By Bill Sheehan
Chris Epstein was at a crossroads.
A year after graduating from Cal State Fullerton in 2007, the former Big West track 400-meter champion was selling automobiles at a Foothill Ranch dealership. A self-described introvert, he enjoyed neither the non-stop interaction with customers nor the world of high-pressure sales.
"Then one day I sold a car to a military recruiter," recalled Epstein, "and the recruiter sold me on the Army."
Epstein, who had been considering a military career since his teenage years, enlisted shortly after that encounter. He went through basic training and Officer Candidate School, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Ten years later, Epstein's Army career is thriving. A captain, he serves as the division network operations, or NetOps, officer for the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas. He and his wife Kristen Hernandez Epstein, also a Fullerton graduate, will spend Veterans Day in the Lone Star State. They live off base in the El Paso area.
"I'm proud that I've been able to do the job, and I believe do it well," said Epstein, 34. "The military has its job to do. We don't make policy. We carry out the orders of those who create policy."
Epstein became an officer in the Army Signal Corps, which is responsible for all systems of communication for the entire Army. A signal officer must be an expert in planning, installing, integrating, operating and maintaining the Army's voice, data and information systems, services and resources.
"It's given me an opportunity to see the world," said Epstein, who has had international assignments in Afghanistan, South Korea, Italy and Djibouti and domestic postings in Georgia, New York and Texas. "It keeps me busy."
John Elders, the veteran Titan head coach, knows the couple well. He coached Epstein in track and field and Kristen in both track and cross-country.
"As a student-athlete, he talked about going into the military. Whenever I see Chris, I thank him for his service and Kristen comes from an amazing family," said Elders, who also coached one of Kristen's older sisters, Danielle. "Her mom Maria raised four girls on her own after her husband's death. She is one of my all-time favorite heroes."
An offer to run at Cal State Fullerton
Born in Mission Viejo, Epstein attended Mission Viejo High School, where he ran the 100 and 200 meters. He continued as a sprinter during his two years at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. Elders then offered Epstein an opportunity to compete for the Titans in the spring of 2005.
"I had good grades. I always enjoyed being on track teams. Being part of a group was a good way of meeting people and staying in shape," Epstein said. "Coach Elders sold me on the Titan spirit and the benefits of joining an up-and-coming program."
Fullerton track assistant coach Marques Barosso, who oversees sprinters, hurdlers and relay teams, was a teammate of Epstein a decade ago.
"Chris was an interesting character," said Barosso. "He would do things that others wouldn't do, such as riding his motorcycle onto the track. He had a [World Wrestling Federation] Val Venis action figure and would bring it with him to practice and to the meets.
"He didn't know hard work until he got here. He needed a coach to push him," said Barosso."
Epstein found his guru in Kenny McDaniel, who coached sprinters at the time.
"It didn't start out well for Chris," said McDaniel, now the director of track & field/cross-country at Sacramento State University. "He had been slowed by injuries and he lacked self-confidence. I knew he had the skill set to be a pretty good quarter-miler, but I didn't know he had enough to win the conference."
Epstein recalled his first efforts at the 400 during his redshirt junior year. "When I ran the 100 and 200, I felt OK afterward. I just put my hands on my hips and took a couple deep breaths," he said. "At the end of the 400, I felt completely drained every time."
But with McDaniel's help, he gradually began making strides. "I didn't run many 400 events that first season, maybe five or six," he said. Epstein emerged as a force to be reckoned with late in his first season, Elders said.
"He wasn't part of our regular 4X100 relay, but we had to throw him in at the Big West finals at Northridge," said Elders. "He lacked experience, but he ran an amazing leg. We made it to the regional meet, where he ran great again. That was his springboard to the next year."
Peaking at season's end
It all came together for Epstein in his senior year. "I had more natural endurance than speed, but the workouts in the 100 and 200 really helped me with the speed. I hit the weights, and the dynamic stretching made me less prone to injuries."
"I started with a 49, then hit 48 twice, then dipped down to 47.5. Coach McDaniel kept me fast. He had me peak at the right time."
At the 2007 Big West finals, Epstein became the first Titan to win a men's 400-meter championship, clocking in at 47.05. He has vivid memories of the race.
"I remember getting out of the box, building up my speed and lengthening my stride. I got into the third corner and no one had passed me," recalled Epstein, who was in a middle lane. "I had the best corner speed on the 4x100 relay, so I thought, "I have a chance at this.' I went all out to the finish. I thought I was going to fall over at the end, but I stayed up. It was a surreal feeling. This was the culmination of years and years of track. I may have had a couple wins at meets, but I had never won a championship."
"I give Coach McDaniel a lot of credit," said Epstein, who earned a communications degree with a concentration in public relations. "He was a mentor and spent a lot of time working with me."
McDaniel said it was just a matter of getting Epstein to reach his full potential. "Once he found his groove and his confidence grew, he was on his way. It's like a flower. Water it, water it, and you have a beautiful flower."
Epstein, whose parents Ron and Pattee Epstein live in Trabuco Canyon, faced some challenges at the outset of his military life.
"California has a kind of laid-back lifestyle. I had some stressful situations at the start. I was back on the East Coast and getting sick a lot, probably because of the close proximity with others," he said. "I had to learn not to second-guess myself. I learned to assess information and react, and to have confidence in presenting my reports."
Fitness, however, wasn't an issue for Epstein. "I was in good shape and could handle the sit-ups and pushups. And after two months, I was running under 12 minutes for two miles."
After receiving his commission, Epstein married Kristen in June 2009. He then served for nearly two years as a battalion signal officer in South Korea. "The interesting thing about Korea was that it was hard to understand anything because of the language issue. There were no Google maps back then."
Playing golf with landmines nearby
One assignment was near the demilitarized zone at the North-South border. While there, he took time out to play a par 3 one-hole golf course at Camp Bonifas, just south of the DMZ. The course, which Sports Illustrated dubbed "the most dangerous hole in golf," is surrounded on three sides by minefields.
The next stop was Fort Gordon in Georgia, where Epstein took his Captain Career Course. And during their stay there in 2012, Kristen found a stray dog on the streets of Grovetown, Georgia. They named her Lulu, and she remains with them to this day.
After being stationed at Fort Drum near Watertown, New York, Epstein's had a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. He advised and trained Afghan National Army soldiers. These assignments can be perilous because of "insider attacks" on U.S. service personnel. But Epstein said his unit accomplished its goal of helping the Afghans build up their security forces.
"We tried to instill in them how important it is about taking care of their battalion," said Epstein, who was stationed at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, about 75 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul. "It was February in the mountains there," said Epstein. "I have never been so cold in my life."
In 2012, the Epsteins joined two other soldiers for a 65-mile ruck march from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to Ground Zero in New York City. The four carried weighted backpacks during the more than 24-hour journey. Then-First Lt. Paul Kearney organized the trip to honor First Lt. Timothy Steele, a friend who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011 and is buried at West Point Cemetery.
After reaching Ground Zero, the group entered One World Trade Center, also know as the Freedom Tower, which was still under construction. Epstein and Matt Bennett, the fourth participant in the march, were both promoted to captain in a ceremony on 39th floor of the tower.
Epstein's most recent international assignment was in Vicenza, Italy, 37 miles west of Venice, where he worked again as a battalion signal officer. It was a three-and-a-half-year mission. In 2017, his final year there, Epstein took command of the 509th Signal Battalion.
While stationed in Italy, he was given a three-month mission to Djibouti, where he served as the deputy director for the Joint Information Technology Management Office, or JITSMO.
Kristen has accompanied Epstein on all his assignments, except in combat zones. They have enjoyed all of their international and stateside stops but rate Italy as their favorite.
"Every four-day weekend, we went somewhere. We visited Germany, Portugal, Spain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Denmark and Sweden as well as local trips in Italy," said Epstein.
Among Epstein's favorite experiences were the San Fermin festival in Spain and a bike ride in Italy. "We were in Pamplona for the running of the bulls. My mother-in-law was with us, but she ran into the stadium early while we were out running with the bulls. And we did the L'Eroica vintage bike race in hills of Tuscany. We stayed at a farmhouse and had five-course family-style dinners."
Tracing her family's role on D-Day
Kristen's most memorable moments occurred in France. "My family has a long line of military service. One year, we visited Normandy on Memorial Day. My grandfather and his brother landed on the beaches on D-Day, and we traced their journey." Her grandfather survived World War II, but her great-uncle was killed in action shortly after D-Day.
Another highlight was a Christmas dinner in 2015 with her European relatives at her Aunt Bettina's home in Ottange, near the Luxembourg border. "There were about 15 people, and we felt so much love that night."
Hernandez, 32, said being a military spouse can be challenge.
"Things are extremely difficult during their long deployments. And when they are home, it seems like it's never 9 to 5. But Chris and I have been fortunate in that we have spent minimal times apart. We're forged amazing relationships with our military family, and we have a great support system."
"It has provided a wonderful life for us. It's exciting to see how other cultures live, and it really has enriched our lives," she said. "When you are posted overseas, it's a matter of adaption and adventure. And I've always wanted adventure."
Kristen met Epstein at Fullerton, where she was a cross-country and steeplechase runner. She graduated in 2009, also with a degree in communication, public relations. And while Epstein has given up competitive running, Kristen continues to compete in long-distance running.
"While we were posted at Ford Drum in New York, I drove six hours to watch my sister Danielle run in the Boston Marathon. It was an amazing experience, and I told myself, 'I'm going to do this some day.' "
During their stay in Italy, Kristen traveled to Greece just before her 30th birthday and ran her first marathon. The race started in the town of Marathon and finished at the Olympic Stadium in Athens. She later fulfilled her vow, starting and finishing the last two Boston Marathons. In the 2018 race, she ran alongside her sister Danielle.
Kristen has worked off and on during their postings, managing a USO center in South Korea and working as a defense travel administrator for the Army 173rd IBCT(A) Brigade in Italy. Kristen, whose mother is Italian, also took Italian language classes in Italy.
McDaniel said the couple are a perfect fit. "I remember when they first started dating. I told Chris, 'You balance each other out.' They're what I call a dynamic couple."
Epstein's longtime friends are happy he found his calling. "Anything can happen when you have a positive attitude, work hard and be the best you can be," said Barosso. McDaniel concurs. "He has all the right skills to be in the armed forces. If the country is under attack, I want him up front," said McDaniel.
As for Epstein's life-changing moment during his work as a car salesman, Hernandez says her husband came out ahead. "I've told Chris, 'I guess you got the better end the deal because your job hasn't depreciated like his car has. You're still making money on the deal.' "