Rock Hill man finds niche in Navy

Rock Hill's Van Stitt stands beside a welcome home sign Wednesday.
Rock Hill's Van Stitt stands beside a welcome home sign Wednesday.

When Van Stitt was growing up in Rock Hill, he never envisioned he would be soldier. But now 32, he's back from his first overseas deployment with the U.S. Navy to Iraq, Kuwait and elsewhere.

Stitt is a corpsman, the Navy equivalent of an Army medic. He joined the Navy after taking classes at York Technical College and Winthrop University, then earned his bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Clemson University.

"I'd been going to college for a long time and still hadn't gotten the kind of direction I wanted," he said.

So, he joined the Navy. He went to basic training, became a certified lab technician and got a job at a Naval air station in California.

Last year, he volunteered to go to Iraq with a group of Marines in November.

"I have a lot of respect for what the Marines do, and it felt like an opportunity to be a part of that," he said.

But Stitt didn't tell his mother that he would be going to Iraq.

Gladys Feely Robinson, a longtime Rock Hill teacher, said she knew her son was going overseas, but not that he was headed for Iraq. It might have been better that way, she said.

"I heard from him much more often than I thought I would, which is a good thing," Robinson said. "Because I tell him, even if it's no more than just for a couple of seconds, I just need to hear the sound of your voice because as a mother, I can tell if things were OK with him just by the sound. So once I would hear his voice and I knew that he was OK, then I was OK."

While he was gone, Stitt spent most of his time on a ship. He explained his job as backup for Marines who were completing missions onshore. When they needed help, he was a soldier. When they needed medical care, he was a corpsman.

"I'm a Marine until someone gets hurt, and then I'm a corpsman," he said.

Part of his job was doing regular sick calls. That meant handling things such as colds and scratches -- typical family practice stuff.

Another part of his work was with the Charlie Company, flying in on helicopters to help people who needed it.

Stitt said he was fortunate that his group did not have a lot of violent confrontations.

In addition to about a month in Iraq and Kuwait, Stitt spent some time traveling around the world. He observed the aftermath of natural disasters in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

"They treated hundreds of people a day for disease that you forget even existed," he said. "It just kind of lets you know how well you actually live where you come from."

He also got a few days to explore places such as Singapore, Dubai and Australia.

Now that he is back home, Stitt said he is glad to have a bed to sleep in and is enjoying mother's home cooking. He is spending time with his mother and father, Charlie, and other family members before he goes back to California in a few days.

Stitt said he plans to stay in the Navy for a while and likely will volunteer for deployment again.

While overseas with the Marines, he said he never got scared.

"I was excited the whole time," he said. "They're so gung-ho about what they do that it's really contagious."