TOPEKA, Kan. – There comes a time when one must decide, “What am I going to do with my life?”
Morland, Kansas, native Shawn Atkins asked himself that question in 1996 and decided to join the military.
“I struggled in my first year of college and needed a change,” said Atkins. “The Army provided both the opportunity to better myself and to obtain some educational benefits.”
That decision launched him on a decades-long career.
“I initially spent four years on active duty as an enlisted Soldier at Fort Riley,” said Shawn. “After that, I then transitioned to the Kansas Army National Guard for approximately eight years while I finished both my undergraduate and law degrees, using my education benefits to do so. Realizing I wanted to serve full-time again, I made the transfer back to active duty for almost 13 years. The opportunity to serve full time made it an easy decision to return to the Kansas Guard once again. I’ve served over 26 years so far — 18 active duty, eight National Guard.”
That 1996 decision also set off a chain reaction in his family. His brother, David, enlisted in the Kansas Army National Guard in 1999 as a combat medic.
“I was not planning to join the military until I realized how expensive school was,” said David. “I signed up for six years thinking I would use the GI Bill and then get out. I then did ROTC (at Kansas State University) and started to really enjoy the service and the people I worked with.”
David’s education benefits helped pay his way through Kansas State University and the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
Brother Casey followed in 2004, enlisting as a paralegal his senior year in high school and going through the ROTC program at the University of Kansas, the same program Shawn had completed just three years before.
“I definitely saw the financial and educational benefits that the National Guard provided both Shawn and David,” said Casey. “The financial benefits can’t be overstated. I was able to earn my undergraduate degree without accumulating any student loan debt. The Guard also provided me with enough extra income through scholarships and drill paychecks that I was able to make it through without the need for any additional employment requirements.”
Casey said his Guard benefits included tuition assistance during his graduate program, allowing him to complete his master’s degree with minimal out-of-pocket expenses. Now, all three brothers have attained the rank of major in the Kansas Army National Guard.
Shawn serves full-time in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate at Joint Forces Headquarters. Casey is the full-time executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment, while David is a traditional Guardsman serving as the flight surgeon for the 1-108th. When not at drill or active duty, David has a full-time medical practice in Hill City, about 12 miles from Morland.
The Atkins family includes two additional brothers who did not choose a military career but fully support their siblings.
Although Shawn, David, and Casey chose different military specialties, their duties have allowed for some interaction over the years.
“When Casey was the Bravo Company commander for the 1-108th several years ago, we drilled together regularly,” said David. “We were going to deploy together in 2018, but he was transferred out of the battalion for a few years. He is now back in the 1-108th and currently the executive officer. As the flight surgeon, I report directly to the battalion commander, but Casey still tells me what to do.”
Each of the men has seen duty overseas but never together. Shawn served in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 and 2013 and Jordan in 2015. David deployed to Kuwait in 2013-2014 and Kuwait and Iraq in 2018. Casey’s deployments include Kuwait in 2011-2012 and Afghanistan in 2014.
And although they are not triplets, the brothers say they are often confused with one of their siblings.
“The best story I have is when I returned to the 1-108th after spending three years outside the battalion in various assignments,” said Casey. “During my first drill back, a Soldier who I had previously deployed with twice approached me and started to ask me questions about a medical issue he was currently having. It took me a while to realize that he actually thought I was my brother (David), who at the time had been the battalion flight surgeon for six-plus years.”
Since coming back to the Kansas Guard in 2021, Shawn is routinely mistaken for Casey. “Emails are commonly sent to the wrong Maj. Atkins,” said Shawn.
Even though their careers took them along different paths, all three are proud to serve with their brothers and find inspiration in brotherly rivalries.
“Just in general, we all want to be better at what we do,” said Shawn. “Having siblings that are good at what they do is always a driving force. Nobody wants to be the dud brother.”
“I can’t really compete with what Casey does in the helicopter or what Shawn does in the courtroom,” said David. “Each of them has focused the entirety of their careers on the military, while I have balanced both my military and civilian duties. My focus is on taking care of Soldiers, but I’ve still had the opportunity to do some pretty cool things. Shawn opened the door, showing what opportunities were available for Casey and I. We have all benefitted from serving, without question.”
“Competition has definitely always been a part of our relationship,” said Casey. “Due to our age now (47, 41 and 37), we pretty much stick to golf as our competitive outlet. We all have varying degrees of skill though, so we have to get creative to make each round interesting.”
“Sharing the military connection with them has been special,” said Shawn. “Wearing the uniform with them is my greatest professional honor, and it means a lot to the rest of our family also. They have been nothing but supportive in all our military endeavors.”
“Words cannot really describe how proud we are of all our sons,” said Sam Atkins. “We have always tried to be supportive of whatever our sons were doing, from high school sports and other activities, to further education choices and career paths.
“When Shawn first enlisted, we did not really know much about military life,“ Sam said. “Over the years, our understanding and support of the military has grown. Therefore, when David and Casey made the decision to join, we knew what commitment and dedication was involved.”
With that understanding of military life came the sobering realization that it involved an element of danger for their sons, but that did not lessen the pride they felt.
“‘Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends,’” said Melissa Atkins, quoting John 15:13. “The American flag has a whole new meaning when you have sons deployed. We have tried to help their families as best we could while our sons were deployed overseas. Being the parents of military children has been a true blessing that only parents of military children can know and understand.”
Shawn has three children and two grandchildren, David has three children and Casey has two. All three brothers said they would support any decisions their children make regarding a military career.
“My son has already expressed some interest,” said Shawn. “It would be an incredible honor to serve with him at some point. I’ll be able to better assist him in navigating his way through his career. In the Army, we’re all starting from the same place. The opportunities are there; you must be both disciplined and ambitious enough to take advantage of them.”
“The Guard has provided me with so much in my life that I would recommend serving to anyone interested,” said Casey.
“I would be incredibly proud and, of course, a little worried if my kids joined the military,” said David. “It is a very honorable profession, but there are associated risks.
“There is also a sacrifice that must be made by our families. We each have a few deployments and have missed some significant milestones for our children. Joining, and even staying in the military, must be a family decision.”
For the Atkins families, those family decisions have served them, and the Kansas National Guard, quite well.