• 63°

‘Boots on the ground’ look at horrors of war

AHOSKIE – Memorial Day isn’t just another date on the calendar to now retired Army Sgt. Chad Stephens. Rather, it’s a personal reminder to the horrors of battle.

Then as a full-time member of the North Carolina National Guard, Stephens was called into battle in February of 2004, serving his country in Iraq as part of the global war on terrorism. Four months later his platoon was ambushed three times in one 24-hour period. Those attacks claimed his commander and one gunner. As they were attempting to evacuate those injured, his unit came under attack again, this time wounding seven of his comrades. In the third ambush, Stephens’ vehicle was blown-up, critically wounding his gunner and himself.

Despite the presence of shrapnel in his body and several burns, Stephens continued to fight.

Those acts of bravery under enemy fire earned Stephens the Silver Star Gallantry in Battle as well as the Purple Heart for the wounds he suffered.

Under much calmer conditions on Monday, Stephens, who now serves Hertford and Gates counties as the Veterans Service Officer, stood before friendly faces as he delivered the keynote address at the annual Memorial Day ceremony in Ahoskie’s No Man’s Land Park. The event was sponsored by American Legion Post 102.

“As we spend today remembering the men and women of our Armed Forces through the centuries who have given their lives for this great nation, I would like to challenge each and every one of you with a question, what does Memorial Day mean to you,” Stephens asked the crowd assembled at the park.

“For me it is a time to thank all the fallen warriors who sacrificed and gave their all beside me in Iraq,” Stephens said. “This is a day set aside for us to remember and honor them. This is a day to honor their widows, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends.”

The Como native then gave what he referenced as a “boots on the ground” perspective of what Memorial Day means.

“Memorial Day to me is remembering (Army) Specialist Jocelyn L. Carrasquillo, age 28, who lost his life on March 13, 2004 after an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that detonated just inches from his vehicle, This was just one hour after crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq. Day one of our 365 day tour,” Stephens sadly recalled.

“Memorial Day to me is remembering standing in the battle torn cities in Iraq in June 24, 2004 holding a wounded 20- year-old Specialist Daniel A. Desens in my arms after pulling him from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. SPC Desens vehicle had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and he laid with his left leg torn off and a hole in his chest and stomach. As Spc. Desens looked at me and spoke, he said, “Sarge, I’m dying”, but never shed a tear.

“As I looked back into his eyes I knew that I would forever be changed for I had done what many others would never do,” Stephens continued. “I had witnessed a true American hero doing what so many fear to do….fight, sacrifice and give his life for this great country.”

Stephens recalled another brave brother in arms – his commander, 36-year-old Captain Christopher S. Cash.

“Captain Cash was hit in the head with two 50 caliber rounds and was critically wounded. Minutes later, Capt. Cash would die from wounds,” Stephens shared. “Capt. Cash didn’t know he would never see his two little boys again or the beautiful wife he left behind, but he made the ultimate sacrifice and gave all for his family and this great nation.”

Despite having to relive those painful memories, Stephens continued.

“Memorial Day to me is remembering being attacked that same day as a rocket pierced the side of my vehicle, wounding my gunner and myself as we were trying to evacuate our wounded from the battlefield,” he recalled. “I can remember coming home months later, after being wounded, for three weeks of leave knowing I had to return to a world of hell in combat.

“I remember looking at my kids and my wife, knowing I would forever be a different man for I had witnessed true American heroes in action, willing to go where told, do what is told, and sacrifice all,” he added.

“Memorial Day to me is remembering Sgt. DeForest Talbert (age 24) and Staff Sgt. Michael S. Voss (35) who lost their lives just days later by IEDs and small arms fire,” Stephens somberly added. “Memorial Day to me is learning in June of 2009 after being told that I couldn’t return to Iraq with my soldiers, because I was suffering from PTSD, that four of my soldiers, SFC Edward Cramer (39), Roger Adams Jr. (36), Sgt. Juan Baldeosingh, and Sgt. Robert Bittiker (39), had ran over an IED with their vehicle and were killed in action.

“It always seems that no matter how much time has passed, no words of condolence can heal the hearts of the loved ones left behind….the husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children of the fallen,” he said.

Stephens stressed the only way to repay these and other true American heroes is to never forget the sacrifices they made.

“In each instance, without regard to politics or the popular opinion of the moment, soldiers have picked up their weapons to begin the awesome task of fighting for our freedom and to push back the threat to the freedoms we enjoy,” he remarked. “Our most potent weapon in war, without a doubt, are the brave men and women in uniform that come from all across America, from small towns and cities, and from various backgrounds that fought and gave the ultimate sacrifice.

“As you leave here today, I ask you to remember my question, what does Memorial Day mean to you. Then remember our fallen heroes, the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard that gave their all and are the reason for our freedom,” he concluded.

Also taking part in Monday’s ceremony were several local Post 102 members –Chaplain Roger Kiker, Adjutant Johnnie Ray Farmer, and Commander James Hutchinson.

Robin Bland sang the National Anthem.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal