Gregg Softy has spent the majority of his life giving of himself. He spent 28 years in the military, serving multiple tours of duty in the world’s most dangerous war zones. While in Afghanistan he started and lead a program delivering donated supplies to schools in ravaged towns. And when his wife’s ex-husband was killed in action, he helped raise their two young sons.
So it was fitting that for once he be on the receiving end. And while getting something of material value doesn’t equate with decades of service to his country and others, Softy isn’t complaining.
On Dec. 18, 2017, he was awarded the Transition Trucking: Driving for Excellence honor during a ceremony at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in Washington, D.C. Kenworth presented Softy, who had recently retired from the military as a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and is now an owner-operator working for Stevens Transport, with a Kenworth T680 Advantage, equipped with a 455-hp PACCAR MX-13 engine and 76-inch sleeper with premium features.
The West Point graduate received the cab valued at around $160,000 as part of the foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes Program, which was conducted in partnership with the FASTPORT Trucking Track Mentoring Program. Wayne Roy, a Marine Corps veteran, and Daniel Shonebarger, a Navy veteran, were runners-up and won $10,000 each.
Kenworth also presented Softy with a $2,500 gift certificate to help accessorize his new truck.
“I’m on cloud nine… it still hasn’t hit home yet,” Softy, 52, of Athens, AL, told American Trucker. “To have it parked in front of the White House was fantastic. From what I understand the competition was between 10 and 15 thousand applicants.
“We went to the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas back in August, where they announced the top three finalists. Then in October they had an American Idol-type competition where people would vote for their favorite.
“We were all brought in to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce where they announced who won. It was anti-climactic. They announced the third place guy first, then the second place guy. I was thinking, ‘well I guess that leaves me the last man standing.’ Then they all broke out in applause and was fantastic. We thought we were flying home but we drove the truck home.”
Softy served in six overseas deployments: Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Operation Unified Response (Haiti), Operation Iraqi Freedom, Kosovo, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Unified Protector, a NATO operation in Libya.
He received three Bronze Stars, a Legion of Merit, a Defense Meritorious service medal, and a number of other service and combat badges, decorations and medals. He was sent to some danger zones and volunteered for others, wanting to be in on the action rather than taking part from a safe haven.
“At some part if you sit back in the United States too long and are not part of what’s going on overseas you kind of feel second rate,” he explained. “Anybody who could be in the military and not want to be deployed with a unit, not want to see the Army at its very best, should ask themselves why they’re even in the military.”
The danger aspect, knowing death is possible when engaging the enemy, is something Softy said is accepted by every soldier.
“You don’t think about getting killed,” he said. “You’re confident in your training, and what you’re going to do. You go in thinking you’re gonna make the enemy lose. I tell people that once you come to the realization that you could die, it’s almost a liberating feeling. You don’t think about it anymore.”
A second career
After retirement from the military Softy said becoming a truck driver was a logical choice because it fulfilled a lifelong dream and offered new opportunities.
“I have photographs my parents kept of me getting autographs from truck drivers at the Vince Lombardi truck stop in New Jersey when I was five years old,” he said. “I probably stayed in the military three or four years too long, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Actually I did know, but it was foolish to say a West Pointer and an officer gets out to drive a truck. It’s just not normal.
“I couldn’t bring myself to make that commitment. Then one day my wife Mari said ‘you know what you want to do. Let’s do it. I support you.’ The minute she said that it was like everything opened up. I dropped my [Army retirement] paperwork the next day and have not looked back.”
The burly, still crew-cutted Softy was hired by Stevens Transport, headquartered in Dallas, TX. With his new truck he is now an owner-operator, with partner Sean Harding, another former military man. Their company, Hell On Wheels Express, takes its name from the division moniker Softy was deployed with in Desert Storm, minus the word Express.
“Our goal is to accumulate trucks and build a fleet,” said Softy. “We want to be a veteran-owned, veteran-operated company, to tap into the military market. Sean and I transitioned from the military to trucking. We know how nervous we were and how much we didn’t understand. I don’t think a lot of trucking companies know how to relate to veterans coming out, how to sell the product, so we want to tap into that.
“A lot of skills you learn in the military are what you need as a truck driver. I spent years and years training soldiers. Why not use the same soldiers that I trained as my drivers, my company mates?”
There is no learning curve for Softy when it comes to Class 8 truck technology.
“I transitioned from a military that is a technology customer, user and leader in many areas and fields,” he said. “Service members in today’s military, regardless of the branch of service or occupation, are exposed to and trained on a variety of technological innovations and cutting-edge advancements that are far outpacing their civilian counterparts.
“That being said, there is little doubt how far today’s Class 8 trucks have advanced with regard to safety, ease of operation, fuel efficiency and driver comfort. Of those, safety is and must continue to be paramount for the trucking industry to survive in its current form. New vehicle collision avoidance/mitigation systems are the way of the future. I envision future systems focusing as well on driver safety.”
In their first truck Softy and Harding worked as a team for Stevens Transport, but with the awarded second truck they now drive solo. The new profession is everything Softy hoped it would be, and more.
“People ask me what’s the difference between being in the Army and being a truck driver,” he explained. “In the military there are a lot of jobs you have to do that are long hours, but you just do them. It’s part of the system. I’m not a guy who likes to work on staff. I like to lead. As a trucker I love going to work every day, I love what I do, being on the road.
“I’ve been all over the world but have never really traveled around my own country. People here don’t know how good they have it. I’ve seen how badly some people live overseas. You have to see what people don’t have to appreciate what you do have.”
Softy’s first career provided him with the ability to have perspective on days when things don’t go right.
“In my life as a trucker there’s not any real pressure,” he said. “No one’s shooting at you.”
HELPING RAISE A HERO’S SONS
Gregg Softy’s family pictures taken over the years show he and wife Mari with three children at football games, sightseeing in Europe, frolicking at home and simply enjoying life together.
But the reality wasn’t so simple.
Isabella, now 12, is Gregg and Mari’s daughter together, but the boys, Shea, now 27, and Brennan, now 25, carry the surname Goodnature. They are Mari’s sons from a previous marriage to Army Chief Warrant Officer Corey Goodnature.
“Mari and I met and married in 1994 after she and Corey divorced,” explained Gregg. “We dated for just a week before I asked her to marry me. Corey and Mari remained friendly, and after a few years, Corey and I became friends. We were all stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Everything was for the best interests of the boys.”
On June 28, 2005, Corey Goodnature, 35, and 15 others were killed when the U.S. military helicopter he was piloting was shot down in Afghanistan while attempting to rescue missing U.S. Navy SEALs. Goodnature and the incident were immortalized in the 2013 movie Lone Survivor.
Shea was 15 at the time, Brennan 13. Softy went from being a friendly presence for the boys to a new father figure. His leadership skills were suddenly needed to comfort and guide two devastated youths, and he delivered, as the family pictures show over and over.
Amazingly, Shea followed his deceased father into the military, and today is a helicopter pilot in the Army, flying in Afghanistan. Brennan is a senior at Clemson, with plans to become a doctor.
“Corey getting shot down is what makes Shea flying so interesting,” said Softy. “The boys had split opinions when it happened. One stopped being interested in the military, took it hard, and the other wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. And now he’s flying, just like his dad was.”—M.C.
‘Softy’ name a hard sell
What’s in a name? Gregg Softy will tell you what’s in a name, or in his name at least—a lifetime of having to grin and bear it when people make jokes.
“I’ve heard them all,” said the former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel turned truck owner-op. “It was the worst when I was Major Softy. The best part of being a truck driver is I no longer have to walk around with my name on my shirt. So I can do business with people. You know, you go some place with my military uniform and they see Softy; you gotta get past the smiles, the giggles, the laughs, the questions.”
Softy explained that his unusual surname has centuries-old roots.
“It’s from Germany,” he said. “My aunt traced the lineage over the past few years. She found that our earliest relatives came from Germany back in the 1840s. It was a different spelling, and because they couldn’t pronounce it here in the states it was one of those names that got bastardized, into Softy. [Originally] it was more of an S-O-J-E. But the Americans couldn’t pronounce it so it just became Softy.”
His size and stature kept Softy from taking too much kidding in the military.
“It helps that I’m bigger than most people; I’m a pretty big guy [6’-1”, 260 lbs.],” he said. “So you can intimidate soldiers into not making any comments.”—M.C.