(See pictures of the homecoming here.)
The 120-soldier company includes approximately 40 soldiers who deployed from the National Guard armory in Blanding.
Family members greeted the company as they arrived in Salt Lake City on July 10. After a final series of medical tests, the soldiers were released to their families on July 11.
The returning soldiers will be honored at a number of public events, including the Pioneer Day parade in Monticello and at another event in Blanding, both on July 23.
San Juan County is decked out in yellow ribbons, and even the old car in Devil’s Canyon has a new coat of paint to welcome the returning soldiers.
The Sapper Company provided route-clearing work on roads in Khost Province in Afghanistan.
A platoon sergeant from the Blanding armory, SFC James E. Thode, was killed in action on December 2, 2010.
Thode is the sixth Utah National Guard soldier killed in action since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. In addition, he is the third serviceman from San Juan County to be killed in action in the Middle East.
Lance Cpl. Quinn A. Keith, of Blanding, was killed on September 6, 2004. The Marine was killed in a car bomb attack near Fallujah, Iraq.
Sgt 1st Class Nathan Winder, of Blanding, was killed in Iraq on June 26, 2007. He served as a Special Forces Medic in the U.S. Army.
(This is from a press release written by Sgt. Derek Nelson. For the entire copy of Nelson’s story on the Sappers, see the San Juan Record website at www.sjrnews.com)
On December 2, 2010, the company was tasked to clear a route up to Combat Outpost Sabari. At approximately 9:30 a.m., within eyesight of their halting point, disaster fell upon the unit.
According to SSG Joshua “Lewi” Lewis of Duchesne, UT, a squad leader with 1st Platoon, the team exited their vehicles to search for indicators of IED emplacements.
Their platoon sergeant, SFC James E. Thode, discovered an IED command wire during the dismounted patrol. Before the team could react, an IED hidden off the road exploded where Thode was standing, killing him instantly.
“We don’t know exactly what set if off, but he was standing right on top of it and it killed him,” said Lewis.
The team was rocked by the explosion, physically and emotionally.
“It was a really hard loss for us,” said Lewis. “Thode was like a father to us. He would come around every morning and shake your hand with a big smile on his face. He was such a good platoon sergeant.”
As a civilian, Thode was a police officer in Farmington, NM. A hero at home, Thode was even part of the department’s Special Weapons and Tactics team. As a Soldier, Thode became a commissioned officer after serving six years in the Army Reserve as an enlisted Soldier.
Thode resigned his commission in 1999, returning to life as a noncommissioned officer and garnered the love, admiration and respect of his team.
“Everyone loved him like a father,” said Lewis. “He taught us so much about being Soldiers. He was such a good leader.”
Shortly before deploying with the unit, Thode was offered a command position with a National Guard military police unit in New Mexico and the option to not deploy.
Thode denied the offer, choosing his team over the tempting police command position, a decision that would unknowingly cost him his life.
“Thode was the ultimate American hero,” said Israelsen. “It’s comforting to know that if he had to fall, he fell in combat with his men. Nobody wants to think of him dying from a heart attack or chasing a drunk driver on the freeway—that’s just the kind of man he was.”
Despite the devastating loss of their “platoon daddy,” the company continued their missions working with—and not against—the Afghan people.
“Thode set a great precedent in his life,” said Israelsen. “We had to follow in his shadow. Be a Soldier, be a representative and be an ambassador who’s not going to show the world that Americans are ugly. That’s what he wanted.”
The team has made special plans to honor their fallen platoon sergeant now that they have returned.
“When we get home we’re going to get our platoon together along with our families and go to Farmington to meet up with Thode’s wife,” said Lewis. “We’re all going to go out to dinner and drink his beer.”
Fat Dog Stuck in the Dog Door Stout is a specialty beer created by Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington in honor of Thode.
The beer, according to Bob Beckley, the brewery owner, is a seasonal beer which he plans on brewing every year around the time of Thode’s death.
“He was a classy guy, the kind of guy you’d want to take home to mom,” said Beckley. “We’re going to brew it every year in his memory.”
“I just hope we can remember him, honor him and be the best NCOs as we can, following in his footsteps,” said Lewis.