Army captain ‘honors’ Vanderbilt as Bronze Star Medal recipient

U.S. Army Capt. Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Surratt, a 2004 computer engineering graduate, wasted little time after receiving his Bronze Star Medal to find a way to honor his alma mater.

Gabe Surratt, 2004 computer engineering graduate, recently received a Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan.

Capt. Surratt, who worked with the House Armed Services Committee and is currently working in the Pentagon where he is assigned to the Deputy Chief of Staff, G2 at Army Headquarters, has reached out to the university in hopes of securing internships for Vanderbilt students with the committee or a congressional office.

Considering the road he has traveled since graduation, students might want to examine their prospective itineraries.

“My career trajectory has been pretty unconventional,” Surratt said. Of course it culminated on Feb. 11 when, in front of family, friends and fellow soldiers, he accepted the Bronze Star, the fifth-highest combat decoration and the 10th-highest U.S. military award in order of precedence, for exceptional meritorious service from March 1, 2011 to Oct. 2, 2012 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. But the path was anything but straight.

For starters, the Southern California native, oldest of five siblings, graduated high school twice. After his 1998 senior year, he journeyed from one coast to the other to attend prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. From there he followed his best friend to Nashville in 2000 when Vanderbilt gave him “a generous financial aid package.” After making what he calls “several friendships for life” the computer engineer went to work for aviation electronics company Rockwell-Collins in Huntsville, Ala., where he says he really used his Vanderbilt engineering degree.

“It was there I realized how rigorous the engineering program was. All the work heaped on our shoulders prepared me well,” he said. He remembered one class in particular – Advanced Software Architecture – he loved despite the long hours and the workload. “It was rewarding. I’m grateful to all those at Vanderbilt who pushed me as hard as they did.”

A few years later, Surratt was back in California working for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. Being close to home was good for his family, including his mother, but family ties included memories of his grandfather, a former bomber pilot who was a huge influence on him. “I think he was the driving catalyst of me going into the military in the first place.”

During a chance meeting with an Army officer, Surratt was told there was a great military need for a person with his skills. Surratt says he heard “something in his voice” that made him commit to officer training school. Perhaps it was his grandfather he heard as well.

Surratt served as a team chief in charge of 11 military and civilian personnel at the Joint Intelligence and Operations Center in Afghanistan.

Six months later he emerged as Lt. Surratt and began serving back-to-back yearlong deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, with just three weeks in between to visit his mom as “decompress” for a few days.

“When I first went to work as a software engineer at Rockwell-Collins, if you had told me that in a few years I would be patrolling in the middle of the night on a ridgeline waiting for the Taliban I would have said you were nuts,” Surratt said, when asked if he felt he was ready to serve as a team chief in charge of 11 military and civilian personnel at the Joint Intelligence and Operations Center at the United States Forces. “Well, you never know until you’re in the situation you’re in. I was attached as support personnel, but we were short-handed and so we were pressed into combat roles.”

He was lucky for the most part: Firefights were few; there were no direct attacks in his area, and most importantly, he came back alive. At his medal ceremony, where he also was promoted to the rank of captain, he publicly thanks those he served with for keeping him out of harm’s way.

Back working in Washington D.C., first with the House Armed Services Committee, supporting staff efforts to legislate the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, and then at Army Headquarters, Surratt sent a letter to Lt. Col. Chris Black, Vanderbilt University Army ROTC, and offered to help secure internships on Capitol Hill for interested Vanderbilt students. He sees a future for himself in the nation’s capitol but foremost in his mind is finding a way to better convey his gratitude to Vanderbilt University.

“I fully appreciated all that the university gave to me and I have tried to do my best to honor the school through my work and my actions,” he said. “I see Vanderbilt graduates on Capitol Hill all the time. They have been generous with their time, and I want to do my part in giving back in some way. Government would be well-served by Vanderbilt grads.”

By Vince Troia

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