Life as a Combat Veteran: Dates You Never Forget 


November 2, 2003 is a date that I will never forget. I had just been released from a hospital in Fallujah a few days earlier and I was excited to be back with the guys. We were eating breakfast when we heard a loud explosion off in the distance. Knowing that we were QRF (Quick Reaction Force) that day, we immediately turned up our radios to get any information about what had happened. It didn’t take long to find out and also to know that we were about to find ourselves right in the middle of it. 
USA Today later described what had happened like this: 

“FALLUJAH, Iraq — A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter ferrying troops out of Iraq for leave was shot down near a stronghold of Saddam Hussein loyalists Sunday, killing 16 soldiers and injuring 20. It was the single deadliest attack against U.S. forces in Iraq and the latest calling card of an increasingly clever and deadly insurgency.”

As we threw on our gear and crammed the rest of our hot breakfast in our mouths we had no idea what was waiting for us. As we approached what was supposed to be a downed helicopter we only saw scattered debris. With an approaching enemy, we quickly began rescue operations while others scrambled into fighting positions. The KIA were placed together and we did our best to treat the wounded. As medical help arrived in the form of Air Force PJs, us infantry guys focused on doing what we could to assist them as they fought to save the lives of those most severely injured. 

I was tasked with helping identify the bodies of those killed. When I got to the first one, I was not ready for what I saw. Being Infantry, I was used to a unit of all men. Now laying before me, I found a young female soldier who didn’t seem to have a scratch on her. I will never forget how beautiful she was and how it seemed so surreal that she could be dead. As we moved down the line of bodies, I saw faces of what seemed to be young kids. Their uniforms bearing names that I will never forget. On many nights I have googled their names, read their stories and even seen their parents standing in their childhood bedrooms talking about how much they miss their son or daughter. 

But on November 2, 2003 I did not yet know their hometowns or the family members that they were going home to see. On that day as I walked around, I noticed teddy bears and other gifts that they had packed to share with those they loved once they got back to the states. 

On that day I sat with my brothers as we tried our best to remove the blood that covered our uniforms. I watched as our medics treated the hands of infantryman who had grabbed pieces of a burning helicopter in an effort to reach those trapped inside the wreckage. After the last of the bodies was airlifted away from the crash site, we continued to guard what remained. We were determined that the enemy would not touch one piece of the debris that littered the ground around us. That day, no enemy of the United States was going to dance on a propeller and they certainly weren’t going to touch one of the teddy bears or disposable cameras lying at our feet. Covered in blood, we stayed for days until the last piece of evidence was removed. 

That is why I will never forget 11/2/03. 

**Update** Because this article was shared so many times last year, I received messages from family members of those killed in this crash. The talks we were able to have meant so much to them and myself. I cannot thank you enough for making this possible. 

The fact is that every combat veteran has these dates in their minds. It could be the day they were wounded or lost a friend, a day of a feirce firefight or a horrible ambush. Sometimes they post a picture or talk to a friend but more often than not they usually just go about their day and quietly remember all they have seen sacrificed for the freedoms that so many seem to take for granted. 

If you are a veteran then I encourage you to share these dates with some close family and friends. Let them remember with you. And if you ever need to talk, know that there are plenty of us who are here to listen.

In Memory of: 

Army Staff Sgt. Daniel A. Bader, 28, of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Army Staff Sgt. Ernest G. Bucklew, 33, of Enon Valley, Pennsylvania.

Army Spc. Steven D. Conover, 21, of Wilmington, Ohio.

Army Pfc. Anthony D. Dagostino, 20, of Waterbury, Connecticut.

Army Spc. Darius T. Jennings, 22, of Cordova, South Carolina.

Army Pfc. Karina S. Lau, 20, of Livingston, California.

Army Sgt. Keelan L. Moss, 23, of Houston, Texas.

Army Spc. Brian H. Penisten, 28, of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Army Sgt. Ross A. Pennanen, 36, of Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Army Sgt. Joel Perez, 25, of Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.

Army 1st Lt. Brian D. Slavenas, 30, of Genoa, Illinois.

Army CW4 Bruce A. Smith, 41, of West Liberty, Iowa.

Army Spc. Frances M. Vega, 20, of Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.

Army Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, of California.

Army Staff Sgt. Joe N. Wilson, 30, of Mississippi.

-Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is an Executive Coach and Leadership speaker with the John Maxwell Team, as well as the Director of Rooftop India, an organization that seeks to train leaders internationally, as well as care for orphans through the ministry of the Azlynn Noelle Children’s Home.

Smith served as an Infantry soldier with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from 2002-2005. Wounded in Fallujah, Iraq in 2003 by shrapnel from an IED, he is the recipient of the Purple Heart.

Because of his military experience, he now assists as a mentor with Honor & Courage (Operation Ward 57), a non-profit organization that financially assists Wounded Warriors and their families.

He has also owns and operates a small business -Yellow Dawg Striping – in Southwest Virginia. 

10 thoughts on “Life as a Combat Veteran: Dates You Never Forget 

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Adam. Last night and today I have been connected with multiple family members of those wounded or killed. I am honored to connect with you. So sorry for what your unit went through on that tragic day.


  1. That day is one of those days for me too. It was the first time I lost someone I really knew. On top of that, I lost two.

    After spending many more tours in that cess pool and seeing my fair share of ground combat as a medic, I can say that it hurts so much more knowing your battles couldn’t fight back and face the cowards that killed them.


  2. Thanks for the post. Thanks also to Ms. Elaine Johnson of Orangeburg,S.C. Who faithfully honors the memory of her son Darius Jennings. I’ll never forget the sound of 16 sets of dog tags swaying in the prop wash of a helicopter fly-over at the memorial service held at Al Asad several days later. One of my team sergeants was scheduled to be on that flight but opted out to participate in close-quarter combat training with his forward observer team.Here’s to the men of Howitzer Battery 2/3 ACR. Brave Rifles!


  3. I am glad for this article my unit was on here we lost 6 men that day it was rough time and still is r.I.p spc conovor, Sgt moss, Sgt Perez, Sgt pennanen, ssg velasquez, ssg Wilson.# gone but not forgotten #brothers4life #loveyall


    1. I remember that day very well, Sgt Moss was my roommate as we were ICD instructors in Hit, Iraq. Sgt Moss was hand carrying a pencil drawing of my oldest daughter to my then wife to give to her… I remember having to pack his things to be shipped home…on Veterans Day…9 days later I found a set of his dogtags and I still have them to this day


      1. It is so surreal to me that I am having the chance to hear this much background on the ones that dies that day. I am so sorry for your loss. From everything I have heard, it sounds like you guys had a great unit.


  4. Nice job. We had a great unit 1/32 Inf. I will never forget .But we can learn so much from the experience. We must prey for there families of brothers and sisters that did not return home. They will forget any of you. God bless us all.

    Michael E.Zagst


  5. I was in 2//5 FA with 6 of the Soldiers killed and 6 more wounded. I remember being stationed with SGT Moss on Korea, he was straight out of Basic. We both went to Fort Sill, he was like a little brother to us. There were 3 others in our Battery that died, i can remember talking to them the night before and they were gone just like that. We had two going back to meet their babies for the first time. One Soldier died without even getting a chance to meet his child. I think about them all of the time. Rest easy brothers. ROCK HARD


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