Part 3 in a series
By M.E. Jones
When a group of Pepperell VFW members who served in the military during the global war on terror (GWOT) and some of their family members formed a committee last year, their goal was to erect a monument in the Nashoba Valley region to honor the nation's latest generation of war veterans and their families.
Now, with a design in hand, a site secured at the Pepperell rotary and about 10 percent of the estimated total cost of $100,000 in the bank, the mission still has a long way to go.
A working subcommittee -- Chairman Bob Connolly and his parents, Bob and Jean Connolly, Kevin Hayes and his father, Kevin Hayes, Rob Leddy and Adam Taylor -- spearheaded a number of fundraisers. The parent group is now a nonprofit organization. Donations of time, money or material would be welcomed, they said.
The senior Bob Connolly offered his cellphone number as a contact: 978-618-2033.
Designed by sculptor Lee Rich, the monument's features symbolize the desert environment unique to the war it represents and reflect soldiers' hope to return home.
A granite wall displays a life-size, cut-out silhouette of a soldier in profile and opposing map outlines of the two countries GWOT veterans served in, Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the ground, combat boot prints in concrete "desert sand" center a five-pointed star that represents the five service branches. The footsteps point toward a flag of the United States of America, standing behind the wall.
The design was inspired by GWOT veterans' stories, according to the elder Kevin Hayes.
At a recent committee meeting, the younger Hayes and three other young GWOT veterans working on the project briefly talked about their war experiences.
Hayes, 27, was in the Marine Corps and served on a Navy ship during the war, patrolling the waters of southern Europe and Iraq in a "show of force," he said. He also helped train the Jordanian Army.
"I lived in an oasis for four years," Bob Connolly said, and, despite the mischievous glint in his eye, he wasn't kidding. "Palm trees and bombs everywhere."
Rob Leddy, 28, joined the Marines in 2006, the same time as Hayes, his cousin. Leddy served in "both sandboxes," he said, Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a member of the 2nd Batallion, 8th Marines, Leddy was in Ramadi, Iraq, from 2007-2008, he said. By then, there were sprawling military bases there. "We moved into a big city," he said.
By comparison, 35-year-old Adam Taylor found only desert when he arrived in Iraq. Taylor joined the Marines in 2001 and went there during the initial invasion, before the existing regime was toppled and before the U.S. military had an infrastructure in place.
Leddy was a machine gunner, he said, a turret gunner during his first deployment. The second time around, he was on foot, with a bomb-sniffing dog and hauling a heavy gun with an effective range of a mile or more. He acknowledged it was a "very dangerous" firearm.
He described a typical patrol. "You're out with a squad" of about 10 or 15," he said. That's four platoons, with one, two or three riflemen.
Designated jobs had numeric tag lines, Leddy went on, rattling off a list like familiar phone numbers, each one preceded by "03."
Rifleman, machine gunner, mortar and assault men, anti-tank and tow gunners. Collectively, "03s" are "grunts," in Marine jargon, he said. Infantry, in other words.
"It's pretty risky," he said. "We're out there first, like pawns on a chess board."
Asked about casualties, he said two men from his unit in Iraq were killed, "right at the end as they were packing up to switch to a new unit."
In Afghanistan, his company lost 17 Marines to sniper fire and IEDs, Leddy said.
"One guy was in his rack (bed) about to eat chow when he was hit by a random enemy bullet" from a firefight outside the base. "The round hit him in the head," he said.
Did the incident make him fearful, keep him awake nights?
"You can't be afraid over there," he said. "I slept OK."
Now, safe at home, "there's not a time that I don't remember it," he said.
The others nodded. "Survivor's guilt," Taylor said.
"There's people who had it worse," Leddy said. "I'm lucky, I made it home." Among those who did not was Jeff Johnson, of Texas, the Marine he replaced.
The Nashoba Valley GWOT monument will honor them all.