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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Harold Updyke, WWII veteran and member of the 328th Infantry Regiment, sits in his Strasburg home, holding a framed display of medals he received in the war. Rich Cooley/Daily


Harold Updyke

  • Hometown: Strasburg
  • Current residence: Strasburg
  • Birth date: Jan. 20, 1923
  • Branch of service: U.S. Army
  • Time period of service:
  • Date enlisted: Feb. 25, 1943
  • Dates overseas: Sept. 7, 1944, 170 days of combat
  • Date service ended: Nov. 30, 1945
  • Rank: Staff sergeant
  • Conflict served in: World War II
  • Locations of military service: France; Belgium; Luxembourg; Germany; Austria; Czechoslovakia
  • Battles/campaigns involved in: Battle of France; Battle of the Bulge; Battle of the Rhineland and Central Europe
  • Medals or service pins: Double cluster Bronze Star; Good Conduct Medal; African, Mideastern Service Ribbon; American Theater Service Ribbon; World War II Victory Ribbon; Occupation of Germany Ribbon; Presidential Citation; Presidential Group Citation
  • Special duties: Observer for 81 mm trench mortar, in charge of 16 men

Updyke looks over WWII memorabilia in his Strasburg home. Rich Cooley/Daily

Veteran Harold R. Updyke holds a copy of the "History of the 328th Infantry Regiment," the unit he was a member of during World War II. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Carolyn Keister Baker -- Daily Staff Writer

STRASBURG--In the fall of 1942, Harold R. Updyke of Strasburg set out for New York City to join the Merchant Marines. The country was embroiled in World War II, and Updyke had high hopes of going to Sheepshead Bay, the U.S. Maritime Service Training Center.

"I knew I would get a good place to sleep and three square meals," says Updyke, now 85.

But Updyke never went to officer training school with the Merchant Marines: The day he received his commission papers, Updyke also was sent his draft papers — a turn of events that would make Updyke's World War II journey anything but comfortable.

Updyke was drafted into the 328th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Yankee Division under Gen. George Patton's celebrated 3rd Army. The unit saw its first battle casualties by enemy fire on Oct. 7, 1944, Updyke recalls.

"Getting out of a hole and walking towards the enemy — it took a lot of courage," Updyke says. "I didn't have to do that very often."

The regiment saw fierce fighting.

On Nov. 11, 1944, the men saw some of their bloodiest combat. For three days, the regiment was under fire in woods outside of Dieuze, France, a place they called the "Woods of Hell."

"The unit received a lot of shell fire," Updyke says. "There was continuous shelling for three days."

Many saved themselves by piling logs over their slit trench and then packing dirt on top, Updyke says.

On Nov. 15, when the infantry reached its objective, they moved on.

"We would take these little towns along the woods. If they put up much resistance, we would stay until we cleaned them out. We kept going until we hit resistance."

First in France then in Belgium and Luxembourg, the infantry eventually moved back into France before advancing on to Germany, south along Czechoslovakia's border with Austria and then north to Czechoslovakia.

The infantry fought in the Battle of France, the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of the Rhineland and in Central Europe.

Updyke's orders, first as a gunner and later as an 81-mm mortar observer, helped protect him from being mortally wounded by enemy fire, Updyke believes.

As an observer, Updyke and the others would receive orders from the company commander to shell a certain spot. The observers would use maps to figure out the angle, he says. The observers took turns. Updyke was on the front lines with a rifle company about every 48 hours.

"As soon as you opened the radio, they zeroed in on you. If you stayed every day you were bound to get it," Updyke says.

The regiment also fought in heavy combat at the Siegfried line in Germany.

"We lost a battalion commander. My company commander got hit," Updyke says. "I was with him when it happened."

The commander was killed from direct fire from a tank. "He walked into it unexpectedly. I happened to be under a shelf of rock with my radio operator. His radio operator was killed with him."

While in Austria going into Czechoslovakia, the 328th Infantry Regiment was the easternmost infantry going into the European Theater of Operation.

"We were out there by ourselves with the 11th Armored," Updyke says.

The infantry mopped up on the side road as the 11th Armored took the main highway. "We got ahead of our supplies and they cut our rations," Updyke remembers.

There were no cigarettes.

"No cigarettes bothered [the soldiers] more than the [low supply of] food," Updyke recalls. Some backtracked along the road to pick up cigarette butts, he says.

Updyke and other soldiers in the infantry faced harsh weather conditions as they trudged all over Europe.

"You had to stand and stomp all the time. You just had to keep moving," Updyke says.

Whenever Updyke received a new set of clothing, he would put on new clothes and wear the worn clothes over the top. One spare pair of socks was placed in his belt next to his body to dry them, he says.

Updyke, like so many other soldiers, suffered from trench foot. Updyke's right foot became frozen and so infected he was sent to a hospital in Paris in December 1944 for treatment.

Updyke saw many soldiers suffering from trench foot, with one or both feet propped up on pillows. The next day, he saw about half of the same men with stumps, their feet gone.

Updyke feared he would be next, but he was among the lucky.

The horrors of war were never far away.

One of his fellow soldiers picked up an abandoned boot, a boot in good condition and with many more hours of marching left in it.

"[The boot] had a foot in it," Updyke recalls.

In Austria, Updyke's division liberated the concentration camp at Gusen in May 1945.

Prisoners at Gusen were forced to build a complex underground system of tunnels "that connected to mammoth subterranean installations for aircraft production," according to the Web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As U.S. soldiers neared, the SS troops planned to collapse the tunnels with the prisoners inside, but the 26th Infantry and 11th Armored prevented the horror, it reads.

The starving prisoners were overcome by their arrival, Updyke recalls. Sadly, some were so malnourished that they died after eating solid food given to them by the soldiers, he says.

The soldiers were suffering, too.

"You eventually got worn out. You would go to sleep standing up sometimes."

When soldiers could not stand the stress any longer, they would receive treatment for combat fatigue, Updyke says. They were knocked out for three days, and sent back into combat.

Some soldiers shot themselves. Others stole morphine from packs of medics who died in combat. "It was the only dope you ever heard of over there," Updyke says.

"I don't think I had sense enough to let it bother me," Updyke recalls about the stress. "You just steel yourself to do it. You get so worn out you just don't care what happens. You are so worn out and the rain running down your back, it puts you in another frame of mind."

One of Updyke's most vivid memories while he was serving was Patton's arrival to see the famous

Lipizzan horses, which had been

rescued and secretly removed from Vienna to St. Martin.

Updyke was a member of the honor guard formed to greet the general. Many preparations were made for his arrival, and the honor guard practiced its routine.

But when Patton arrived and stepped out to be greeted by the honor guard, the lieutenant in charge, in awe of Patton, froze, and said not a word, Updyke says. Someone else in the honor guard had presence of mind to call out the orders, and the rest of the ceremony went without a hitch, he says. "Three or four old men hollered attention," Updyke explained.

"I wouldn't be able to say anything myself. He finally came out of it," Updyke says.

Updyke only saw Patton one other time during the war. "Patton presented quite a figure," he says.

The 328th Infantry Regiment was in combat for a total of 210 days. Updyke fought in combat for about 170 days because of his hospital stay. He endured two months of straight combat from Oct. 6 to Dec. 14 in 1944.

After the war ended, Updyke headed back to the states, volunteering to board a ship that was overloaded. Even the voyage back home ended up being an eventful trip.

A seam broke in the ship and ruined the food, Updyke says. "We had hard-boiled eggs for two days."

In their sleeping quarters there was nothing but a floor. Updyke, along with a friend, took the floor beneath the stairwell. Good thing they did because a storm hit and tossed the ship. Some soldiers got sick. "It kept debris from falling on us."

When the ship finally arrived, "we bobbed around Boston Harbor for 24 hours," Updyke says. Happily, "a barge came out with a swing band. I was darn glad to get back."

* Contact Carolyn Baker at

Scott holds his Army of Occupation medal. Rich Cooley/Daily


Billy J. Scott

  • Hometown: Marlow, Okla.
  • Current residence: Boyce
  • Birth date: July 5, 1933
  • Branch of service: U.S. Army National Guard
  • Time period of service:
  • Date enlisted: late January 1950
  • Dates overseas: April 1, 1951, to June 11, 1952
  • Date service ended: late January 1953
  • Rank: Sergeant
  • Conflict served in: Korean War
  • Locations of military service: Camp Polk, La.; Island of Hokkaido, Chitose and Camp Crawford, Japan; Jamestown line, Chorwon Valley and Iron Triangle, Korea
  • Medals or service pins: Combat Infantryman's Badge; Korean Service Medal, with two campaign stars; The Army of Occupation Medal -- Japan; National Defense Service Medal; United Nations Service Medal; Army Good Conduct Medal; 50th Korean War Anniversary Year 2000 medallion presented by the Korean ambassador
  • Special duties: Infantry 60 mm mortar squad leader

Korean War Veteran Billy J. Scott, of Boyce, a U.S. Army infantryman, displays an array of medals from his military service. Scott is currently commander of the Shenandoah Valley Chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association. Rich Cooley/Daily

Billy Scott answers questions during an interview. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Carolyn Keister Baker -- Daily Staff Writer

BOYCE--Billy J. "Bill" Scott was only 16 years old when he joined the Oklahoma National Guard.

"I lied about my age," said Scott, now a Boyce resident. "There wasn't much for [us] farm boys to [do to] make money. I joined and then told my folks. My dad raised hell. [My mother] was heartbroken."

Five of his high school classmates joined too. But none of them, including Scott, understood how their decision to join the National Guard would dramatically change their lives or how quickly they would have to develop into young men.

Not longer after, on June 25, 1950, war broke out in Korea and the Oklahoma National Guard was mobilized by President Harry S. Truman.

Because Scott lied about his age and had not received permission from his parents, he could have been relieved of his obligations.

"I talked them into letting me stay in," Scott recalled, noting the country was instituting the draft anyway. "I convinced them I would rather go with the boys that I knew. They finally let me go, and signed the papers."

"Sometimes I wished I hadn't done that," Scott lamented. "[Being in] combat is no place for a young boy to grow up."

As part of the 45th Infantry Division, Scott was in charge of four men as the leader of a 60 mm mortar squad.

"We debarked at Inchon, South Korea. They loaded us on some trucks and took us below Seoul," Scott said.

From there, the soldiers took a train north about 20 miles to south of the war zone. Then they rode on trucks to an assembly area.

"We were there in the staging area for a week, and then went on the front lines," Scott said.

The 45th relieved the 1st Cavalry Division at the Jamestown Line, the main line of resistance between North and South Korea.

"We were all babes in the woods," Scott said. "We knew what to expect but when it actually happened, it was like someone throwing cold water in your face. This is the real thing."

"Sometimes the Chinese penetrated the area and broke the lines and had to be driven out of our line back over to their side," Scott said. "We had trench lines and they had trench lines. A lot of dancing took place in the valley in no man's land."

The hills in the Yokkok River Valley were strategic military positions, Scott explained. Each of these hills was named, each still vivid in Scott's mind, including "Old Baldy," "Pork Chop," "Hill 200," "Hassakol," "Hill 234," "Alligator Jaws," "T-bone" and "Outpost Eerie."

"If we were on patrol, I would be up front with the riflemen," Scott said.

If the soldiers were getting a lot of fire, Scott would direct mortars on the enemy target.

"You have to have a great feel for distance," he explained.

The first mortar would be fired for plotting and then the next round would be adjusted for the target, he says.

"My squad was very lucky. We only lost one man, the assistant gunner, to injury," Scott recalled. "We were on the front lines. We were getting mortars in on us and we were hunkered down. [The assistant gunner] and another guy were hunkered down and were hit right on the bunker. It dazed the other boy."

There were many harrowing moments.

One night in the early spring of 1952, Scott volunteered to go on combat patrol to bring in a prisoner. The ice was melting from winter and the men were moving down an irrigation ditch, with Scott at the rear.

On this particular mission, the soldiers were to engage the Chinese coming off Pork Chop, about 40 yards away.

For hours the soldiers lay in wait in the irrigation ditch with no sounds or signs of the enemy.

Then suddenly, Scott on the left flank heard "water splashing and something in the water. It was getting closer and closer."

Scott tapped his rifle three times with his ammunition clip.

"That meant there was something coming from the left and to be ready," he explained. "I kept listening to the sound and it kept coming closer and closer. I eased off my safety to fire and sort of eased around facing down this irrigation ditch. I kept looking and looking and my heart was about to jump out of my shirt."

Then all at once, in a sudden commotion, something ran up his leg and an owl flew into his face. All he could surmise was that an owl was stalking a rat in the irrigation ditch.

"It was a wonder I didn't fire my rifle. I tapped once that all was clear. It was quite an exciting moment," Scott said.

There was no action that night but when the patrol got back to its quarters, the others asked what "in the heck was going on over there." From then on, the others teased Scott about that night and called him "rat boy."

Scott recalled another night in February 1952 during Operation Chicago when he was involved in an assault on Hassakol.

"We were supporting the assault company. We were on the right flank," Scott said. "We were called in to the fray. When it was time to pull back, we were protecting them while they withdrew. The Chinese came down the trenches and put pressure on us."

When the Chinese started to rush the support company, a soldier named Jack drove them back using a Browning Automatic Rifle, saving the others.

"A mortar hit right beside him, and we lost him," Scott recalled. "A couple of boys went running in and brought him back. He is one of our brothers."

"There is a bond you can't break. We will be brothers for the rest of our lives," Scott said.

Jack was awarded the Silver Star posthumously, Scott said.

"He was from Oklahoma. He was married with two little girls."

Still painful are the images of the bodies of the soldiers who didn't make it, Scott said.

On his trip home, Scott sailed aboard the General Wiegel, which took the troops from Japan to San Francisco, making its way under the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge "was awesome," Scott said.

Scott took the remainder of the trip home by train to Fort Sill, near Lawton, Okla. One of his friends, Joe Hogan, with whom Scott grew up, waited at the station with Scott's family. Scott had sent word home by telegram that he would be aboard the yellow car.

From the train, Scott could see Hogan waiting for him. Scott, waving from the doorway of the train car, tossed his duffel bag at Hogan.

"I knocked him head over heels. I felt so bad," Scott said.

But even the rush of remorse could not dampen the joy of coming home.

ON TUESDAY: A Strasburg man serves under Gen. George Patton.

* Contact Carolyn Keister Baker at


Col. Bill Hammack meets President Ronald Reagan. While working at the Pentagon, Hammack served on Reagan's inaugural committee. COURTESY PHOTO


Bill Hammack

  • Hometown: Front Royal
  • Current residence: Front Royal
  • Birth date: Feb. 18, 1936
  • Branch of service: U.S. Marine Corps
  • Time period of service:
    • Date enlisted: Sept. 1957
    • Dates overseas: 1962, 1967-68, 1971, 1976-80
    • Date service ended: June 1988
  • Rank: Colonel
  • Conflict served in: Vietnam War
  • Locations of military service: Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Trenton, N.J.; Okinawa, Japan; Charleston, S.C.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Camp Carroll, South Vietnam; Hawaii; Marine Corps headquarters, Washington
  • Medals or service pins: Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; Vietnam Service Medal, with two stars; National Defense Service Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; Joint Service Commendation; Combat Action Ribbon; Navy Commendation Unit; Vietnam Campaign Medal, with one star; Presidential Unit Citation

Ret. Marine Col. Bill Hammack stands in his Front Royal home during a recent interview. Alan Lehman/Daily


Col. Bill Hammack and Sgt. Maj. Ted McClintock met at Camp Lejeune. McClintock died in Vietnam. COURTESY PHOTO

By Jessica Wiant --
Daily Staff Writer

Some things stay with you forever.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Bill Hammack remembers his fear of ground fire when, as a major with a young family, he arrived in South Vietnam at Da Nang for the first time.

"The first time going in you're thinking about the ground fire and everything. It's just a psychological thing," he said.

He remembers that from Da Nang, in the northernmost region of South Vietnam -- the region deemed I Corps -- he went on to Dong Ha.

It was at Dong Ha, Hammack remembers, that he first realized that he was mortal.

"When I arrived in Dong Ha ... I got off the military airplane and there were body bags, I don't know how many, and I'll never forget," he said.

"You want to survive, you want those close to you to survive, but ... you accept your mortality," he said.

Hammack grew up in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and attended Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock.

"I think I always tended toward the military thing," he said during an interview at his Front Royal home.

Hammack always revered the Marine Corps as the best. In his eyes, the Marines offered the complete package.

After graduating from the College of William and Mary, which he attended on a football scholarship, he started at the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in September 1957.

At times he's wondered if he would have gone the same route if there hadn't been the pressure of the military draft, but today he thinks he would have done it regardless.

"If it were today, I'd be going to OCS next month, I think," he said.

The school was a yearlong strenuous physical and mental challenge, Hammack said. Instructors strip candidates of everything, he explained, and build them back as Marines.

"You emerge as indestructible, some kind of superman," he said.

Even though Hammack had it in mind to become a Marine, it wasn't until he completed Officer Candidate School that he decided to make a career as one. Even then, he tried the civilian side of life in the Reserve for about a year, and after that, he said, he knew.

In the years that followed he served at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and in Okinawa, Japan, where he also was a football coach.

When the United States went to war in Vietnam, Hammack was in Charleston, S.C. He volunteered to go.

As a career officer, it was expected.

"That's what it's all about," he said. "I didn't join to see the world, I joined to be a Marine."

Even after four decades have gone by, Hammack can explain the terrain around Camp Carroll, where he was stationed in the I Corps region of South Vietnam, as well as if he was giving directions to his home.

After stopping first in Da Nang and then at Dong Ha, Camp Carroll was where Hammack would spend first a month, then another month, followed by six consecutive months, during 1967 into 1968.

From Camp Carroll, an area called the Rockpile was located to the west. Further on was Khe Sanh, the site of one of the symbolic battles of the Vietnam War, Hammack said.

Mountains were in front of Camp Carroll, he explained, and the Cam Lo River was not far away.

"Vietnam was hot, humid, but it was beautiful," Hammack recalled. "That was the dichotomy of beauty and death."

During his time in Vietnam, Hammack was one of only a few fire support coordinators. His assignment was with the 3rd Marine Regiment. His job was to coordinate gunfire, flights and other operations between all branches -- artillery, air and naval -- to prevent U.S. troops from hurting each other.

"If there's a mistake, you have a .45 to shoot yourself," he said.

Nevertheless, Hammack didn't face as much danger as those in the infantry. He never saw "eyeball-to-eyeball" combat, he said.

Early in his career, Hammack tried to switch into a military occupational specialty that would put him in more of a combat role, but it never worked.

"I really wanted to be an infantry guy," he said.

He doesn't consider himself a hero, either.

"I thank people I was able to serve," he said. "It was more of a privilege for me to serve. It is a privilege to serve, I think."

Hammack, who only retired from the Marine Corps in 1988, has a sharp mind and body.

He exercises two to three hours a day, he said. He has a scrapbook full of photos and documents, highlights of his career, and other pictures and mementos adorn the walls of his Front Royal home.

Still, some things are lost with time.

He cannot remember the exact date he arrived in Vietnam, or the kind of aircraft he was riding on the journey from Dong Ha to Camp Carroll. He does not remember much about the food he ate, other than it most often came in a can.

But other things stick out in his mind.

Whereas others serving in Vietnam might have gone a month without the luxury of a shower, Hammack and others at Camp Carroll had one rigged up. Tugging on a chain brought a much-appreciated stream of cold water.

Work days lasted 18 to 20 hours, and the time for sleep was usually from 2 or 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., he recalled.

And he remembers the day that there was cottage cheese in the mess hall. It wasn't something common in the less-civilized region where Camp Carroll was located, according to Hammack.

"We were out there," he said. "I'll never forget it."

After his deployment to Vietnam ended, Hammack came home to a different kind of danger.

Returning to the states, Hammack's first destination was San Francisco, where anti-war protesters abounded.

"They were everywhere, they hated us," he said. "It was just a bad, bad time.

"I really felt safer in Vietnam than I did in San Francisco. I was afraid to leave my room."

Hammack spent the next several years stationed in Hawaii. It was there, safely away from the rocket fire, that what was happening in Vietnam affected him the most.

About a year after Hammack left Camp Carroll, a dear friend, Sgt. Maj. Ted McClintock, who he first met at Camp Lejeune, was killed in Vietnam.

It was a hard day, Hammack said, and one of the only events from his military career that is emotional and difficult to talk about.

McClintock took Hammack under his wing when they met, and they became very close, Hammack explained.

Before leaving for Vietnam, McClintock visited Hammack in Hawaii -- and even after saying their goodbyes, McClintock showed back up at Hammack's doorstep so they could spend his last evening together, Hammack remembered.

"Maybe he had a feeling," Hammack said, tears in his eyes.

He was unable to attend McClintock's funeral, and for that reason, he said he's never felt closure about the death of his friend.

"I still don't know he's dead."

Hammack went on to serve in many other areas, in many other roles, after his time in Vietnam.

His career, he said, is not defined by his time at war. It might have been more intense, he said, but it was less than a year of a 31-year career as a Marine.

For a time, he was stationed at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington. He served on the inaugural committee of President Reagan -- a president that, he believes, immediately boosted morale and support for the military.

Today Hammack keeps in touch with many of his comrades, and sees support for a military that he believes is stronger, smarter, more dedicated and more fit.

"I think the people who are presently serving are phenomenal," he said. "I never knew we had that kind of people. I'm a colonel, and I'm still in awe of these guys, and they make me proud, and they make me wish I could be that when I grow up," he said with a laugh.

After a full career, though, the loss of his friend McClintock still haunts Hammack.

"I'm going to have to go out there and go to the grave site ... So my career's not over," he said.

NEXT WEEK: A young farm boy sees action in Korea as a National Guardsman.

* Contact Jessica Wiant at

Cathy Williams talks about her Air Force service. Dennis Grundman/Daily


Cathy Williams

  • Hometown: Voluntown, Conn.
  • Current residence: Browntown
  • Birth date: Oct. 28, 1973
  • Branch of service: U.S. Air Force
  • Time period of service:
  • Date enlisted: Nov. 8, 1991
  • Dates overseas: Periodically between July 1994 and Nov. 1996
  • Date service ended: Nov. 28, 1996
  • Rank: Senior airman
  • Conflict served in: Operation Southern Watch
  • Locations of military service: Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; Griffiths Air Force Base, N.Y.; Travis Air Force Base, Calif.; Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates
  • Medals or service pins: Air Force Achievement Medal, with one device; Air Force Longevity Service Award; Air Force Training Ribbon; Southwest Asia Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Air Force Commendation Medal; Armed Forces Service Medal
  • Special duties: Nationally registered EMT

Cathy Williams served in the U.S. Air Force in the Persian Gulf as a medic. COURTESY PHOTO

By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer

On Cathy Williams' front porch in Browntown, potted flowers hung uniformly between each post, and by the steps an American flag rippled in the breeze.

Hers looked like so many other homes donning a red, white and blue flag or a yellow ribbon. But for Williams, patriotism isn't just a decorative theme.

Originally from Connecticut, she graduated high school in 1991, the year of Operation Desert Storm.

She came from a family with a proud military tradition. Her grandfathers both served in the Navy, as did her father and uncle. Her oldest sister signed up for the Army.

Even knowing what had been happening in the Middle East, Williams joined the Air Force that fall.

"I'm very patriotic. I just wanted to be a part of everything," she said. "I was excited. I was ready for something awesome, and I got it."

Her sister, having been through the ropes in the Army, recommended the Air Force for the best food, cleanest housing and nicest facilities.

When the recruiter came to Williams' home, she already knew she wanted to be a part of the medical field. From a book of possible Air Force jobs, she chose the one she wanted: aeromedical technician.

After basic and technical training, Williams' stateside job became performing physicals on other airmen and answering sick calls. She and her team also were on call to be the first to respond during in-flight emergencies. If an aircraft was having difficulty, her team was ready on the ground in case of a crash landing to save anyone they could or "bag and tag" the wreckage.

A few years later, the U.S. still had a job to do in the Persian Gulf. Williams was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California when duty called.

She was a member of the Squadron Medical Element for the 9th Air Refueling Squadron. She didn't know where she was going until she'd boarded the plane: They were on their way to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates as part of Operation Southern Watch.

Williams would have the same duties: sick calls, physicals and being on call to respond to emergencies. But everything she and her squadron did would be part of the U.S. effort to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq, she said.

For Williams, that included everything from treating kidney stones and food poisoning to assisting in minor surgical procedures, like cyst removal, with her three-person crew, which included another aeromedical technician and a doctor.

A lot of heavy lifting was required, including large plastic tubs that contained items necessary to set up a clinic.

"I knew what to expect. As a matter of fact, it was better than what I expected," she said.

In the end, however, it wasn't a plane crash that put Williams' training to the test.

Early one morning when Williams was on call, a bus full of her fellow airmen was on its way back from Abu Dhabi when the driver fell asleep and the bus rolled multiple times.

Williams was first at the scene and coordinated the care of 13 injured.

"I've responded a million times. You train for this stuff all this time ... but this was real," she said.

No one was killed, and everyone came out OK.

Williams received an Air Force Commendation Medal for her service on the 9th Air Refueling Squadron -- it cited her response to the bus crash, among other accomplishments.

The hard part of the incident though, was arriving at the local hospital, where native male employees had problems working with a woman.

It was one of multiple times that, Williams said, she experienced the culture shock of being in the United Arab Emirates.

On off-duty days, she could go to the city of Abu Dhabi, where she never saw other women out. Even she could never be alone as a woman. Men she worked with served as escorts.

Once she saw a woman in the back seat of a car; a man was driving and a goat was in the front passenger seat.

On one occasion, she and a group were off duty and going to dinner. Williams was wearing a full-length skirt and a sleeveless sweater, and when the Arabic men saw her bare arms, they hurled rocks at her.

On duty with fellow Americans, however, being a woman was never an impediment.

"We were treated just like anybody else," she said. "I'm no different than any other airman ... man or woman we all do the same job."

After serving her four-year enlistment, plus another year, Williams left the Air Force for civilian life and attended culinary school in San Francisco.

That heavy lifting she'd done while in the Air Force, however, would come back to haunt her.

Plagued by back problems, Williams has undergone two surgeries and was awaiting the results of another MRI.

She suffers pain in her legs and can't sit, stand or walk for any length of time. She no longer is able to work.

She said she had no regrets, though.

"I'd do it again. I'd do it yesterday. Physically, I can't," she said.

The most rewarding part has been serving her country.

"I'm here and have this freedom because of what [other veterans] did in Korea, Vietnam. I'm so grateful to be American, free. To be a part of that whether it's big or small, makes me very proud."

Of course, there were other benefits, too.

Williams wanted to travel and wasn't looking for more school just yet, but she knew the G.I. Bill would afford her the opportunity later.

"I wanted to get out of my small town," she said. And she did. Williams also made trips and served in England, Italy, Spain and Germany during her time in the Air Force.

"Whenever you deploy and you're not working, you have so much fun," she said. She said she doesn't want people to think it was a bad experience.

"I got it all and then some. That's just priceless, as they say."

To this day Williams does more to be patriotic than just hang a flag.

She is active in the Front Royal Veterans of Foreign Wars and volunteers as a service officer helping fellow veterans get copies of medical records, fill out forms and whatever else is necessary to receive assistance. It's something that she knows all too well, having gone through it herself.

"That I find very rewarding," she said.

NEXT WEEK: A career Marine officer reflects on "the dichotomy of beauty and death" in Vietnam.

* Contact Jessica Wiant at

Mike Connelly in pictured in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. Courtesy photo

connely.jpg Persian Gulf War veteran Mike Connelly now lives in Mt. Jackson. Rich Cooley/Daily


Michael Connelly

  • Hometown: Fairfax
  • Current residence: Mt. Jackson
  • Birth date: July 31, 1966
  • Branch of service: U.S. Army
  • Time period of service:
  • Date enlisted: Jan. 2, 1990
  • Dates overseas: Sept. 1990 to Dec. 1993
  • Date service ended: Jan. 2, 1994
  • Rank: Sergeant
  • Conflict served in: Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm
  • Locations of military service: Fort Jackson, S.C.; Huachuca, Ariz.; Germany; Saudi Arabia; Iraq; Kuwait
  • Battles/campaigns involved in: Tawakalna and Medina against divisions of the Iraq Republican Guard
  • Medals or service pins: Kuwaiti Liberation Medal; Arcam/Army Commendation Medal
  • Special duties: Intelligence analyst

By Josette Keelor -- Daily Staff Writer

Even though he grew up in a military family, Michael Connelly never really intended to join the service.

Two of his uncles were World War II Army veterans, other uncles had been in the Marines, Navy and Air Force, and his father was an Army medic, but Connelly planned on a civilian life -- at least until the fall of 1989.

"I was bored," he said, recalling the day he left for his lunch break at his job at AT&T in Herndon and enlisted in the Army's delayed entry program. He was 23 years old. Five weeks later, on Jan. 2, 1990, he reported to the processing station at Linthicum Heights, Md., and then headed to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.

"[I] just wanted to do it," he said of joining the Army. "I didn't want a career or anything."

Connelly, now 42, of Mt. Jackson, did not know when he signed up for the Army that he would soon end up in the middle of a war.

On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq's army stunned the world by invading neighboring Kuwait.

"It wasn't in the news [beforehand]," he said, but the military could see a conflict coming. "I think everybody was excited and keyed up."

In September, after taking classes in Huachuca, Ariz., to prepare for his job as an intelligence analyst, Connelly flew to Germany for a field rotation. He was stationed at Kirchgoens, Germany, for about eight weeks before his battalion was ordered to participate in Operation Desert Shield, the American deployment to defend Saudi Arabia from a possible Iraqi invasion. After loading their equipment onto multiple trains and barges, Connelly and the members of his battalion flew to Saudi Arabia in C-130 transport planes.

One vivid memory he has of his short time there is living in water up to his knees. His battalion of about 400 troops set up camp in a runoff zone, he said.

"When it rained it was like being in a big drainage ditch," he said.

They were stationed in Saudi Arabia en route to Iraq. After about two weeks of waiting for their equipment to arrive and painting their vehicles camouflage to blend in with the desert, they were on their way.

Connelly compares the adventure to descriptions in the book "Iron Soldiers," by Tom Carhart, which tells the story of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm. Connelly was in the 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division, 1st Brigade. His unit was the 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry.

"They put us on school buses," he said. "Drove us out into the desert and set us up."

In addition to working as an intelligence analyst, Connelly was the battalion's noncommissioned safety officer and map custodian. As intelligence analyst, he kept the colonel up to date on the battlefield.

His area of expertise was reading "reports we get from units, from recon units, from our guys -- intelligence," he said.

He studied enemy weaponry to determine how the Iraqi military would most likely use their weapons, as well as the area's weather and terrain.

"I drove an M577," he said, referring to a vehicle used as a mobile command post. The name "Killer Angels" was printed on the vehicle -- a term inspired by the historical novel of the same title about the Civil War, which Connelly said is recommended reading during officer training.

Although on the verge of war, it was boring for the soldiers waiting on the border of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Connelly said.

The food was bad, and there wasn't enough of it, he said. The sand ruined every piece of equipment, too. The troops would wait for days before moving their vehicles, which would break down when needed. Soldiers then had to make speedy repairs.

Once in Iraq, though, the soldiers were there for one thing -- to fight.

While Iraqi troops were expecting the Americans to attack from the south through Kuwait, the division crossed the Saudi border as part of a surprise attack from the west on the Saddam Hussein's army.

It worked and the war was over within three days.

"It was pretty quick," Connelly said.

He remembers his first combat as "a really short, lopsided battle."

"Our tanks and Bradleys [infantry fighting vehicles] can see through rain and dust and everything," he said, which is good because it rained through their first battle. The weather helped American troops, he said, because it cleared away some of the dust.

"It was a nice rain for our first battle," he said. Then they fought their second battle, helping defeat Iraq's elite Republican Guard, and within a couple of days, Connelly and his unit had pushed through Iraq and settled at Camp Doha, Kuwait.

"The ground war only lasted 100 hours," Connelly said. Fortunately his unit lost no soldiers during the conflict, although some casualties were sustained after the conflict from accidents involving land mines, he said.

Connelly spent the next few months in Kuwait, offering aid to refugees from Safwan, Iraq, and quelling problems with the different elements in Kuwait, he said.

The 3rd Armored Division returned to Germany in May, and Connelly remained there until his four years were up. He returned to the United States in December 1993, and left the Army on Jan. 2, 1994.

Afterward, the Army paid for the majority of his education at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown.

The brief Gulf War was a lot for a soldier to process.

"I think for everyone it was a big disappointment ... and it was kind of confusing," Connelly said. After many weeks of planning, the conflict was over within three days. "That was just two battles my unit was in."

Nonetheless, it was a very straightforward conflict, he said.

"The one [war] I was in, they were on one side of the line in the sand, and we were on the other," he said.

Connelly has no regrets of his time in the military, and said that he would do it all again if given the opportunity, even knowing now he would go to war.

"You make friends there and become a unit. You're a soldier and want to do a ... job," he said. "I don't think anyone can expect it to be anything. You just have to experience it. You can't describe it to anyone. It's a great experience for anybody."

NEXT WEEK: Air Force was ticket to adventure for Browntown woman

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In this photo released by the U.S. Army, then-Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, left, talks about the status of Bagram Air Base to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, center, and others at the air base in Afghanistan on Jan. 17, 2007. COURTESY PHOTO


Freakley speaks at a meeting at Forward Operating Base Lumberyard in Afghanistan on May 7, 2006. COURTESY PHOTO

Benjamin C. Freakley

  • Hometown: Woodstock
  • Current/Most recent residence: Fort Monroe
  • Birthdate: Aug. 21, 1953
  • Branch of service: U.S. Army
  • Time period of service:
  • Date commissioned: 1975
  • Dates overseas: 1990-91, 2002-03, 2006-07
  • Date service ended: Active
  • Rank: Lieutenant general
  • Conflict served in: First Gulf War; Operation Iraqi Freedom; Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
  • Locations of military service: Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Germany; Iraq; Afghanistan
  • Battles/campaigns involved in: First Gulf War, initial assault; Operation Iraqi Freedom, initial assault
  • Medals or service pins: Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster; Defense Superior Service Medal with oak leaf cluster; Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters; Bronze Star with "V" device; Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster; Meritorious Service Medal with nine oak leaf clusters; Army Commendation Medal with "V" device; Army Achievement Medal; State Department Meritorious Honor Award; NATO Meritorious Service Medal
  • Special duties/highlights/achievements: Commanding general, U.S. Army Infantry Center, 2003-05; Commanding general, 10th Mountain Division, 2005-07; Commanding general, Joint Task Force 76, Afghanistan 2006-07; Commanding general, U.S. Accessions Command, 2007-present

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, right, talks with Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley on board a C-130 cargo plane as they approach Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, on July 28, 2006. COURTESY PHOTO

By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer

It's a long way from Central High School to Kabul, Afghanistan.

But for Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, it's a journey that began with a desire to serve and continues to this day.

Freakley, now the commanding general of the U.S. Army's Accessions Command, became interested in military service at an early age.

"I just fell in love with being a soldier," he said. That early interest led him to West Point, where he received his commission in 1975.

It's a decision that his time overseas — in places from Germany to Afghanistan — has reinforced.

"I love our country," he said. "I think anybody that's ever been a day or two out of America in any other country [has more] respect for what America stands for — for the opportunities that our founding fathers created, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution."

The U.S. "really gives all people who live on our shores the phenomenal opportunity to achieve their potential as a human being," he said.

That liberty and opportunity is something Freakley has fought for in three separate campaigns.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, Freakley was a major responsible in part for drafting the war plan that saw coalition ground forces sweep Iraqi troops from Kuwait in just 100 hours.

"I wrote the battle plan, and during the attack I was coordinating the activities between ... artillery and armor units," he said. "It was four days, and then we stayed up in Iraq for 10 more days."

But it wasn't all flash and action. Operation Desert Storm was preceded by Operation Desert Shield. Coalition forces sat for more than half a year in the Saudi desert waiting on the order to head north.

"We were in the desert for seven months. It was very hard on the soldiers to be in 130-degree heat, eating the same food" day after day, he said.

Victory in 1991 is one of Freakley's enduring memories of war.

"We started marching out of Iraq back to Kuwait. We had a couple of thousand vehicles in our brigade. I don't know where the soldiers got them, but they tied American flags to the antennas," he said.

The job was done, and they were all going home.

"It was a sea of American flags, it was an enormously emotional experience to see all that," he said.

Freakley wasn't done in Iraq, though.

In 2003, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as assistant division commander and assistant to Maj. Gen. David Petraeus — who would later be the architect of the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq.

This time, U.S. forces faced not isolated desert warfare among the dunes, but street-to-street fighting in dense urban settings.

"We started fighting in Najaf, then we fought in Hillah, then we fought in Baghdad," he said. "We went across the breadth of Iraq."

After spending two years as the commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School, Freakley was placed in command of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan in 2005.

Then in February 2006, he was the commander on the ground of all U.S. and coalition forces operating in the country, a post he held for a year before being promoted and placed in charge of Accessions Command.

Generals don't often pull triggers or drop bombs, but they carry the burden of knowing that if they make a mistake, a large number of the soldiers under their command may not come back at the end of the day.

"It's a huge responsibility. Any commander knows that the decision he's making will affect the lives of his own soldiers, and it'll affect the lives of the people where you're fighting," he said. "Taking a life is an enormous responsibility, and most soldiers don't take it lightly when they fight the enemy."

Sending fellow soldiers into harm's way is another enduring memory of war.

"In combat, one night we put in about 2,500 soldiers on a mission in Afghanistan," he said. "That was a long night."

"The next morning, to realize everybody was on their objective, all the helicopters put in" was a great relief, Freakley said.

Even for the generals standing over the maps and computer screens, there's nothing glamorous or glorious about combat.

"[Civil War Gen. William T.] Sherman had it right — war is hell," Freakley said. "There's nothing romantic about fighting. It's hard work."

That's what makes the men and women who have served under his command so extraordinary, he added.

"They're resilient in the fight. They're strong physically, they're strong emotionally, they're strong spiritually. The American solider is a very strong human being, that woman or man out there."

Freakley credits that to the support they get back home.

"They come from strong families," he said. That's something Freakley has seen in his own hometown.

Following the death of fellow Central High School graduate Pfc. Thomas Wilson, of Woodstock, in Afghanistan in 2007, Freakley met his family and friends.

Meeting these "these incredibly strong families that stand behind their soldiers" was a moving experience.

It also underscores the burden of command.

"In combat as a commander you have to try and be as good as you can possibly be," Freakley said. "There's no day not to be your very best."

It's not a burden that commanders bear alone. From other generals all the way down to the lieutenants, sergeants and corporals, leadership is a team effort.

"Yes, it's challenge, and it's an enormous responsibility, but you also know that you have a terrific team that's undertaking this challenge with you," he said.

"I know that I have to be as good as I can be, I have to work hard, study our profession. Listen to my superiors, and to my subordinates, think hard about the problems that face us," he said.

"What's at stake is a life," he said.

NEXT WEEK: A Mt. Jackson man follows his family into the military.

* Contact Garren Shipley at

Julie Hepner, of Maurertown, sits with her daughter, Chelsea, and son, Ethan, in their living room, where a wall is decorated with memories of her son, Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson, who was 21 years old when he was killed last August in Afghanistan. Hepner holds Wilson's Purple Heart while Ethan holds a Bronze Star. Rich Cooley/Daily


Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson, 21, attended airborne school in Fort Benning, GA. Courtesy photo

Thomas R. Wilson

  • Hometown: Maurertown
  • Birth date: June 18, 1986
  • Date enlisted: Spring 2006
  • Dates overseas: May-August 007
  • Killed in battle: Aug. 27, 2007
  • Rank: Private first class
  • Conflict served in: Afghanistan
  • Location of military service: Fort Benning, Ga.; Italy; Afghanistan
  • Medals or service pins: Bronze Star; Purple Heart; Combat INfantryman's Badge; Afghanistan Campaign Medal; NATO medal
  • Special duties: Armorer, in charge of keeping all the weapons clean; infantryman

Chloe Wilson looks over photos of her brother, Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson, the week after he was killed in combat in August 2007. Rich Cooley/Daily file

By Sally Voth -- Daily Staff Writer

MAURERTOWN--The year since Thomas Wilson was killed fighting for his country in Afghanistan has turned his family into reluctant soldiers.

They've had to bury and live without their "airborne country boy," soldiering on through their own grief and pain.

During that same time, they've received comfort and support from the community, the military and total strangers.

The Army paratrooper, a private first class, was killed at age 21 by enemy gunfire as he defended his fellow soldiers on Aug. 27, 2007. He was 10 days away from a few weeks' leave back in Shenandoah County.

A week later, he was buried in one of his favorite places on his grandfather James Allen Hepner's farm.

"It has been hard," Wilson's mother, Julie Hepner, said of the 13 months since then. "It still doesn't seem real to me that he's not here. For me, it's the worst thing that's ever happened."

"Your normal is not normal anymore," Hepner said. "I just feel bad every day."

She said she wakes up thinking of Wilson, thinks of him throughout the day and goes to bed with the same thoughts.

"You just change," Hepner said. "You're not who you were."

A frequent comment Hepner hears is at least she has three surviving children — Ethan, 15, Chelsea, 17, and Chloe, 23.

"Yeah, and I love them as much as I always did, but Thomas is not here," she said. "Just because you have other children doesn't mean they can replace the one that you lost.
"It feels like a huge hole has been ripped in my heart."
Wilson's absence isn't just evident in the minds of his survivors. His house, and even his mother's car, pays homage to his sacrifice.

Sitting in her family room with two of her three surviving children, Hepner is surrounded by memories of her fallen son, who was company armorer for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, as well as a .50-caliber machine gunner on his first sergeant's truck. The 1st Battalion is part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

A boxed flag on a table was given to the family by a local retired Army officer.

"He was actually in Iraq when Thomas was killed, and then on 9/11 he had them fly the American flag over the American Embassy in Baghdad for Thomas," Hepner said.

Also on the table are medals Wilson was awarded, a box with coins left by officers as they passed his casket, and a picture of Wilson as a baby, as well as a pewter ornament that says "Always in our hearts," given to Hepner by her children this past Mother's Day.

On the wall are two separate portraits done of Thomas as part of Project Compassion, a nonprofit that has artists paint oil portraits of soldiers who have died in active service since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Also on the family room walls are resolutions from various government bodies — the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, the U.S. Senate, the General Assembly.

One of the tributes to Wilson is out of this world: A friend's child has registered a star through the International Star Registry and called it Airborne Country Boy.

"For a couple months [after Wilson's death], I got cards from people just asking how I was doing and telling me they were thinking about me," Hepner said. "Just recently, I got a prayer shawl that a group of ladies from a Lutheran church in Ohio [sent]."

Hepner, Chelsea and Ethan were wearing camouflage bracelets with Wilson's name, birthday and death dates, and "Airborne Country Boy."

Hepner has "Remember the fallen" license plates personalized to read "PFC TRW."

Chloe, Ethan and their mother had another chance to feel a connection with Wilson when they traveled to Italy recently for a brigade and battalion memorial ceremony in honor of the 42 soldiers with the 173rd Airborne who have been killed in Afghanistan.

There was an emotional meeting with the medic who continued working on Wilson even though he knew it was likely in vain.

"It was kind of hard being on the base where Thomas had been, but it was really awesome meeting members of his platoon and his commanding officers," Hepner said. "I just kind of left feeling like there's still a part of him there [in Italy], and there's still a part of him in Afghanistan.

"Everybody just had something really awesome to say about Thomas. Those kind of things are what kind of help you get through one day to the next."

Just a little over a year ago, Army notification officers arrived at an empty house. Chloe was living in South Carolina, and Hepner was with her daughter in Lynchburg. She is grateful Ethan was at the county fair, rather than at home.

"On Monday [Aug. 27], I just felt like something's wrong," Hepner recalled. "Something just did not feel right in my psyche."

A notification officer from Virginia Military Institute found Hepner at her hotel.

"I just kept telling the notification officer, 'You've got the wrong person, my son is coming home in 10 days,'" she remembered.

"The four hardest things I had to do through that whole thing was [tell] each of my children and tell them individually," Hepner said. "I just said, 'Chloe,' and then I couldn't talk."

She went to Chelsea's school to tell her. Chelsea was waiting for her mother in the guidance office.

"As soon as she came around the desk, she just collapsed on the floor," Hepner said. "Then, the other hard thing was seeing his body."

Wilson had spoken to his mother about what she should do if he didn't make it home alive.

"I have to ask you something — don't get upset," Hepner remembered him saying.

Her son asked her to handle his funeral arrangements if necessary, and told her he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered along the mountain where he enjoyed hiking. Wilson also told his mother he wanted pastor George Bowers to give his eulogy.

"As a mother, I just couldn't [have him cremated]," Hepner said.

Rather, she buried her child at a favorite spot on his grandfather's farm, a decision with which she's at peace.

"I really think that Thomas would love to be buried there," Hepner said. "Thomas loved the wetlands [his grandfather created]. Turkeys and bear prints [are] all over the top of his grave."

Family friends are raising money for a bench to put by Wilson's grave.

"They wanted to put a bench down there for us to have something to sit on when we go to visit Thomas," Hepner said.

Her father has put some old church pews by the grave for them to sit on now, and has mowed a path down the hill from Hepner's house to her son's burial spot.

Then, there's the support Hepner and her other three children have received from members of the military.

"From what I've found out, once you become a member of a military service family, you're a family for life, and they really look out for you," Hepner said. "I find that for me, when you lose someone like that, especially since we hadn't seen him for a year, I feel like I'm drawn more to people in the military, or his friends."

And, they've gotten solace through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.

"For me, I like to talk about it, I like to talk about Thomas and what happened and what he did," Hepner said.

That is encouraged by TAPS, which urges her to focus on Wilson's life and not just his death.

"I think as a parent, especially of a young person, you don't want them to ever be forgotten," Hepner said.

Ethan attended the Good Grief Camp offered by TAPS.

"We each had our own mentors," he said. "We would get in big groups and talk about who we lost. It's easier to communicate [with] people that know what you're going through."

Like his mother, Ethan, who wants to attend the Citadel or VMI, thinks about his big brother often.

"Really just whenever I go to do something, I think of Thomas, and that just helps me get through it, if it's school or sports or whatever," Ethan said. "Ever since he's been gone, I just feel he's right there with me, doing what I'm doing. Sometimes I have dreams of us like out in the woods camping and stuff."

Chloe has had a rougher year than she's let on, her mother thinks. She took a trip to Italy — the trip she planned to take to visit her brother when he returned to his home base there. She went to the Colosseum, Hepner said. Wilson had visited the outside of the famous structure, but was waiting for his sister to arrive before going inside.

Chelsea, who boards at the Virginia School of the Arts, said the past year has been the hardest one of her life.

"[I was] never to the point where I was like I want to quit [the arts school] completely," she said. "It's hard because it's my dream, and I've been dreaming it since I was a little girl, and I couldn't just stop. So, I was being pulled in a lot of different directions. Just kind of did it without thinking most of the time. I couldn't have done it without the people there."

Chelsea connected with a new ballet teacher at her school who had recently lost her daughter. She thinks it was no coincidence they came to the school at the same time.

Chelsea and a male dancer were paired for an end-of-year performance choreographed by her teacher and done in honor of the teacher's daughter and Wilson.

"Obviously, Thomas and her daughter were there," Chelsea said.

Only recently has Hepner felt able to return to church services. They have greater meaning for her now.

"He's where we're talking about," Hepner said. "I've never had a doubt in my mind about that from the time he was killed. That's the main thing that has gotten me through."

Hepner takes comfort in her son's strong faith and knowing he died surrounded by his comrades.

"I know that when he died, the people around him loved him so much," she said. "The guy whose arms Thomas fell into, he sent me an e-mail. I asked him about Thomas suffering. He said no."

Wilson's fellow soldier believes he died instantly, but with the knowledge that his buddies were there with him.

"He had people around him," Hepner said. "They were there to protect each other. He literally saved his whole platoon that day."

NEXT WEEK: From Woodstock to Afghanistan with Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley.
* Contact Sally Voth at

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Justin Mongold walks down a smoke-filled street in Ghazaliya, Iraq, during a combined cordon and search with the Iraqi army on March 24, 2007. The smoke is from a controlled detonation set by an explosive ordnance disposal team to destroy a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Courtesy photo


Army veteran Justin Mongold, of Edinburg, holds a pair of Purple Hearts he received during combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rich Cooley/Daily

Justin Mongold

  • Hometown: New Market
  • Current residence: Edinburg
  • Birth date: April 17, 1981
  • Branch of service: U.S. Army
  • Date enlisted: Aug. 18, 2001
  • Dates overseas: February-April 2002, July 2003-April 2004, July 2006-September 2007
  • Date service ended: Pending
  • Rank: Staff Sergeant
  • Conflict served in: Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • Locations of military service: Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Fort Lewis, Wash.; various locations, Afghanistan; Camp Liberty, Iraq; Camp Victory, Iraq
  • Battles/campaigns involved in: Operation Anaconda, in Afghanistan; battles in Baghdad and Baquba, Iraq
  • Medals or service pins: Two Purple Hearts; five Army Commendation Medals; Army Achievement Medal; two Good Conduct Medals; Global War on Terrorism Medal; Global War on terrorism Expeditionary Medal, with arrowhead; Operation Enduring Freedom Medal; Operation Iraqi Freedom Medal; Combat Infantry Badge; Expert Infantry Badge; Sniper Tab
  • Special duties/highlights/achievements: Sniper section leader in Iraq
By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer

The day Justin Mongold earned his first Purple Heart, his mother saw it on TV.

It was November 2003 and Mongold, then 22 and already a sergeant, was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army.

Mongold and several soldiers were sharing their Humvee with a crew from CBS's "60 Minutes II" and two New York Times staffers while on patrol, rolling through the Afghanistan desert at Shkin on the Lozano Ridge, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In the Humvee behind Mongold, Geraldo Rivera was tagging along as a Fox News correspondent.

"This was supposed to be a safe mission, and nothing was supposed to happen," Mongold said. "All I remember seeing is a flash and [the] hood [of the Humvee] went flying past my head."

It wasn't what Mongold envisioned when he signed up for the Army just two years before, on Aug. 18, 2001.<

A native of New Market and the son and grandson of Army soldiers, Mongold only decided to join the Army after attending Lord Fairfax Community College and finding it wasn't for him.

He needed direction, he said, and the Army recruiters were convincing. He chose the infantry, where his training would be to "shoot a gun and run." And he never expected there to be a war.

Mongold was still in the beginning stages of basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., on Sept. 11, 2001.

In an instant, his expectations for four years in the Army were shattered.

"They said everybody come watch TV," he said. "I thought, 'Oh God.'"

"Everybody kept telling me there's not gonna be a war ... they were wrong," he said, remembering thinking that day, "It's not gonna be like the recruiter said. I'm not going to sit around and play Xbox all day."

A mere five months later, Mongold was a well-prepared private heading to Afghanistan for the first time as part of Operation Anaconda. He was there for two months without much incident.

"I was young, wanted to fight, wanted to do what I was trained to do," he said. "I wanted medals. I got lucky that time."

It was not to be so the second time around.

The "60 Minutes II" footage from that day in November 2003 shows an overturned Humvee and officers shouting commands to shoot out into the desert. The show's correspondent, Laura Logan, hunkered in a foxhole, blood on her teeth from an injured lip, while gunfire rang out.

The network sent Mongold a DVD copy of the report, which aired days after the incident, he explained. He can only be seen briefly, before his vehicle ran over and set off two stacked anti-tank mines.

From the Humvee behind Mongold's, however, Rivera was able to send a report to Fox News that aired almost immediately, according to Mongold.

His mother happened to be watching and recognized her son despite the commotion.

"Moms know," he said.

Mongold was knocked unconscious by the explosion, and doesn't remember much after the Humvee's hood flew past him.

On awaking, he told the others he was OK. Two weren't as lucky: One lost a leg, the other had broken his back.

The blood on Mongold's body, he thought, was from the other injured, but back at the aid station he discovered he had shrapnel in his knee and elbow, in addition to a concussion.

Not wanting to "milk" his injuries, which were slight compared to what his two comrades had suffered, Mongold was patched up and back in the action within a week.

"I was young then," he said, though he is now only 27. "I healed faster."

"I set off metal detectors still," he added, flashing a smile.

In April 2004, Mongold and his unit returned stateside to Fort Drum, N.Y. In a matter of months, his enlistment would be over.

Mongold planned to return to Virginia and attend James Madison University, but two days before he would have been through with the Army, he was "stop lossed." New orders would prevent Mongold from leaving the Army.

Something he would not do, he said, was get back in a Humvee.

In December 2004, to circumvent the "stop loss," he instead re-enlisted with a different battalion, the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Division, out of Fort Lewis, Wash.

He would still have to go to Iraq, but not for another year, and not in a Humvee. His new battalion used "Strykers" — massive, eight-wheeled, armored vehicles.

"One way or another I would be going to Iraq," he said. "At least it was on my terms."

Worries that he would not be so lucky going out to war again — that he would lose another friend, that he would lose one of his men — weighed on Mongold's mind. It was July 2006, and this time it would be Iraq.

"You just got to push through it," he said.

Now he was 25, young by most standards, but in Iraq he would be a seasoned soldier, a sniper section leader in charge of a "small kill team."

He would lead his men in the urban setting of Baghdad, into houses, some occupied, some not, to perform surveillance, to watch for insurgents and attacks.

By then, "the city was kind of falling down around itself," he said, describing Baghdad as trashy, decaying, riddled with bullet holes, as if it had gone back in time.

On May 31, 2007, still in Iraq, Mongold once again re-enlisted, this time for six years in exchange for a hefty bonus.

The next day, he said, he was scheduled to return to the U.S.

Instead, a surge in troop levels announced by President Bush was extending his stay by four months.

So instead of being on his way home, on June 1, 2007, Mongold was standing in front of a large window inside a house in Baghdad, clearing out a cache of weapons that had been discovered. A sergeant from another platoon was just on the other side.

Then, like it had happened to Mongold nearly four years ago, a flash went off.

Mongold was again knocked out, but this time only briefly. He awoke quickly to the screams of the sergeant. The man was holding his legs and screaming, but good screaming, Mongold explained.

In combat there are two kinds of screaming, he said.

The bad screaming contributes to the panic, it's what the enemy wants, according to Mongold. It was that kind of screaming he had heard from the members of the media on the day he earned his first Purple Heart.

"They thought the world was coming to an end by the way they were acting," he said.

It was the kind of screaming that comes from 18-year-old rookie soldiers.

It was the kind of screaming that he knows would have come from his mother back in 2003, as she was watching what unfolded thousands of miles away and recognized her oldest son on TV.

But the sergeant, he was good screaming. Useful screaming. The sergeant lost both legs that day, but as he held onto them, he was not screaming in panic. He was calling out orders to the other men, Mongold said.

Mongold watched his helmet spinning on the floor. He felt blood running down the back of his neck. He saw the sergeant screaming.

He recovered his helmet and his gun, and found a buddy to tell he needed help. Then he lost consciousness.

This time it was over.

"You can kind of tell by the way the doctors talk," he said. "I knew I was coming home."

Metal from the blast had sliced through the back of Mongold's head and his left ear. The ACL in his left knee was torn. He had another concussion. Toes were broken, his hearing was permanently damaged, teeth were chipped.

"You chip a lot of teeth in the Army. Good thing they have good dental," he said, smiling again.

Back at home, Mongold displays his two Purple Hearts on his mantle, and he is still a soldier, receiving medical care at Fort Belvoir every week and awaiting the decision of a medical review board.

He anticipates medically retiring from the Army any day now.

The visible wounds he has suffered have faded, but the effects remain. He requires hearing aids. He suffers severe migraines and vertigo.

His post-concussion syndrome makes it take hours every morning to wake up and get oriented, he said, and occipital neuralgia, the result of nerve damage to his left side optical nerve, causes a constant, dull pain through his face and neck.

There is one clear physical marker of his time in the Army: A large tattoo on his forearm depicts a cross and the words "R.I.P. Soldier," in memory a close friend who did not make it home from Iraq.

Assuming the Army lets him go, he will have to find a job that will allow him to work around his medical conditions. He is taking classes again at Lord Fairfax, but this time for plumbing, heating and air conditioning repair and other trades. He hopes he can start his own business so he can be in charge of his own hours. He also teaches a handgun class at a store in Woodstock and is one of the Edinburg VFW's newest members.

He has nightmares of his time at war, but he does not talk about it, especially with his family.

"They wouldn't understand, and I don't expect them to," he said.

He does not even have to talk about it with his fellow VFW members. They get it without having to share wartime stories, according to Mongold.

"We just talk," he said. "You come back and it doesn't matter what war you've been in, a veteran's a veteran. All veterans have common ground."

His military experience was not what he expected — and while Mongold supports the war in Afghanistan, he thinks that by being in Iraq the U.S. is in the middle of a fight that will go on regardless.

But he has no regrets, nor does he even consider himself unlucky.

"I'm glad I'm home. I just want to live a normal life," he said. "I'm lucky. Being hurt is just part of the job."

NEXT WEEK: Thomas Wilson's family soldiers on through their own grief and pain.

* Contact Jessica Wiant at

Kevin and Casi Scadden
The newly wedded Kevin and Casi Scadden kiss on June 14 at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Front Royal. Three weeks later, Lance Cpl. Scadden was deployed to Iraq. Courtesy photo


Kevin James Scadden

  • Hometown: Luray
  • Current/most recent residence: Luray
  • Birth date: July 19, 1987
  • Branch of service: U.S. Marine Corps
  • Time of service:
  • Date enlisted: May 25, 2007
  • Date overseas: July 23, 2008 to present
  • Date service will end: May 25, 2011
  • Rank: Lance corporal
  • Conflict served in: Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • Location of military service: Iraq
  • Medals or service pins: Expert marksman
  • Special duties/highlights/achievements: Spiritual liaison between the recruits and the chaplain; trains others in radio communications

Casi Scadden

Casi Scadden stands next to some of the items she is sending to her husband, who is serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. Alan Lehman/Daily

Valerie Scadden

Valerie Scadden is Lance Cpl. Kevin Scadden's mother. Alan Lehman/Daily

A proud mother

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams is Casi Scadden's mother. Alan Lehman/Daily

A proud mother-in-law

By Natalie Austin -- Daily Staff Writer

STEPHENS CITY — The 19-year-old's T-shirt says it all: "Half of my heart is deployed. Half of his heart is due in September."

Newlywed Casi Scadden is busy planning for her baby shower. Ladybug likenesses are on gifts and baby items at her parents' Stephens City residence. There's a bassinet, all ready for her little girl. In another room, wedding gifts are still displayed.

After eloping on Jan. 3, her new husband, Lance Cpl. Kevin Scadden, a U.S. Marine, is off in the hot sands of Iraq. Scadden's e-mails request baby wipes, his only way of cleaning up over there in the 130-degree temperatures.

Back home, his young wife waits, keeping busy any way she can. Since conceiving their child, the couple have yet to live as man and wife.

He was home on Christmas leave from Camp Lejeune, N.C., when the couple stole away and found a justice of the peace who performed a civil ceremony.

"We wanted to go ahead and get married before he deployed," says the new Mrs. Scadden, who got married on her lunch break and went back to work at her job at a church day care center with a wedding ring on her finger.

Both from staunch Catholic families — Scadden, 21, has eight brothers and sisters — a church wedding was held June 14 at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Front Royal. Three weeks later, on July 23, Scadden left North Carolina for Iraq. The couple's honeymoon was two nights at a friend's cottage in Luray.

"We knew we only had the rest of the weekend and he had to be back on base but it was everything I hoped for," says the new bride.

Perhaps it's youth, but Mrs. Scadden says she did not get emotional on her wedding day, knowing her days with her husband were limited.

"I tried to block it out," she says, sitting on the sofa beside her mother, Michelle Williams.

Williams will be there when her first grandchild arrives and is preparing a nursery for the baby, already named Kiah Marie, due on Sept. 27. The baby's father won't be able to hold his little girl until February; she will already be 6 months old when she meets her father.

"He has e-mailed me almost every day for the past 10 days," says Mrs. Scadden. "He is in good spirits. There's not a lot of detail he can go into."

Scadden is with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines Alpha Company, 4th Platoon.

Right now, says Mrs. Scadden, he is training for his Humvee license.

The two had been dating nearly three years when they became engaged. He joined the Marines on May 25, 2007. Prior to that he was working with his father installing bathrooms.

"It is something he had always wanted to do. He told me he was going to join the Marines, and I said I was going to join a convent," the young girl says, laughing.

Scadden signed up for four years. His enlistment ends May 25, 2011. When he is back from Iraq, his new wife will join him in military housing at Camp Lejeune.

Seeing the positive and avoiding TV news, Mrs. Scadden says it's unfortunate that her husband won't be there for the birth of his first child, but she already is turning her sights to his three weeks of leave in February.

"I feel like the media coverage is slightly biased," says the young woman. "I feel the war isn't getting the support it used to."

Although her husband cannot send photos, Mrs. Scadden sends pictures taken with a camera the couple purchased with the wedding money.

Her mother is proud of her new son-in-law and supports his mission in the war-torn country.

"It's sad that so many people feel like we shouldn't be there," says Williams. "My heart goes out to all who serve their country."

Mother and daughter are working on a care package this recent afternoon. Scadden's only complaint, says his wife, is the distance between them. He discussed a career in the military, but has decided to get out after four years and go to college.

His wife saved all of Scadden's voice mail messages and plays them for her unborn daughter. When she hears her father's voice, she kicks, says the young mother, rubbing her belly.

Scadden is in an area of Iraq that hasn't seen much action lately, she says, and that brings her some comfort.

The phone rings. A voice on the machine announces the shower cake is ready to be picked up. Mother and daughter launch into discussion of the ladybug nursery theme.

The doorbell rings, and Scadden's mother, Valerie Scadden, of Luray, arrives.

There's some chitchat about the shower, the baby, the growing care package, the latter of which also contains socks, shirts and magazines. The younger Mrs. Scadden says she received a good report during her last doctor's visit.

So many life changes, so fast, so young.

The Marine's mother is not the least bit surprised, however, that her son joined the military. Beneath his tough, muscle-bound exterior, is a big heart, she says.

"I guess Kevin has always had a strong personality and wanted to make a difference," she says, taking a seat on the sofa.

Coming from such a large family — he is the second oldest — it's the children in Iraq who tug at her son's heartstrings, she says. One of her fears, she says, is that he will see Iraqi children maimed and injured.

"Who can say they are pro-war? I am not pro-death, certainly not," she says.

What she does believe, however, is that the United States should not leave Iraq until the job is done. For her, that means a government that has the ability to serve its people. She uses the analogy of a bike with training wheels. The training wheels should be gone; balance should be in place.

"I think we will be there many years," says Valerie Scadden.

With so many children, Valerie Scadden has little down time, but when she finds her mind going to dark places, she says she prays for her son. Most of all, she says she hopes the experience doesn't leave him disillusioned about life.

"Even if I don't know where he is, I know he is in the heart of Jesus, and he knows where he is," she says.

Both her son and her new daughter-in-law have tremendous faith, she says, and garner much of their strength as a couple from their shared values. Other soldiers seek her son out in times of struggle, in a sort of lay ministry in the desert. He is also a very good cook, his mother adds, smiling, and that draws many of his comrades to him.

All three women agree that premature withdrawal of U.S. forces would be devastating to the young democracy. They hear their share of comments, listen and go on. Adding presidential politics to the rhetoric only makes it harder, they agree.

The newest Mrs. Scadden says the war cannot be reduced to numbers, statistics and political parties. Lives are at stake, and one of them happens to be her husband's.

Although they have been separated for most of their short union, she says she believes it will make their marriage stronger.

The young woman chooses to look forward, plan for her future with her husband and child — to see ladybugs.

"I don't believe he is losing his faith or he is struggling," she says.

NEXT WEEK: A New Market native with Purple Hearts from Afghanistan and Iraq reflects on his service.

* Contact Natalie Austin at