ST. MARYS — Recently, Army veterans from the area reunited for the first time in seven years after fighting together in Baghdad — and for some, it was their first time being able to talk about their experience overseas.
Nearly seven years ago, Ohio troops deployed to Baghdad to conduct route clearance operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom Phase III. These troops, some with newborns and new families, combed the streets of Baghdad for a year searching for roadside bombs as a part of Task Force Iron Claw. Many of these Ohio soldiers were decorated with a Combat Action Badge, a military decoration reserved only for combat troops who were directly engaged with the enemy. Today, many of these troops suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an anxiety disorder that is affecting a significant amount of troops having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Saturday, Aug. 18, close to 100 of these veterans reunited for the first time in seven years at the St. Marys VFW. St. Marys native Doug Fleagle, also a 612 Engineer veteran, took the initiative to get this event together with Josh Barhorst of Bluffton.
“Getting together to talk about the things that happened in Iraq is the best medicine available to us,” said St. Marys native Dan Sawmiller, a member of the 612th with his brother, Jake. “I’m fortunate to have remained friends with many of the guys and to have a brother that served with me who I can talk with, but getting everyone together is very positive.”
In 2005, the soldiers deployed as part of the Alpha Company of the 612th Engineer Battalion of the Army National Guard.
“Alpha Company of the 612th Engineer Battalion was based out of St. Marys and was made out of a number of different units that got attached, so some of the guys were in the 1193rd, which is based out of Cincinnati, so when we were deploying, they sent some of their folks to St. Marys to deploy with us, different jobs, different skills that we would need to go over with us,” Sawmiller said. “Eventually, the 612th became the 37th Engineer Brigade, and that’s what’s in St. Marys now. Two years after I went, that unit went back again. And so some of the folks who were getting together here this weekend were from that second unit. Some served both, some served twice, some came in after the first rotation and served only in the second, so it was a mixed bag of those.”
While they were in Baghdad, the unit saw combat every day — and many of them have suffered injuries, both physical and emotional, from their time overseas.
“We were at Camp Liberty that was stationed in Baghdad and we patrolled the streets in and around Baghdad,” Sawmiller said. “We were in some of the worst areas. Some of the routes we were going through, when we were at Camp Atterbury deploying, we were reading news articles about the exact areas where we were going, and it was the most dangerous area of the war. We were right in the middle of everything.”
He noted the majority of their unit came from St. Marys, but they also had guys from all over Ohio.
“We had guys from the Cleveland area, Tiffin, Cincinnati, Dayton, Oak Harbor, we were all over the place,” Sawmiller said. “Most of us were in college at the time — a lot of us were pulled out of school.”
He noted some of the members of their unit are still serving over in Afghanistan now.
“The majority of the folks who got together at this reunion were guys from ’05 but there were those who went after and they came to hang out, it was for them, too, but this was really focused on the guys from ’05,” Sawmiller said.
He noted the unit that left in 2005 saw everyday combat and were active duty for probably 15 months.
“These guys that we were with in ’05, it’s PTSD all over the place, people have brain injuries now, losing their memory, all these kinds of things, and this was a matter of seeing each other, trying to make sure everyone’s doing alright,” he said.
Sawmiller noted, because the unit is based in St. Marys, a lot of the guys in his unit he knew in high school and had hung out with, and he has been fortunate to still keep in contact with them but there are others who aren’t as fortunate.
“There’s a lot of other guys I knew through the military that I don’t see any more, and I think those are the guys who are struggling the most, the ones who don’t have the constant contact,” he said. “Some people have really become recluse, and they’re really struggling.”
He noted they are set up with counselors to speak to as part of their decompression, but it can be difficult.
“I’ve gone through this, we’ve all gone through it,” he said. “We talk about it, but you go to a counselor, and a lot of times now they’re filling these roles with veterans, you see a guy and you talk to the guy who acts like he understands but the guy was a mechanic or something who hasn’t been there. I was out there getting blown up by bombs every day, but they don’t get it, they don’t understand.”
He noted the only people they can really talk to are the guys who have been there and who understand it and that’s why they wanted to hold this reunion, and the only other time the members of the unit had gotten together was at the funeral of one of the members of their unit — Jason Marshall who had gotten trapped inside a vehicle.
“He had taken his own life, and we were at his funeral and we started talking and it was like, ‘I had no idea, did anybody have any idea about this?’ We started talking and we found a lot of the guys were feeling the same way,” Sawmiller said. “That was the eye-opener, and that was the first time we had gotten together and that was probably only 10 to 15 of us. We started saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t right, guys. We’ve got to make sure, we’ve been talking about this for seven years, we’ve got to make this happen.”
During their reunion, Sawmiller also questioned members of his unit about what they remembered most about their time in Iraq, with two of them noting the time Marshall was trapped in his vehicle.
Luke Sherrill, of Celina, told a story about route Blue Devils.
“I’ll never forget the explosion on route Blue Devils, where we had a Humvee completely disabled after a huge IED exploded directly underneath the vehicle,” Sherrill said. “We had some guys trapped inside while the vehicle burned and .50 caliber rounds were cooking off. It’s a memory that I don’t expect will ever go away.”
Brandon Johnson from Cincinnati was also there the day 2nd Platoon was hit on route Blue Devils.
“I remember Jason Marshall was driving that vehicle,” Johnson said. “He and some others were awarded purple hearts for injuries suffered in that explosion. Jason was one of my best friends, but we lost him two years ago to the demons of war that followed him home. It was at that funeral that we realized we needed to get everyone together and I’m glad we’ve finally been able to do it.”
Sawmiller’s father, Lynn, also attended the reunion, telling Sawmiller how he felt having two sons overseas.
“The first time in my life that there were no airplanes in the sky I realized that my boys were going to get more than a college education,” Lynn Sawmiller said, noting both Dan and Jake operated .50 caliber machine guns for Task Force Iron Claw. “Their mother and I worried about them a lot while they were gone. I learned their routes and watched the news constantly. Everything worried us; the election, every explosion reported on the news, every time the phone rang. My sons were lucky enough to get through it all and come back home to us. I’m very proud of the unit they served with, but it cost them. It cost our whole family; we’re all a little different today.”
Dan Sawmiller noted when they came home, everyone in their unit sort of “clammed up.”
“There are people in town who know us, and know what we’ve did and we’ve got friends, and they kind of understand what happened but we talked with our families and they kind of understand, but not really, no one really gets it,” Sawmiller said. “We’re to the point now where people are trying to break out of their shells a little bit and we’re trying to help people understand what we did because a lot of folks are afraid to ask questions about what we did. They’re afraid we don’t want to talk about it and we don’t want to bothered. We drove down a road at like 2 mph and we would be outside the wire, which means outside the combat zone, for 18 hours or more at a time. At 2 mph looking out a window driving down a road looking out the window hoping we find something that looks strange, and if we saw something that looked strange, we would stop and we would interrogate and we would rip the thing up, a lot times we would find bombs that way, a lot of times bombs would find us that way. That was the job.”
He noted the anxiety and the stress is constantly on their bodies and it takes a toll.”
“These are your local guys, this is what they did, and a lot of times it doesn’t get told until later down the road,” Sawmiller said.
“We just want people to understand: When you’re overseas, you’ve got your uniform on and you’re running these missions everyday and you start to feel entitled, like ‘I’m going through this and people are going to respect this.’ You come home, you take your uniform off and you walk down the street in your civilian clothes and you’re just another guy on the street, and you wait in line just like everybody else does, and all these other kinds of things ... Then you find asking everybody everywhere you go, ‘Hey, do you give a military discount,’ and nine times out of 10 they tell you no, so you just start to feel like, ‘Screw you, no one’s shaking my hand, no one’s saying thank you’ ... Next thing you know, you’re angry and you don’t even know who you’re angry at, you’re just angry and it’s all the time. And that’s where PTSD comes from. Next thing you know, you don’t want to go anywhere. Next thing you know, you’re only comfortable in your own little space and then you go, ‘What the hell’s happened to me?’”
Sawmiller noted that’s where the reunion came in.
“And when you see everybody, there’s tears instantly, and it’s, ‘Man, I just feel better just seeing you, finally someone who gets it,’” he said.
Sawmiller said they are hoping to hold a reunion every year.
“Walking out of the reunion, I think it was really positive, and when we left, the idea was, we need to start doing this every year, but we need to find a better way to do it,” he said.
Sawmiller noted if anyone wants to help sponsor future events, they can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .