Chris Starnes, a current Saint Leo University Doctor of Criminal Justice student, has had several hard knocks throughout his life. But nothing has stopped the 50-year-old from picking himself up, dusting himself off and chasing his next challenge.
The Tennessee native currently calls Zephyrhills, Fla. home. A father of five, he also has a three-year-old pitbull, Lily.
Stepping Up for His Turn to Serve
Starnes earned a bachelor’s in criminal justice from East Tennessee State University in 1991. He enlisted in the U.S. Army just 10 days after attending his graduation ceremony. The military is literally in his blood, going back a few centuries in his family.
“I’ve had 300 years’ worth of military service in my family,” Starnes says proudly. “My 10th great-grandfather was an original Starnes and was a captain in the Virginia militia.
My grandpa served in World War II and a cousin served in Vietnam. So, it was kind of my time to step up and serve.”
With the Persian Gulf War underway in the early 1990s, his curiosity was also a factor in his decision to enlist.
“I wanted to go and see what war was actually like,” Starnes recalls. “I enlisted in May of 1991.”
While serving, he worked as an Army ranger. One of his memorable roles was commanding a fire squad. His highest rank was a sergeant E5.
In 1993, he suffered a back injury while deployed in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu, also referred to as Black Hawk Down. In addition to Somalia, he spent time in Thailand, Panama, South Korea, the Sinai Peninsula and around the U.S.
He says he learned several life lessons while in the Army.
“I learned to overcome obstacles and keep pushing forward no matter what happens,” he explains. “I also learned lots of leadership skills.”
He served for four years and then joined the Florida National Guard for four additional years.
Pursuing a Criminal Justice Career
After his military service, Starnes knew he wanted to continue serving others. He attended a local police academy and was hired at the Pasco Sheriff’s Office in 1996. During his first two years, he was a patrol deputy. He later worked as a community policing deputy on a bike and a property crimes detective. His longest stint came as a narcotics officer.
“I worked in narcotics for about 18 years,” he says. “I was on a few task forces and then was a sergeant. It was very rewarding work.”
He also had some unique opportunities to work security for a few Super Bowls. His job was to escort the halftime show performers around the stadiums. He got to meet Prince, Tom Petty, The Who and Bruce Springsteen.
“Mr. Springsteen actually grabbed me and wanted to have his photo taken with me,” Starnes says with a laugh.
In total, he spent 23 years with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. He was named the 2010 State of Florida Narcotics Officer of the Year during his career.
Reaching for a Saint Leo Master’s Degree
Over 20 years after finishing his undergraduate studies in Tennessee, Starnes decided to attend graduate school. He enrolled in the MS in Criminal Justice with a Specialization in Critical Incident Management at Saint Leo, an online degree program.
“Saint Leo was in my zone when I was a rookie deputy, so I was aware of the school and the beautiful campus there,” he says. “I had always wanted to get my master’s degree. I was at a point in my life where it made sense. Plus, the sheriff’s office paid for a good portion of my tuition.”
He says the lengthy timeframe since his undergraduate studies made him slightly nervous about jumping back into the world of academia.
“It was an online degree program, and I had never taken classes online before. But I figured I’d give it a shot.”
He has so many positive things to say about the experience.
“I must say it was a very enlightening, engaging and stimulating curriculum. It really opened up my mind to lots of ideas and concepts related to criminal justice.”
The capstone course in this graduate program made an impression on him.
“I appreciated the capstone course. We had to do a wiretap, which was a very laborious investigation. I was picked for a threat assessment team in my job, and that experience helped me a lot in this class.”
He adds that Dr. Eloy Nunez was his favorite professor in this graduate criminal justice degree program.
In April of 2018, Starnes suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He was attacked at a local establishment, fell to the ground and hit his head. This caused a fracture to his skull.
“The doctors told me I coded 19 times,” he says.
Starnes was in a coma for five weeks following this injury. He also suffered a stroke months afterward. He later went on to have two brain surgeries, one of which left him with some short-term memory challenges.
“I broke my back in the military and could no longer work in special forces. Then I had this TBI and had to take early retirement. So, I thought going back into higher education would help me become more marketable.”
Pursuing a Doctor of Criminal Justice Degree
Because of his health situation, Starnes had to step away from his career in law enforcement. However, several Saint Leo faculty members encouraged him to go on for his doctoral degree. He started his doctoral studies in Saint Leo’s Doctor of Criminal Justice program in the Homeland Security track in the fall of 2019.
“Dr. Bobby Sullivan came to visit me in the hospital because we had worked together at the sheriff’s office. He is such a positive guy and he kind of got me thinking about doing the Doctor of Criminal Justice. But at the time, I couldn’t even walk or use my hands properly, so it was a tough time wondering what the future held for me. I fought hard to progress through the therapy so I could do things for myself again.”
He was also in a mental fog at the time.
“I remember that it literally hurt my brain to think,” he says. “I met with Bill Elders and Christine Dzikonski, two of the enrollment counselors who I had also previously worked with at the sheriff’s office. I still had some apprehension about doing this, but they gave me the confidence to give it a go.”
In his mind, it was the best decision he could have made for himself in more ways than one.
“I thoroughly believe this program has helped me in my healing. It has given me something to do in a realm I’m comfortable with. It has made my mind active and engaged and has also helped my morale.”
Everyone has been willing to lend a helping hand for anything he may need throughout his coursework, he says.
“My professors and classmates have all been very understanding. I must say that Saint Leo University is not just an institution of higher learning. It’s a family.”
Three short residencies are part of the Doctor of Criminal Justice program. One of these is held at University Campus.
“It was a great experience,” he says. “It was nice being in a classroom again. I got to meet Dr. Nunez in person for the first time that day and that was big for me. I also got to meet Dr. Neely, Dr. Diemer, Dr. Vendrell and Dr. May. I knew some of them from my master’s program but had never really gotten to meet any of them in person. These are truly impressive faculty. It’s an all-star cast in my book.”
He offers up some wise words to anyone who is earning an online degree.
“When you’re in your online classes, look at every heading and subheading on the screen to get familiarized with where things are and where all of the important content is located. I could call, text or email someone for help, but I just get on there and try to learn as much as I can on my own.”
Embracing Saint Leo’s Core Values
While all of Saint Leo University’s core values are meaningful to Starnes, two in particular have stood out to him.
“Respect is something I always carry with me, especially in my police work,” he explains. “I followed the golden rule and would treat a suspect or arrestee how I wanted to be treated. Also, with responsible stewardship, we have to be responsible and wise with resources no matter what any of us do in life.”
What’s Next for Starnes?
From potentially teaching at the college level to doing consulting work, Starnes is open to a number of ideas once he completes the Doctor of Criminal Justice program.
“I’m open to anything. I’ve always embraced challenges. Some people run from challenges, but I run to them. I may not succeed, but at least I’ll learn something from the experience. I’m all about experiencing new things.”