First, I must apologize for the length between my posts. A very dear friend of mine has told me to make sure I post every week, at least once. I've had internet problems (basically a dinosaur dsl modem). Yeah, I still had the internet on my phone but I must admit part of the problem is my subject for this post. We all have Heroes. Mine, for the most part, are dead. This post is about friends that I lost in the course of 10 days. I knew them when they were alive. I drank with most of them. I ate, slept and lived with them at least once a month, usually more than that. I served with them in Charlie Company of the 1/109 Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), 55th Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division. Before deploying overseas the company would change to Bravo Company but whatever the designation, I remember my Brothers-In-Arms. Remember The Heroes.
Nine years ago on 28 September 2005, the stay back members of my unit were gathering for a viewing. The "stay backs" are soldiers who didn't deploy. In my case my diabetes kept me home. I tried to go. I was (am) Infantry. But, regardless, I had to stay back. Spc Will Evans died in Iraq on 19 September 2005. He was a driver and an IED triggered by another vehicle in a convoy detonated. It took them 9 days to bring back his body. The stay backs were Honor Guard. At the armory in New Milford we learned from our assistant Bn (Battalion) Commander that the crew (a driver, gunner and Bradley Commander) & two dismounts (Ground Infantrymen) were killed in another IED explosion. The men were all close to me. They should be, they were all in my Platoon. The dismounts were my my squad. As a SGT I was a dismount team leader. SSG Dan Arnold was my squad leader. Now, he was dead. SSG George Pugliese (Bradley Commander), SGT Erik Slebodnik (Gunner), SPC Lee Wiegand (Driver), and SPC Oliver Brown (Dismount Team Member) were also dead.
Shocked. Devastated. I still can't put into words how I felt, or how I feel to this day, about that moment. Men that I had known were dead. Father. Sons. Brothers. Gone. Coupled with another death earlier that year, 2005 was not a friend to the 109th (The Regiment).
I served as Honor Guard for almost all of them, except for SPC Oliver's viewing and funeral, which was held the same day as my Squad Leader's viewing and funeral.
I remember George Pugliese. During his viewing (I remember all of them but his stands out.) A lot of the other Honor Guards for his viewing were not from our company. Since I knew his family, I told the rest of the guards that when I left for my "shift" to stand by his urn and his burial flag "I'm the last one to stand by him. He was my Section Leader and I owe him that much. To stand by him for one last time." The "shifts" were supposed to be a half hour. It was 30 minutes until the viewing was supposed to end. Little did I know the doors weren't closing. So many people had come to pay their respects to SSG Pugliese, I was out there, at Parade Rest, for over any hour. I still remember SSG Earl Toy and another soldier came out. At first I tried to figure out how to tell them I wasn't leaving. George left 3 kids and a wonderful wife (along with a very spirited mother) behind. I owed him a lot. He had taught me so much about leadership and what it is to be an NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) and a soldier. In the end, though, SSG Toy had a very different message. As he came to attention in front of me, I came to attention. We saluted that long, formal last salute with white gloved hands. Then, Earl said matter of factly, "John, don't move. You've been out here for over an hour and a half. If you move you may collapse from being at Parade Rest for so long. We are going to take the urn and the flag. Only move after we have left the room." So, they ceremoniously picked up the urn and the flag and left the drill floor. (The viewing was at the Carbondale Armory). As people followed them I came to attention again and started to march. Some of the other Honor Guards rushed over to me, helping to support me if I needed it. It was my honor to spend those last moments with George, if only in spirit, before his funeral. It was my honor to serve with all of those men. To this day, I wish I was there in Ar Ramadi with them.
I remember Erik Slebodnik. I had always said that whenever I went to a review board (for rank or soldier of month, etc.) that I would have wanted to have Erik with me. He was studious. He knew weapons ranges and tactics. He was a soldier's soldier. Did he drink? No, he was also one of the most religious men I have ever known. He was one of the best Men I have ever known. Period.
I remember Lee Wiegand. He always had a smile on his face. Nothing ever seemed to bring him down. He came to me before deploying and asked me about getting married. I told him that, if he was sure it was love, to do it.
I remember Dan Arnold. Dan was one of the best mechanics we ever had for the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Then, he transitioned over to the Infantry. For the short period of time that I served as one of his team leaders, he was a stand up NCO. And he was a very good man.
I remember Billy Evans. He was a rascal. Unbreakable. He had mischief on his mind almost all the time. He reminded me of myself, although I think he would have won if you counted the number of article 15s we each had. He was one of the best drivers in our company.
I remember Oliver Brown. He was always the quiet one. One of the Bradford County boys. It was rare that one of our soldiers was quiet and from Bradford County. A good soldier. Dependable. A good kid.
There are so many memories. There were so many funerals. Due to the circumstances of their deaths (an IED blast that totally burnt up their Bradley) it took a long time for their bodies (or as much of their DNA that could be identified) to come back home. It was like torture for the families and all of us that were back home. I remember my friends. I remember my Brothers-In-Arms. I Remember The Heroes.