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As a squad leader, Jeff Eastlake spent more than 20 years in the Army making sure soldiers under his command arrived home safely.
Now retired, Eastlake takes the same care in helping youngsters be the best they can, showcasing his mentoring skills as a coach and instructor for youth bowling and high school softball.
He said he “fell into” coaching girls fastpitch softball when his daughter began playing several years ago. Eastlake had played baseball on Army squads, but knew little about coaching fastpitch until researching it.
Eastlake, 58, coached softball at Liberty High School for five years and moved to Bradwell Institute, where he has served for the past 13 years.
He is also a familiar face at Marne Lanes, a bowling alley at Fort Stewart, where he met for this interview. Long a lover of bowling, Eastlake promoted opportunities that bowling affords youngsters, from team-building skills to scholarships.
“Most of my heart is with bowling,” he said.
Eastlake spent a lot of time enjoying his favorite sport while growing up in Detroit. But despite living in a big city, he said there was “nothing” in Detroit for him as a young adult. “I wanted to go see something else.”
Along with three friends, he joined the Army in 1977 at the age of 17. He had not yet obtained his high school diploma, but later earned it in the military.
Had he not joined the Army, Eastlake says he would probably have worked at an auto factory, like so many others in Detroit.
“My friends (who stayed there) tell me they’re stuck there and say the best thing that ever happened to me was leaving,” Eastlake said. “With the military, I saw the world.”
He said he had no expectation of Army life. “They told me I was going to get to be an engineer and get to blow stuff up… which I did.”
But, he added, “There’s more to the Army than just blowing stuff up, and I learned through the years ... and I tell other soldiers, that you’ll know in five years if you’re going to make it a career.”
Eastlake said he knew after two years that he was going to stay in the Army because of “the structure, the stability and being able to go different places that I couldn’t go if I wasn’t in,” he said.
His first stop was Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he met his future wife, Sharyl. A year later he transferred to Fort Carson, Colorado, and got married. They have been wed for 36 years.
After Fort Carson, they went to Germany, but were able to return to Fort Campbell when Sharyl got pregnant with their first child.
When he was in Germany, Eastlake was a squad leader, in charge of an eight-man combat engineer team. When he came back to the States he was assigned to a construction unit, allowing him to learn the skills of an electrician and plumber. After two years he was the company operations sergeant.
Eastlake went back to Germany again and was eventually deployed in 1991 to Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield, part of the 23rd Engineering Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division (Spearhead).
He spent nearly a year in Iraq during that first deployment.
“At that time I went over as a platoon sergeant (E-6) but they converted me to a squad leader,” Eastlake said. “I had my soldiers working under me, but I was working under a different unit, so we had to get used to their rules. But they embraced us just like we’d been there forever.”
Eastlake’s duties: “We cleared ditches, cleared mines, we round up Iraqis … certain things I don’t like talking about.”
He added, “I’m going through some stuff right now with the VA, a little bit of PTSD, spending time in the valley of death.”
But, Eastlake said, he and his unit were fortunate. “I took 26 soldiers over and I brought 26 soldiers back.”
In all, Eastlake was deployed to Iraq five times, including four after he was stationed at Fort Stewart, beginning in 1993.
There were close calls, such as when his unit was escorting a vehicle to a maintenance facility and they survived a mortar attack.
“The problem with being an engineer is that you’re in the lead and you have to breach an obstacle to get there,” he said. “It was never knowing what was on the other side.”
Eastlake retired from the Army in July 1997. He knew it was time.
“I saw the writing on the wall with how many more deployments we were going to have, and I wanted to spend more time with my kids.”
His children were pre-teens and Eastlake says he and his wife wanted to stay in the Hinesville area to teach them small town values and give them a stable environment after moving around so much while deployed.
Also, he said, his wife had a good job. She was a science teacher at Hinesville Middle School at the time, and is currently head of the science department at Bradwell Institute. Their children (now adults) are teachers as well. Son Patrick works at Long County High School, and his wife Brandi at McIntosh High School. Daughter Misty works at Lewis Frazier Middle School in Hinesville. Both teach science, like their mother.
Eastlake is all about family. He says he looks forward to any time he has with them, whether it’s a Sunday family dinner at home, or going bowling.
Being able to teach bowling to youngsters has iced his cake.
“As soon as I retired, and everyone knew how much I enjoyed teaching the kids, they asked me to become a coach,” Eastlake said. “I’ve been involved with Fort Stewart bowling since 1994, but running it since about 1997.”
He spends time bowling himself.
“Adult leagues are more about me going out and blowing off some steam,” but most of his time (about five hours on Saturdays and on Tuesday nights) is spent with the youth leagues, numbering around 80 children, part of the Junior League of the United States Bowling Congress.
He is quick to credit those who help. “I have coaches underneath me, and without them, I couldn’t do it.”
Eastlake says he loves the bowling opportunities for youth because “you can be an individual bowler and win all the tournaments you like, but if you have a team, you have to depend on them and your teammates on you.”
He said youth league bowling is competitive for all ages and abilities because it handicaps players to level the playing field.
“We have five or six bowlers in our league right now that can bowl in what’s called junior gold. They bowl for scholarships,” Eastlake said.
More than 20 bowlers from the Fort Stewart youth league will compete in the Pepsi Scholarship Tournament in Columbus, Georgia, in April, Eastlake said. “They will give away about $30,000 in scholarships.”
Eastlake says he tells kids that not all coaches are your best friend, but they try to get the best out of you.
“Every kid has something good in them,” Eastlake concluded. “You just need to find it.”
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