After Iraq -- A where-are-they-now look at veterans
Local members of the Red Bulls Army National Guard unit spent an extra five months in Iraq, on top of their regular one-year deployment in 2006-2007. They grew close, laughed together, fought together and shed tears together. Here's a Memorial Day look at how some of them are doing since they came home.
Andy Riewer lost two of his brothers while serving with Able Company in Iraq. Pictures of his good friend, Josh Hanson, and brother, Greg, adorn his office at the Detroit Lakes Armory. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think of them.
Staff Sergeant Josh Hanson was killed while on duty Aug. 30, 2006 and Staff Sergeant Greg Riewer was killed on duty March 23, 2007.
When Hanson died, it was "a real eye opener to everybody," Riewer said. "We're at war here."
The unit had been in Iraq for five months without incident, and was beginning to think, "this deployment isn't so bad," Andy said.
Hanson was one of the most-liked people in the whole company, he said.
"His biggest gift was the ability to make people laugh," Andy said. "He'd just have people rolling. He was a very witty guy."
Andy and Hanson went through basic and advanced training together, and were also deployed together to Bosnia in 2003-04.
"He was just a stand-up guy," Andy said.
The unit was scheduled to return home in March of 2007, but due to a troop surge, their stay was extended for five months. Andy can't help but think his brother would be alive today if their service hadn't been extended.
The day Greg died, Andy had returned to the unit from a four-day pass to Qatar. He had to borrow some clothes from Greg to wear while on R and R on the day before he left.
"That was the last time I saw Greg," he said.
Andy said he knew Greg's squad had gone on a mission the night he returned to duty from Qatar. He was guarding his post when he saw medevac helicopters fly out, which is a daily sight for the soldiers.
For some reason, Andy stood up on a pillar and watched this particular flight.
"I don't know why I was drawn to it, since we see them so often," he said.
A man had brought dinner to the guard post, and Andy asked the man how things were going.
"He told me back in Arabic 'not good' and he had kind of a weird look on his face. I asked him what's going on and he said, 'someone was hurt,'" he said.
The man reported the blood types they were looking for, none of which were Greg's, which was a relief to Andy.
The phone rang a few minutes later.
"They called me up and I knew as soon as they called me up there it wasn't good," he said.
When Andy found out Greg had been killed, he simply "walked to the woods and sat there for a while," he said.
Andy tears up when he remembers having to call his wife and parents with the news of Greg's death.
The Army was ready to send Andy home, but he wanted to wait and return home with Greg's body.
"They kind of needed me back here," he said.
The return home was bittersweet to Andy, as he returned to a 10-month old son and got to see his wife again, but had to bury his brother.
Greg was 18 months older than Andy and the two "did everything together growing up," Andy said. "Played baseball in the summer and we both had paper routes."
Andy does feel lucky that he got to spend nearly every day with his brother while the two served together. Other family members weren't so lucky.
"There were family members that didn't get to see him because he was deployed," Andy said. "You kind of come to terms with I should just be happy I got as much time as I did with Greg."
In October of 2007, the job of supply sergeant opened at the Detroit Lakes Armory, and Riewer applied and received the position.
Working at the Armory, he is also still an active member of the guard unit and has been for 13 years.
Riewer lives in Frazee with his wife, Jodi, and their three children Caden, Cohen and Chloe. Chloe was born since he returned from Iraq.
While deployed to Iraq, Riewer was a squad leader of "very young men."
"I had guys that ranged from 19 to 22. I probably had the youngest squad in Iraq," he said.
Riewer felt the squad's youth helped them form a bond with each other quickly.
"They basically became family real quick," he said. "They listened to their leadership real well and got the job done."
While in Iraq, Riewer's squad didn't have any problems -- no vehicle issues or accidents, no IED's, and no breakdowns.
"For my squad, it was the deployment you'd love to have, as far as safety goes, because we had no incidents," he said.
For Kohl Skalin, life has been eventful since returning from Iraq in July 2007. The former Staff Sergeant E6 got married to his wife, Sara, in September of 2007, bought a house and is now working as a designer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Detroit Lakes.
"The wedding was actually planned for before our deployment, but then we had to hold off a while," he said.
But quite possibly the biggest challenge of Skalin's life since his return came when he was elected post commander of the Detroit Lakes Jess Omundson Post 1676 VFW in 2009. His drive is to try to get younger veterans more involved in the VFW, as the group is losing many of its older members.
"There's less and less involvement and the past war veterans are passing on and becoming less involved," he said. "It's a way to give back to my community and other veterans."
Skalin joined the VFW while deployed with the Detroit Lakes National Guard unit in Bosnia in 2003. He said the older members are very receptive to many of his new ideas.
"Because all we really want to do it spur some new activity," he said. "Anything we do to spur some new activity is a good idea and we have to give it a try."
Skalin has found that implementing new ideas isn't easy on a limited budget. The VFW is trying to bring in some new entertainment to the club, but news and need for involvement is still mostly spread through word-of-mouth.
"Overall, it's a challenge, but it's a worthy challenge," he said. "The benefits veterans have today are because of organizations like the VFW, the Disabled American Veterans and other organizations, and without future support, lobbying for veterans will lessen."
While serving in Iraq, Skalin helped secure several towns and villages in his area. The unit helped build a school, install water pumps and a new sewer system for locals. While he had an overall good experience while serving in Iraq, Skalin said seeing his fellow soldiers killed or injured was a part he could've done without.
"Overall, I would never regret it," he said. "It helped me grow as a person."
Luke Schmitz considers himself very fortunate. While serving with the Detroit Lakes National Guard Able Company in Iraq he lost his right leg above the knee, after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
"While at the hospital, I met and was with a lot of guys that can't do near anything the way I can do it right now," he said.
Schmitz walks with a prosthetic leg and can still do many activities other injured soldier can't.
"A lot of the guys get traumatic brain injuries, and I was fortunate not to get one. I consider myself pretty damn fortunate that this is all I have," he said.
While serving in Iraq, the vehicle Schmitz was riding in was hit and disabled by an IED. While trying to get out of the area, he stepped on a second IED hidden on the roadside.
Medics in Iraq fixed him up and he flew out and spent about a year at the Brooke Army Medical Center where he rehabbed.
"They taught me how to walk again and do other activities," he said.
Doctors at the medical center showed him many activities he could still participate in, even with his disability. He was introduced to hand cycling and sled hockey, a modified version of hockey for disabled people, which he still participates in.
I'm really into (sled hockey)," he said. "It keeps me busy."
Schmitz lives in Bemidji and is attending Bemidji State University for secondary education -- hoping to be a high school social studies teacher when he graduates. He married his longtime girlfriend, Tina Rethemeier, who is a registered nurse at a clinic, in June 2009, and the couple recently bought a dog and a house near Bemidji.
His schooling is paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has treated him very well, he said.
"They're giving me a chance to get back and carve out a new path in life and I really appreciate that," he said.
He said he still follows the news and reports out of Iraq very closely, and sees the war as very different from when he was there.
"It's almost a 180 (degrees) from when we were there. There's plenty of problems still, but it's nowhere near as bad of a place," he said.
The Detroit Lakes troops had been credited with making large strides with Iraqi locals during their 22-month deployment, and helping ease the United States situation in the country -- something Schmitz takes pride in.
"We were definitely a part of the turnaround of that country," he said. "That's great to know that you're a part of that."
Schmitz will be the keynote speaker at the Memorial Day ceremonies at the Detroit Lakes bandshell Monday morning at 11 a.m.
Dan and Nick Francis
Brothers Dan and Nick Francis served together in Iraq and remain working partners at home in Detroit Lakes. The two work for the family business, Francis Construction. Dan attends M State in Detroit Lakes for business entrepreneurship and hopes to take over the Francis Construction when his father retires.
Dan was married in March to his wife, Kristi. Their son, Brayden, who is now four years old, was born just a few weeks before the Guard Unit's Iraqi deployment, so Dan had little time to see his son before leaving for 22 months. Returning home from Iraq to a 1½ year-old took some getting used to, Dan said.
"It's been great since I've been back," he said laughing. "He's keeping me on the straight and narrow."
Nick remains single and has recently joined the Detroit Lakes Fire Department, where he is on a one-year probationary period. He attended school in Duluth for firefighting, and would eventually like to pursue a career in that area.
Both Dan and Nick remain active National Guard members -- Dan in North Dakota and Nick in Detroit Lakes. Dan is hoping to transfer back to the Detroit Lakes unit soon.
Although the deployment was too long, Dan said his experience in Iraq was overall a good one.
"You got a lot of camaraderie out of it -- really get close to the guys," he said.
Nick didn't spend the entire 22 months with the unit in Iraq. He called himself a "late mobe," since he mobilized with the National Guard when the Detroit Lakes unit was put on active duty alert, and was in basic training when the unit initially left for training to Camp Shelby. He got on a volunteer list, hoping to catch the same deployment as Dan, which he did.
"It was pretty crazy that day when (Nick) pulled into our base," Dan said. "I was kind of like 'Wow, you really made it.'"
Soon after arriving in Iraq, Nick had a surrealistic moment when the brothers got on a computer to talk to their parents and sister in Detroit Lakes.
"That was weird," he said. "We used to talk to Dan quite a bit and I remember sitting on the Detroit Lakes side of the computer wondering what the rest of that can (metal living quarters) looked like, and now I was on the other side."
The brothers agreed that it was probably hard on their parents having two sons serving in a war zone.
"At the same time, I think they thought it would be good for us," Dan said. "There is a bond that Nick and I have now that's kind of cool."
"If they were really nervous, they didn't let on too much," Nick added.
For Ambrose DeGidio of Detroit Lakes, life hasn't changed much since returning from Iraq.
He lives in Detroit Lakes with his wife Lisa, and is still an active member of the Detroit Lakes Fire department, where he is now a captain.
When DeGidio returned home, all of his kids had grown out of the house. His son, Nathan, joined the Marine Corps in 2007, and another son, Andy, is in the Navy. His daughter, BreAnne, is in college at Minnesota State University Moorhead. His son, Tony is attending college, too.
"My wife and I have grown closer, being the only ones left in the house together," he said.
Nathan will be deploying with the Marines to Afghanistan this June.
Ambrose gave him some soldierly advice before leaving.
"I basically told him if you didn't drop it, don't pick it up, don't kick anything, and if it looks stupid -- don't do it because it probably is stupid," he said. "Think about what you're doing."
DeGidio works full time at the Detroit Lakes Armory as a production controller in the mechanics shop, a job that he started after returning from Iraq. He now drills with the Guard unit from Montevideo, which is an artillery unit.
While in Iraq, DeGidio was put in charge of a forward support company, made up of cooks, mechanics, truck drivers, and communications people -- "Anything to support the infantry," he said. "But we also had to do a mission, too."
The company provided base security and were put in the line of fire when going out to tow back a broken down vehicle.
"I had to sell to these guys they might be truck drivers, but they were infantrymen, too. Once you got out there, they don't say, 'he's a truck driver, we're not going to shoot at him.'"
DeGidio said the Iraqi deployment was too long and thinks that was tough for many families to deal with.
"The true heroes are the wives and kids and family at home. Their emotions at home were on bigger roller coasters than ours," he said. "We were doing our jobs working and they were at home worrying."