Nate Sonnier, originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, graduated from high school with no definite plans. So, he joined the Army.

If you asked him today, he'd say it was the best decision he has ever made. Nate looks back with pride at the thrill of serving his country.

Orders to deploy to Iraq in March 2008 meant he had to go from 40 degrees where he was stationed in Colorado to 90 degrees in Iraq. Temperatures rose as high at 140 degrees. A 10-day stopover in Afghanistan before continuing to Iraq was spent getting acclimated to the weather, learning to fire weapons in inclement weather, attending classes and completing medical requirements.

When Nate kissed his two-year-old son Jackson goodbye at the airport, he had no idea it would be a year before he would see him again. With today's technology, soldiers are able to communicate with families instantaneously. Letters and packages take a week to arrive, but Nate received a package from home every week. His favorite thing to open was a box of 12 Little Debbie oatmeal pies. When asked if he shared them with his buddies, he quickly said, “No!”

Soldiers had a computer area where they could get online, check and send email, and take online college classes. It was a way to escape the chaos and calamity of war. When Nate retired after 20 years, he had only one year of college left to complete. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of North Texas, with a double major in Rehabilitation and Kinesiology.

Physical fitness was a top priority while the soldiers were in Iraq, and the Army provided state of the art equipment for the soldiers. Nate was a supervisor over 15 other soldiers who oversaw the computer system. His team kept the 16 computers running to ensure proper communication between the base and all Humvees, as well as the Pentagon. The team worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off. If computers began overheating, Nate's team would attempt to cool them off with fans and air conditioning.

Heat affected everything and everybody.

Since Nate was assigned to the base in Basra, Iraq, his sleeping quarters consisted of a 10-foot by 10-foot “house hut” with a window air conditioner, a bed and a dresser. During his 12 hours off, he concentrated on lifting weights to reduce his stress level. Counseling classes helped Nate provide guidance and encouragement to his team members.

Encouraging his men to better themselves by taking advantage of the equipment and provisions, Staff Sgt. Nate Sonnier also used humor and laughter to help his men cope with the strain of war. His goal, he said, was to put a smile on a soldier's face. The adversities of nature and exhaustion had to be taken seriously. Regularly, Nate would stress to his team the importance of keeping a healthy mindset, maintaining composure, and watching their backs. There were times, though, that Nate was down in the dumps, and he often confided in his superiors for support.

When Nate came home after his first year, he was given two months' leave before spending another four months in training. Then, in 2009, he was deployed back to Iraq. With 20 years behind him in 2010, he decided to retire. He says missing his son was a key factor in his decision.

After receiving his college diploma, Nate went to work for Ultimate Family Fitness in Sherman for four years. Nautilus moved into the same building when Ultimate Family Fitness left, and Nate has been a trainer at Nautilus for four years. Fitness is his passion, and he works out 1.5 hours a day, seven days a week.

He competes annually in Dallas at the Fitness Physique competition. Last year he placed fifth out of 35 contestants.

“All of that preparation and training, and we're only on stage for 20 seconds,” Nate said.

Nate Sonnier changed from fatigues and Hummers to training shorts and barbells, but his focus is still on helping others.