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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Parade of Honor

Jessica Ellington is silent as she browses through photographer Mark McCoy’s images of the day she returned home from Iraq after a nine-month deployment. On that sunny morning last November, Ellington, 26, was riding atop a fire truck, the eighth vehicle in a parade that brought home more than 300 Tri-State soldiers deployed with the 76th Infantry Brigade of the Indiana National Guard.

She smiles as she looks through McCoy’s photographs of Evansvillians waving colorful banners and American flags, welcoming the troops home. But what brings her to tears are the images of aging veterans of wars gone by, standing alongside the road in uniform, silently saluting Ellington and her unit as they drove past.

“That’s the most heartbreaking thing,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes. “Those veterans showed us so much support that they never received.”

Nine years ago, when Ellington — now a corporal — enlisted in the National Guard, traveling to Iraq wasn’t exactly in her game plan. At 17, the petite blonde was determined to pay her own way through college, so she enlisted for the promise of tuition money. She graduated from the University of Southern Indiana’s nursing program and took a job as a registered nurse at St. Mary’s, working in the cardiac telemetry unit, where she monitors heart patients recovering from surgery.

In 2007, she learned that her National Guard detachment, the 113th Support Battalion, would be deployed to Iraq that December as part of the 76th Infantry Brigade (which includes the Evansville-based 163rd Field Artillery, Jasper’s 151st Infantry Battalion, and other Indiana National Guard units) to provide convoy security. It marked the largest deployment of Hoosier guardsmen since World War II. Along with the 3,400 other guardsmen serving with the 76th Brigade — some of whom had already been deployed several times since the war on terror began in 2001 — Ellington joined the multitude of Indiana soldiers to serve in the Middle East.

Her biggest fear: leaving her young daughter, Brianna, then only 6. But leaving her in the care of her mother, Dana Mills, Ellington hoped Brianna would be old enough to understand. “All her life, she’s been used to me being part of the Guard and being gone on weekends,” says Ellington. She left for Iraq with a stuffed animal from Brianna, who had recorded a voice message on a memory chip tucked inside the toy telling her mother to “sleep tight” and that she loved her.

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SOON AFTER ELLINGTON and her fellow guardsmen arrived in Iraq, they began to realize their lives would look very different from the scenes of exploding car bombs and mayhem their loved ones watched on the nightly news. It wasn’t that they weren’t in danger. Based near the northern city of Mosul –– a volatile area that had been a stronghold of insurgents –– they participated in several overnight missions each week, traveling with convoys to provide security for drivers transporting supplies around Iraq.

They faced significant peril from roadside bombs –– improvised explosive devices planted by Iraqi insurgents along roadsides that detonated without warning. In the year before the group was deployed to Iraq, more than 400 soldiers had been killed by IEDs, and more than 3,800 had been injured. Ellington’s unit became skilled in detecting IEDs. Its “find rate,” she says, was 66 percent compared to the average of 33 percent. The percentage is calculated in a chilling way: “That means we found them before they found us,” Ellington says.

And yet for all the threat of danger, no one in her unit suffered serious physical injury, and much of the time Ellington spent during her tour of duty would be considered uneventful. The guardsmen spent much of their time between missions sleeping, exercising, playing softball or horseshoes on dirt fields, or watching movies.

“It was like Groundhog Day,” Ellington says, likening her monotonous days to the movie in which the characters must relive the same day again and again. To keep morale high, she says her unit had “mandatory fun days,” once fashioning a grill from a clean, empty barrel and grilling hamburgers and hot dogs under the blazing sun.

As challenging as the monotony was the culture shock. No grass grew from the gravelly soil, and animals — emaciated donkeys, wild dogs, and hedgehogs — roamed freely. Gas stations were nonexistent, so locals sat by the side of the road selling cans of soda and water bottles full of fuel. Some recently planted bushes in the medians were uprooted because they were easy hiding places for IEDs.

“Part of what we were doing was helping them build patriotism. That’s a foreign concept to Iraqis,” says Ellington. “There’s so much trash, turmoil, and destruction — so why take pride in making your house look good if it’s going to get blown up in a week?”

NINE MONTHS AFTER SHE WAS DEPLOYED, Ellington returned home to a child who had finished kindergarten and entered the first grade. Getting to her was an ordeal. After an exhausting 24-hour return trip from Iraq to Indianapolis, the group was demobilized at Camp Atterbury near Columbus, Ind. That week “seemed to take a year,” Ellington recalls. On the day of her return home to Evansville, riding atop the fire truck was “awful, awful cold,” she says. “When we left Iraq, it was the beginning of the rainy season, and it got down to 70 degrees — at night.”

The months that have passed feel surreal, Ellington says. She’s eased back into her routine with a newfound appreciation for everyday pleasures — showering without flip-flops and drinking cold milk from the refrigerator. But she can’t ignore the fact that Iraq War veterans — including some of her friends — are returning with serious problems. Experts say 12 to 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Military suicide rates were higher in 2008 than in 2007, according to congressional testimony in March, with “deployment stress” cited as the primary cause. It’s why Ellington, though she’s nearly finished with her National Guard contract, wasn’t immediately discharged after returning home: The Army continues to monitor the physical, emotional, and social well-being of Ellington and her fellow guardsmen.

For Ellington, a return to her routine –– being called “nurse” instead of “corporal,” for example –– is comforting. Sometimes she feels detached from her nine months in Iraq. “I feel like I never left,” she says. But browsing through pictures of the day she returned home to Evansville, memories flood back, as does a deep sense of what truly matters to her. “It changed my perspective on how to cope with stressful situations,” she says. “I’m kind of a Type A personality — pretty high-strung — but things just don’t stress me out the way they used to.”

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FOR COMMAND SGT. MAJ. CHRIS KNIES, a return to routine looked something like this: On a recent morning, he watched a cadre of ROTC cadets in gray Army T-shirts circle a parking lot at the University of Southern Indiana. Knies, 40, is the most senior enlisted man in the 163rd and helped lead the group of men and women, many from Evansville, that was stationed on the base near Mosul.

He’s now in charge of the second-year cadets in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at USI. On that recent morning, one of Knies’ five charges, Bryan Russellburg, struggled through a brisk run, a timed two-mile. Though a willing cadet, Russellburg wasn’t living up to Knies’ expectations in physical training, so he got extra attention.

“Russellburg, you’re going downhill. Step it out!” Knies hollered as his charge plodded to the bottom of the slope. “Get up here!” 
The young soldier finished in 16:30, near the back. Before showers, the cadets stepped onto a scale as Knies called out their weights. Another of his students, Logan Selby, climbed on and scratched his chest, where “Invincible” was tattooed.

Afterward, in class, Knies’ five students tackled a land navigation exercise using an Indiana map; they would soon lead a field training exercise at Camp Atterbury. This was the first day after spring break, however, and the cadets were slow to engage. Knies fixed that with the Army grunt: “Everybody tracking, hoo-ah?”

He tossed it in as an afterthought, an extra syllable. But despite its subtlety, the cadets grunted back and perked up, reminded that this wasn’t just another class, this had to do with soldiering, and Sgt. Maj. Knies doesn’t wear the uniform because he likes the color green.

THE CAMARADERIE AMONG SOLDIERS has made Knies’ transition from a war zone to his small hometown of Ferdinand, Ind., an easier one than some have had. With 22 years in the Army, Knies says he enjoys going to work in military garb — all except the beret. “For me, it’s been pretty good because I haven’t really taken off the uniform,” he says. “There really wasn’t a serious change for me. I was still just trying to be in that position where you’re taking charge and doing stuff.”

For others, the transition has been rougher. Some soldiers’ jobs were eliminated while they were overseas, and a few remain unemployed. But even going back to a job can be difficult, Knies says. He returned from his first deployment, as a trainer of Afghan troops near Jalalabad in 2005, to a construction gig. Suddenly, his coworkers were working for a paycheck, not their country. The camaraderie was gone.

After that first deployment, he would wake up in the night and take 30 seconds to discern that he was in bed next to his wife. This time, adjusting to home life has been easier, though he still pats his right hip looking for the officer’s pistol that isn’t there, and spins in his chair, looking for the rifle he turned in months ago. Aside from the indirect fire, from sporadic mortar rounds, that shook him from his bunk — he still reacts a bit to loud booms — he has little combat stress to shake this time. Knies was an administrator, assigning soldiers to guard towers and making sure the sewage was treated, the generators were working, and the drinking water was clean. 

THE GREATEST STRESS OF DEPLOYMENT was just that: being deployed, away from his wife Sandy; daughter Ashley, 15; and son Austin, 9. “You’ve got to do your job, and if you’re constantly worrying about home, it’s harder to do your job,” he says. “You’ve just got to realize that’s the way it is.”

Like many military wives, Sandy isn’t keen to talk about her husband’s year away. Austin, never much of a talker on the phone during the deployment, has done better in school since his father’s return. And though home has brought the real relaxation that was impossible in Iraq, Knies says his military and civilian sides have never been fully separate. “You don’t really ever fully unplug,” he says. “At least I don’t. We left some people over there; they extended their tour. You think about them. You’re concerned for their safety and everything. Until this is over, I probably will always be thinking about them.”

But others are quicker to forget his and so many of his neighbors’ service. 

“It amazes me sometimes how some people don’t have a clue what’s going on over there,” Knies says. “You’re walking around being able to do what you can because somebody else is going over there and protecting your ass. That’s one thing I always think about. I’m sitting here, but I know there’s another guy sitting over there who’s got his life in danger.  “It’s different for me, I guess,” he says. “I don’t take it for granted.”

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