reported drug smuggling techniques (such as false ship hulls) to Coast Guard intelligence, and worked to stop human trafficking of Chinese immigrants.

Logan was proud of the work she did in the Coast Guard, but she knew she couldn’t do the same thing for too long. Originally from Española, Logan returned home to Northern New Mexico in 2003 and was recruited to work at Los Alamos by a fellow veteran. She started off as an operations training specialist but now works in the research-based section of the Lab’s Weapon Stockpile Modernization Division. She says it’s her dream job.

According to Logan, veterans have a lot to offer the Laboratory, including poise under pressure, multitasking ability, focus, and ingrained leadership. In return, Logan says the Lab provides veterans with the opportunity to have multiple careers all in the same place while continuing to be part of a patriotic community and mission. “Where else can you say that you get to work at a place that truly has a worldwide impact?”

A pencil portrait of Dennis Lujan. To the right, a man in swim trunks holds pieces of a coconut in each hand.

During a break from Navy operations in the Caribbean, Dennis Lujan enjoys a fresh coconut on St. Croix, Virgin Islands, in 1981. Photo courtesy Dennis Lujan

Dennis Lujan

In the military: Navy Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Petty Officer
At the Lab: Engineering technologist

In 1979, after high school, Dennis Lujan was a machinist’s mate for four years in the Navy, maintaining propulsion systems, steam turbines, evaporators, and other components on Navy ships. “I saw a portion of the world while learning a trade,” he says. When Lujan returned to Northern New Mexico, he joined a Rugby Club and continued to travel, visiting new places until the money ran low. He then decided to do as his father had done and apply for a job at the Lab. His father assured him that Los Alamos was “the best place to work in Northern New Mexico.”

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In 1984, Lujan began working as a vacuum technician in the Electronics and Instrumentation Division, but when that division was dissolved in 1991, he looked for a new position at the Lab’s Technical Area 55. He was hired into the Nuclear Materials Technology Division, and he has remained at TA-55 ever since. Lujan currently works in the Pit Technologies Division, in the Assembly Operations group.  Lujan is the subject matter expert on laser welding at TA-55.

As Lujan looks back to the early 1990s, he says a “huge highlight” of his career  was “working for PhDs who would teach me anything I wanted to know about our work.” Now, 35 years into his Laboratory career, Lujan is mentoring the next generation. His advice to them? “If you want to live in beautiful Northern New Mexico and you want a comfortable life, the Lab is the best choice. I would highly recommend it to other military veterans.”

He continues, “The Laboratory not only has provided a career, benefits, and opportunity but also has allowed me to have a fulfilling life away from work.” Lujan says this rewarding work-life balance has allowed him to complete house projects, golf, and ski. He also loves to travel with his wife when he’s not working. “You’ll never see me not happy and smiling,” he says. “Life’s a bonus.”

A pencil portrait of Daniel Mack. To the right, two men in uniform shake hands.

From March 1989 to June 1990, Lieutenant Daniel Mack (right) was the executive assistant to Rear Admiral Joseph Prueher (left), commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy. Admiral Prueher, who retired as a four-star and later served as the Ambassador to China, remains one of Mack’s mentors today. Photo: U.S.. Naval Academy

Daniel Mack

In the military: Navy Captain
At the Lab: Chief operating officer, Associate Laboratory Directorate for Weapons Production

The sixth of eight children, Daniel Mack saw the United States Naval Academy as his chance for higher education—and a rewarding 28-year career that took him around the world. Alongside highly capable crewmembers, Mack executed covert national security missions on submarines. “We’d go into every mission as if we were going to war,” he remembers of his time at sea. “Every crew member pulled their weight.”

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Mack sees a similar, mission-focused drive among the people he works with at the Laboratory. He enjoys “taking a group of diverse, highly technical people who will challenge your thinking and setting a goal for them, then helping them plan to achieve it.”

As the commanding officer of the USS Houston, Mack says he often found himself recruiting while on travel, talking to potential recruits in places as diverse as a Padres baseball game in San Diego, the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, and even a Buddhist temple in Japan. Now that he’s at the Lab, he sometimes puts those recruiting skills to work for Los Alamos, at military-geared events around the country. He can’t help doing that he says, because “just as the military provides an opportunity to receive an education and climb in rank, so does the Laboratory.”

“Everyone has different motivations and everyone serves their country in their own way,” he says. “At the Laboratory, we want a mix of people who bring their different skills and backgrounds because that’s when you get the best results. We’re constantly bringing in new and incredibly smart people who will run through a brick wall to get the job done.”

A man in military gear smiles at the camera. To the right, a pencil portrait of Dan McDonald.

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

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.

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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.

A pencil portrait of Saramoya Mercer. To the right, a photo portrait of a woman in uniform standing in front of the American flag.

As a senior airman, Saramoya Mercer developed leadership skills and completed coursework for a degree. Photo courtesy Saramoya Mercer

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.

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“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.”

A man in a beige uniform and hat stands with his hands on his hips and smiles at the camera. To the right, a pencil portrait of Kirk Otterson.

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

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.

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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.”

A pencil portrait of Teddy Perio. To the right, a man in a white shirt poses for a photo; a group of people stand behind him.

Teddy Perio's son graduated from Coast Guard boot camp. His grandfather, Corporal Angelo Basso, was a World War II veteran. Photo: David Perio

Teddy 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.

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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.”

A man sitting in a military vehicle with a cigar in his hand. To the right, a pencil portrait of Mark Pickrell.

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: U.S. Marines

Mark Pickrell

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.”

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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.”

A man in uniform stands in front of a missile; behind the missile is a blue sky. To the right, a pencil portrait of Mike Port.

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: U.S. Air Force

Mike Port

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.

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“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.”

A man in uniform crosses his hands and smiles at the camera. To the right, a pencil portrait of Terry Priestley.

Terry Priestley as a U.S. Navy ensign in 1988. Photo courtesy Terry Priestley

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.”

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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.”

A pencil portrait of Donna Schutzius. To the right, a woman in camouflage stands next to a circular thermometer that is reaching towards the 120 degrees Fahrenheit mark.

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

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.

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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?’”

A pencil portrait of Evan Spence. To the right, a woman in a dress holding a bouquet kisses a man in a white uniform on the cheek.

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: U.S. Navy

Evan Spence

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.

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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.”

Los Alamos employees: Are you a veteran? National Security Science wants to hear your story. Email magazine@lanl.gov.